My PhD LifeStory
In this episode of PhD LifeStories, Dr. Lewis Abedi Asante, a lecturer at the Kumasi Technical University, Ghana, shares his experiences of doing a PhD by publication in Germany.
What did you do your PhD in and where?
My PhD is in geography more broadly, but specifically my research focuses on urban governance, urban regeneration and market redevelopment. Over the period, I think about four years now I have published quite a number of papers on market redevelopment. I used the Kumasi Central Market and the Cape Coast Kotokuraba Market as case studies. I did my PhD in Germany at the Humboldt Universität Berlin or Humboldt University of Berlin in English.
May I ask what informed your choice of university and country?
I had senior colleagues who studied in Germany before I went there and, to me, they were quite successful in their rate of publications. Before I left Ghana to do the PhD, I was already teaching at the university. I tried my hands on some few papers but I wasn’t successful in getting them published in the known and highly rated journals, so I was really looking for a way out of this because for me, as an academic, the only way to progress my career is to publish. So while I was looking for a PhD, I was looking for the opportunity to improve my writing skills. Seeing these senior colleagues publish that much, I also took the decision enroll in a university in Germany, probably I can also improve my writing skills. Then I got this scholarship through a collaboration between the Ghana government and German government called the Ghanaian-German Postgraduate Training Programme which is for teaching and research staff of public tertiary institutions in Ghana. I was qualified so I put in my application and I was successful and got the funding and then I went to Germany.
The choice of the country was influenced by my desire to experience the system of education in another European country, other than the United Kingdom where I completed my Masters degree. I didn’t know the system of education in Germany but I did my Masters in the UK so I was quite familiar with the European system. I must say I tried my hands on some UK universities but I was never successful in getting funding to pursue PhD. Having received bad news for so long, Germany brought me good news so I grabbed the opportunity.
So let’s go back to the question about publishing. What was it that you think made it difficult for you to succeed with the first publications that you tried when you were here?
I didn’t know how to write. I knew how to gather my data because I had done a Masters and I believed to a large extent I knew how to conceptualise my ideas but how to write was a big problem, so I would write a full manuscript but there were a number of gaps in my write-ups. So any time I send them out, they were desk-rejected. I couldn’t break through. The main thing is that I didn’t know how to write.
Following from that, in what ways did your being in Germany and studying in that environment then help? What has changed with regard to your writing since you went to Germany?
I think what did the magic was over there, when I started my PhD, my professor took me through certain stages. She made me read a lot of literature and what I did during those reading was that I paid particular attention to how people write. Even though I was more interested in the topics, I was also reading word by word to see how people write. So if I pick, for instance, a section of a manuscript or any published work, I look at the abstract and ask myself, how did they present it?
Can I also write like this? This was how I wrote a first paper with some colleagues which was not connected to my PhD. In fact, you’ll see in that first paper that I was sort of writing like a paper that had been published already. I remember during the review stage one of the journal reviewers mentioned, “Your work looks very similar to this person’s work”, and even mentioned the person because it was in that same area but the words and everything were different. I mimicked the author’s work so well that they were like why is this person writing the same way the other person writes? That really helped me. Then after that, I wrote a paper on my own with my professor who also really shaped my writing skill. Whenever I wrote papers and sent to her, I paid keen attention to her feedback, the aspects of the paper she wanted me to improve and I would go and make sure that I delivered to the letter. I also tried to make additional modifications in the work beyond her own comments. I think writing skill is polished by publishing consistently.. From 2016/7 particularly I have been writing consistently. I may have started by mimicking the writing style of other people but over time I have learnt how to do it my own way. Now when I take a paper, I know how to present my ideas.
What kind of challenges did you encounter as a PhD student?
Because I was writing a PhD by publication, I had to submit all chapters of my thesis for publication in journals. As a result, I was consistently either making new submission and revising review comments. And I must say that was quite challenging. I had about 4 years to complete the PhD but my funding was for three years and I had to complete the whole work within that time. I remember writing one paper which took me about 18 months to get published. It was quite stressful. At a point in time, I kept sending emails to the journal to remind them and to ask them what was delaying the publication of the paper and as usual, they’ll tell you they have not heard from the reviewers so have a little patience for them.
In the process of getting some papers published, I got some rejections as well and for me as a junior/early career researcher or a PhD student, it was quite tough. When you have worked on a paper, you send it to a journal, they keep it for about six months and then they return the paper with a rejection, it means that the whole period you have been waiting is gone and you have to start afresh: look for a new journal, rework the paper to suit their requirements and then send it again. There were times that I had a paper which was about 10000 words and I had to send it to a different journal which had a word limit of about 7000 which meant that I had to cut about 3000 words off the article. Those were difficult times for me but in all, I think that being committed to the PhD process throughout really helped me because I was determined to get it done. Learning how to write was crucial for me so whatever problems and challenges I was going through, I saw them as a learning process to toughen me and make me survive the profession that I happen to find myself in.
