Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Merits of a Regional Approach to Doctoral Training in Africa

Merits of a Regional Approach to Doctoral Training in Africa
By Prof. Peter Ngure
African nations continue to grapple with the acute shortage of PhDs. For example, South Africa produces 1300 PhDs every year and yet the nation needs a minimum of 6,000. On the other hand, Kenya produces less than 300 PhDs and yet the demonstrated need is 1000. The quality of the doctoral programmes in most countries in Africa is low with students struggling to fund their research with meagre resources. 

Mary Obiyan, a Cohort 2 CARTA Fellow who recently graduated with her PhD at the Obafemi Awololo University, Nigeria

Cohort 2 and Cohort 5 CARTA Fellows during their Joint Advanced Seminars held at Safari Park Hotel, in Nairobi in March 2015

The quality of supervision and mentorship has dwindled over time with the few supervisors being stretched to the limits. Many doctoral students wait for more than a year to get a supervisor and many instances the supervisor they get is not well versed with the subject matter. Some supervisors are no longer active in research and they offer little in shaping the student’s research protocol. The supervisor ends up correcting grammatical errors and ensuring that the student adheres to the recommended thesis structure.

Timely completion of a PhD is more of a luxury than a necessity with most of the students taking between five to eight years to earn their doctorate. Some give up and move on to other issues of life. According to a report published by England’s funding council, 80.5 per cent of students complete their PhD between 7 and 25 years: the point at which anyone who is going to earn a doctorate is assumed to have done so. After 25 years we give up on your probability of ever getting a PhD.

The question that arises is, “How can we improve the quality of PhDs that we produce in Africa”?

One of the tested solutions to this is a regional approach to PhD training. The Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA) has developed a model that can be adopted for training PhDs in Africa and beyond. Nine leading universities came together to form a consortium that focuses on population and health research. University faculty are selected through a competitive process that includes taking examinations in critical thinking, quantitative techniques and writing. They undergo four residential trainings in developing a research protocol, data collection and analysis using Nvivo and STATA, leadership, translating research outputs to policy and career growth after PhD.

The regional approach comes with several benefits including: creating a critical mass of PhD holders that are networked and carry out inter-country studies, economies of scale since facilitators drawn from member universities and overseas train the students in one location. The students spend time together and exchange ideas. They have a better appreciation of the issues affecting our continent. Studying as cohort creates a forum where there is pressure for the student to make steady progress in their doctoral journey.

The regional programme provides opportunities for the students to undertake research in partner universities and research institutes. A multidisciplinary approach adopted in the training broadens their perspectives. Infusion of training in leadership, work-life balance, leading teams, translating research outputs to policy briefs, curriculum development and pedagogy prepares the students for a career in teaching research and community service.

This collaborative approach to doctoral training involves northern and southern partners in co-supervising students and mentoring them to become the next generation of research leaders.

The model has been tested by CARTA for four cohorts of transdisciplinary group of population and health research doctoral students drawn from South Africa, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Tanzania. The students have published 180 papers in peer-reviewed journals and attracted over $600,000 in research grants.  Most students are on course and are expected to complete their PhDs within 5 years. Their supervisors are trained on student mentorship while key university support staff including librarians, information technology and administrators are trained on how effectively support the students.

There is need to explore the establishment of more regional consortia that can address the challenges that universities face in training PhDs in Africa. African governments can join hands in funding such consortia and supporting them to achieve the critical mass of experts required to stimulate socio-economic growth and development.

Peter Ngure, is an Associate Professor and the Program Manager, Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA). CARTA is being co-led by African Population Health Research Centre (APHRC) in Kenya and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa

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