Dr. Edward Mungai: My PhD Journey
If you can’t rise early to sweat it off, perhaps that pursuit isn’t worth your time.
From a global pandemic to supervisors who were flung across the world, the demands of career and family and finishing my doctoral studies ahead of time, my PhD journey has been a thrilling, fulfilling and a high-adrenaline experience. Arguably, the most exciting learning curve.
My interest to pursue a PhD was first piqued in 2015. About what I wanted to do with my life, I was very clear. First, I desired to be a teacher and to share knowledge. Secondly, I had my eyes on consultancy as a subject matter expert in environmental sustainability.
I also wanted to become an executive coach to empower other professionals. As such, the stakes were very high. A PhD degree was the requisite tool to do this.
It wasn’t lost on me that studying for a doctorate degree is a brutal affair. It’s time-intensive, research-heavy and, obviously, very expensive.
As a family man and CEO of Kenya Climate Innovation Centre (KCIC), I couldn’t travel abroad for studies. Besides, before COVID-19, online studies were considered somewhat inferior. I needed to weigh my options.
Armed with my big, hairy and audacious goals though, I’ve consistently woken up at 3 a.m. to study for the last three years. With focus and the support of my supervisors, Strathmore Business School (SBS) faculty and management, friends and family, I was able to shave three months off my initial deadline to finish my degree course in a record two years and 10 months in August.
Easier said than done
I needed to visualise my three-year journey in terms of defending, passing and even publishing my work. These three elements had a monumental influence on my psyche and how I approached the journey.
Compartmentalising the process was, therefore, necessary. I cut the journey into small parts, where I’d take on each task separately as a component of the bigger goal. Equally, each milestone would be celebrated individually.
The preparation process involved undergoing a two-week familiarisation in the form of a pre-doctoral course, an exciting experience that anchored me firmly on the course ahead.
By October 2017, I was raring to go. I had a solid plan and my universe was in support.
To embark on and complete this enormous endeavour, I needed to unlock my own potential. Consequently, harnessing my mantra of the nine domain areas was critical.
Foremost, my spirituality was key. I’m an active Roman Catholic, and every day, I talked to the Lord to steady me in the pursuit.
My physical health comes second. Even with the rigor of research and reading, I didn’t miss my daily 10km run.
To finish the project, my internal health was as important as my physical well-being. Being an intensive affair, I needed to have peace within, and to surround myself with positive energy while blocking any negative energy that might derail my ambition.
Developing and maintaining a strict routine was important. I was very deliberate about finding time for study within my busy schedule. For three hours every day, I’ve buried myself in study without failure.
The place of family in this journey could never be overstated. As a family man, my wife and four children look up to me for material and emotional support. This never changed. Obviously, the rigour of the study stretched me. Even so, they remained my biggest support mechanism, through consistent encouragement.
When I couldn’t spend enough time with them, they were patient with me. What could I have done without their support and love?
If not anything else, my career kept me grounded. I constantly asked myself: how does the doctoral degree fit within my career? In what ways is it an ingredient in the larger scheme of my progression? To what extent?
By answering these questions, I got the bearing and the thrust in my pursuit.
Needless to say, doctoral studies is an expensive undertaking. The tuition fees alone was KShs 3 million. I also incurred multiple other costs such as travel, acquiring and processing data and reproduction of documents besides the huge investment of time. To do this, I needed to have a sound financial plan.
Having a reliable network of like-minded friends is priceless. People in my inner circle, whom I call my circle of genius, came in handy in ways I hadn’t thought possible. They were my cheering squad during the entire stretch, and were obliged to read and honestly review my drafts. Thanks to this mutual support, I was able to generate a solid document.
It’s absurd to imagine that I’d have struck this landmark without adventure. A PhD isn’t all about books, however bizarre this may sound. Every quarter during the journey, my fellow classmates and I would attend Koroga (Festival?) to unwind. Besides easing pressure on the gas pedal, I managed to recharge as well.
Ultimately, this journey had one end: to change the world. By signing up for this highly mentally exerting journey, I’d hoped to create impact by sharing knowledge with the world.
The faculty at Strathmore and in particular my supervisors Prof. Tazeeb Rajwani, the lead, and Dr. Simon Wagura were very instrumental and passionate about my area of interest. They were incredibly supportive.
Prof. Tazeeb though is an extremely busy professional. While I had the option to engage him over the phone, I’d to travel to the UK to spend time, chat and laugh with him if only to get well acquainted.
A close connection with your supervisors has no price tag. Investing time and money to meet him in person allowed me to share my frustrations and to glean from his insights.
Many professionals pursue doctoral studies because it’s fashionable to do so. Isn’t ‘‘doctor’’ a fascinating title? But it requires grit to remain on course, self-drive to finish. Many fall by the wayside.
Still, a percentage of those who cross the finish line often find themselves in an unfamiliar territory, having studied something they aren’t passionate about.
Before taking on this tortuous route, ask yourself: what’s my motivation? If your supervisors and faculty members are forcing you to hand in assignments and to do copious amounts of reading, you just might be in the wrong place.
Our passion is reflected in the amount of time, energy and resources that we invest in a cause.
Most importantly, pursuing a course that connects with your purpose is invaluable. Pick a subject that inflames you. Your enthusiasm will keep you grounded to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Would I do this again? Why not! I enjoyed every step of this journey.
Yet to claim that mine was a pleasure cruise would be inaccurate. Naturally, there were blunders too. For instance, I left my papers to be published at the end of the process. I was unsure of what would happen if I had many corrections to make, which made me anxious.
With hindsight now, I’d have brought the publications closer to the midpoint to allow enough time for scrutiny.
Perhaps my biggest downside is obsession with a project. Sometimes I’m nearly tempted to pursue a goal at the expense of other dimensions of my life. Maybe I shouldn’t have denied myself that one hour of sleep. Maybe three years was an ambitious target. Four years would have been a more ideal period to finish my doctoral studies.
There were sacrifices too. My social life took a dip. For two years, I was unable to actively engage my circle of genius because I was spending too much time in the PhD project.
If I could do this differently, I’d like to have more avenues to disseminate my findings. At the end of the day, this project was meant to impact the world with knowledge. I would have shared my proposals and data collection processes with more people so as to benefit from their perspectives.
There were lessons too. Sometimes we shoot ourselves by imagining that we aren’t seasoned enough to compete with global elites, even when we have the mettle to do so. When your works are published in top journals, you suddenly realise that you can play at the elite league of scholars.
This journey taught me that I can be on top of the world: my place there is well-earned.
There’s a wide belief that earning a doctorate degree is as much a political affair as it is an academic journey. My experience debunked this notion. Conferment of this title is a recognition of scholarly excellence. Any deserving student can attain it.
In as much as the COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive, it’s been a blessing in disguise. I did the bulk of paper and thesis writing during the lockdown between March and August, by capitalising on telecommuting.
Strathmore University has been very instrumental in my journey. That my supervisors were flung all over the world, in Canada, Spain and the UK, made the landscape of my study daunting. But the institution belied that this could be done.
From restrictions on movement to Zoom sessions with the examiners, the university never stopped believing in my ability to invent and to adapt to the restrictive environment to finish my studies.
So, where am I now? Finally, I have the ticket to change the world. The time has come for me to actualise my long-held dream. I can’t wait to teach and share knowledge with the world!
This article was written by Dr. Edward Mungai – Group CEO, Kenya Climate Innovation Center (KCIC) Group.
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