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Dr. Mary Ochieng: The PhD Journey

Dr. Mary Ochieng during her graduation ceremony in 2018. She obtained a doctorate in Mathematics Education from Western Michigan University through a doctoral fellowship with the Mathematical Opportunity in Student Thinking (MOST) project.


When Dr. Mary Ochieng proceeded on study leave in 2013, her mission was to obtain a PhD degree. Five years later, she has a doctorate in Mathematics Education from Western Michigan University through a doctoral fellowship with the Mathematical Opportunity in Student Thinking (MOST) project. The project focuses on improving the teaching of secondary school mathematics by improving teachers’ abilities to use student thinking during instruction to develop mathematical concepts.

The journey to a doctoral degree is known to be arduous but the fruits sweet. The term ABD (all but dissertation) is well known in academic circles and it refers to the students who met all other requirements but did not complete the thesis. The PhD completion project done by the US Council of Graduate Schools shows that the ten-year completion rates for mathematical and physical sciences is 55%, humanities 49%, social sciences 56% and engineering is 64%. Locally, a report done by a report by the Commission for University Education (CUE) indicated that fewer than 20% of PhD students completed their programmes between 2012 and 2016.

Hardest point of dissertation writing

Dr. Ochieng admits that acquiring a PhD is a challenge though if one does it in an area that one is passionate about, it is quite possible to live with the challenges that come with it. She explains, “The hardest part was the point of the dissertation writing where it became lonely in the sense that I was the only one who understood what I was doing. At this point I sent my work to the supervisor and she asked me to explain how I was operationalizing an idea. She wasn’t asking because she thought I was wrong but because she needed me to clarify it for her, making it clear that this is my work, I am the specialist in this and I should therefore be able to explain it very well.”

What helped her through the difficult patches was talking to peers and to others who had gone on the same journey. “Often these people will give you insights, probe and push you when you are stuck. Once at a conference, a participant asked me to briefly tell him in five minutes what my dissertation was about. This pushed me to clarify my ideas about my dissertation and when my college had a 3-minute dissertation competition, I participated in it at the encouragement of my supervisor. However, I thought, if five minutes was a challenge, how would I do it in three? In the end, I got third position and after that my dissertation was at my fingertips.”

The recent graduate has been a teacher for 15 years having attained a Bachelor of Education in Maths and Chemistry. “I ended up teaching Maths in many of the schools I was in as there was a greater need for it. One of the things that would constantly frustrate me, especially when I was the head of department, was poor performance in Maths. I got interested in what I could do to change this; what could I do to support my colleagues to teach in ways that would give the students a positive experience with mathematics?”

There is no place like home

Her experience living abroad was comprised of sharp contrast in weather patterns, a fast pace in life and a change of social culture. “The fast pace in life makes it difficult for people to have a deep social life. It made me appreciate our ability to interact and our culture made up of small things that initially may not have meant much; familiar sights such as someone roasting maize, another mending shoes while his neighbor sells vegetables in the next stall. The efficiency of the developed world, on the other hand, is something we can learn from. They get things done.”

Another thing she wishes we could emulate more is documenting significant achievements made by students. “I remember an incident in a form three class which I look back at with regret because we didn’t document it. A girl in my class came up with a solution I had never come across and which wasn’t in any Kenyan textbook. It was a geometry topic, on circles, a question about finding the length of the common tangents between two circles. It would have been an opportunity to pursue it and let her see that she had made a considerable achievement. I am curious to know where she is now.”

Contributing to building capacity for research in mathematics education

Dr. Ochieng has always had a passion for Maths and she hopes, with the support of Strathmore Institute of Mathematical Sciences (SIMS), to contribute to building capacity for research in mathematics education and conduct professional development courses for teachers. “I am lucky that SIMS shares that vision. We have just a handful of people in the country with a PhD in mathematics education; Maths teachers are being prepared predominantly by people with PhDs in education so there is that lack of specificity to mathematics. This means that we prepare teachers who are strong content-wise but without the pedagogy that is specific to the teaching and learning of mathematics. The other thing we hope to do is conduct professional development for teachers. People either teach by imposition or negotiation. It’s not an easy shift for teachers to make, but with training it can be done.”

She is a mother of four men and she became a grandmother when she was in the middle of her studies. “My granddaughter was born while I was sitting for an exam. After her birth, I would often ask myself what I would tell her if I didn’t complete the PhD. Will I tell her that her grandmother went to a faraway land to get a PhD but never finished?”


This article was written by Wambui Gachari.

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