Throughout my PhD period until now, I have about 15 papers all published with very high impact-journals and I’m really happy because I know that now if my university requires even about six papers to be a senior lecturer, I could easily apply and get through. A university lecturer needs three things to get promoted: your teaching which is assessed by your students, the research component and the service to community. If you don’t publish, nobody will promote you based on your teaching and service to community alone. I want to be a researcher or lecturer who is very competitive, even though I teach at a technical university. I don’t want to limit myself to my environment. I want to be that kind of person who can rub shoulders with colleagues in every university in Ghana. Some of our colleagues publish with so-called predatory journals which does not their career but because it has become the norm, people do it and get away with it. Before I left for my PhD, I had also done one or two of those predatory journals. Those days, I was excited to get my paper online for other people to read.. But you see that those papers didn’t improve my writing they were not subjected to any rigorous peer reviews. You send papers to these predatory journals and they respond after some weeks that your paper is to be published without any change. Having returned to Ghana this [writing] skill and experience, I’m really motivated and happy with myself.
That’s a healthy positive attitude. You raised a number of very interesting issues. Let’s talk about your cultural experience being in Germany for the first time, although you had been in Europe. What was that like for you and do you have any suggestions for somebody who is going to Germany for the first time from an African country?
Because I had senior colleagues who had studied there, they had advised me and told me a lot before I left. One issue was racism, they said that it was still quite a challenge there. When I started the PhD programme in my department everybody was fine with me and we interacted well. It was quite a good environment and I liked the place but outside the department, especially during the early days and even towards the ending of my PhD, there were times you enter a train and nobody wants to sit by you and for me that was strange. They enter the train and they see that there’s space where you’re sitting but everybody just turns away. Initially I was worried but at a point I just took it as a VIP treatment. Once I have paid for the ticket and I’m in there legitimately, nobody can deny me the travel.
Then there was also a language issue; Germans love their language so if the professor has to make it the norm that in his/her research group all communications must be done in English. I had colleagues who were with certain professors in the same university and all meetings were held in English but in my case, it looked like English is only spoken when I am at a meeting. But if I’m not around, then they would speak their own language. At the time, my German was not too good so sometimes when I participated in colloquiums and it was all in deutsch, I just sat through to observe but contributed nothing. On one occasion, one lady was asked if she wanted to present her work in Deutsch or English and she said, “Gladly deutsch”, and I sat through her presentation and I couldn’t ask questions or make contributions because I didn’t understand what she was saying. Because of that, I decided not to attend some of our group meetings because I didn’t want a situation where colleagues are compelled to speak English because I am around. I remember one time we had a meeting and a senior colleague in the research group mentioned that he would have preferred them having the meeting in deutsch because speaking English would delay the programme. And this is because some of them are not used to speaking the English, so they have to take their time to express themselves.
So to advise students considering a PhD in Germany, once the professor has made English the mode of communication, then you’re ok. It’s a good place to study. The professors are good, they’re very committed. . If the professor doesn’t speak very good English and it’s not the norm to speak English in the environment, then the student has to learn German. If during and after PhD you want to take up some part-time job, German is always key. It’s good to speak another language but because I was returning to Ghana upon completion of my programme, I was not really motivated, so it affected my relationship with people because I couldn’t communicate with them.
I’m assuming you had colleagues who did the ‘regular’ PhD by thesis? Having experienced the PhD by publication, which is your preference would you do it again and how would you advise somebody who was considering doing a PhD by publication?
I think given the opportunity, I would still do my PhD by publication because for me, progression in the academic career requires research publication. And so what we need to learn during PhD is high-level academic writing. Some colleagues tell me they would focus on writing monograph and later extract papers from their dissertation to publish in journals but very often they are unable to do so. This is because writing a monograph is totally different from writing a journal article. I would advise people not to shy away from publishing during PhD. I have colleagues who tried doing the PhD by publication and had some issues and had to withdraw and do the monograph. One thing you have to do at the very early stage is to polish your writing skill and get papers published. When I published my first paper it made me feel like I can do this. Some people shy away with the excuse of not having the time to combine writing a monograph and journal article publishing. What we forget is that the papers you publish during your PhD can be used when you return to your institution and would like to apply for promotion. I see my PhD papers as serving 2 purposes: helping me to complete my PhD and also being potential papers for promotion in my university. I know colleagues who wrote monograph and published journal articles alongside. I think that is great. To do a PhD without any publication is a no-no for me. And I don’t mean publications in just any journal at all. They may not be the top journals in your area but once they are recognised journals and people in your area really identify with them, it’s a good place to get one or two papers published at least before completion.
You shared an article with us on Twitter about doing a PhD by publication. How did you identify Doing A PhD in Africa and how long have you been a member?
I think I started following you on Twitter about two or three months ago. I follow you on Facebook too. The first event I joined was when you had the lady who is an editor of a journal.
The first time I saw you post, it was about a funding opportunity from Africa is a Country. I applied but I was not successful. I then started following you because I was looking for such opportunities to apply for funding so I looked through your past posts and I realised you’ve been posting stuff like that so I think that’s what kept me with you guys because I know that someday, I’ll find some information about some funding and I might be successful. I’m happy to be part of the group and also following you I realised you do more than just posting PhD information; you do interviews and organise programmes for senior colleagues to advise PhD students. I think it’s a really good initiative and I’d like to ask you to keep it up because it really benefits a lot of us and I’ll be happy to introduce some other colleagues who are in the process of finishing their PhDs.
That’s very encouraging. Thank you so much for your time.