Comparatively, four years seems short for me to reflect on working with fellows of the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa (Next Gen) program as a facilitator. However, as a former fellow, I am familiar with their major challenges, given that I experienced some of them not long ago. In anthropological parlance, therefore, I write from an insider-outsider perspective. My reflection is grouped under academic and institutional challenges. I start with academic challenges.
Navigating the mental maze
Some students undertake doctoral research for the sake of career advancement rather than to solve a thorny social problem or to make an innovative contribution to knowledge. This explains why some students see the doctorate as a continuation of their master’s degree research. Unsurprisingly, navigating the mental maze of doctoral study can be a challenge for fellows. By mental maze, I do not mean the usual struggle to justify the significance of one’s research. I mean something invidious and universal: an unconscious resistance to different perspectives and new ideas that could enhance a conceptual framework.
A jealous beast
Unknown to many doctoral students across the world, the idea that inspired their topic is a very jealous beast. During SSRC workshops, fellows learn much from the multidisciplinary settings, adding to their previous research trajectories. Although passion is essential for sustaining a doctorate, it can also be a stumbling block to gaining new insights. At Next Gen workshops, students are prompted to appreciate the value of flexibility of a research argument. An argument is great when it convincingly informs the problem, research question(s), and methodology. However, the intensity of the research motivation could hinder critical suggestions that provide new insights.
Theoretical versus conceptual framework
Many doctoral students, including experienced ones (if there’s really such a thing), conflate a conceptual framework with a theoretical framework. Although terminologies are not set in concrete, it helps to know their subtle differences. Simply put, a theoretical framework is the thread that binds the ideas or theories used in a study—a sort of description of notions and their relationship(s) with each other. Generally, it is drawn from established or accepted theories. In this sense, a theoretical framework does not tell the whole story. Only the conceptual framework does. As the architecture of the research, a conceptual framework paints a picture of the whole study, including the problem, argument/hypothesis, and, yes, the theoretical framework. It is essentially a succinct explanation of how one understands the research. This explanation might be a headache for doctoral students. I move to nonacademic issues.
Like any other doctoral student, Next Gen fellows face institutional challenges. These range from mundane issues like securing teaching relief to disturbing issues like institutional attempts to benefit from fellows’ grants. The most common challenges are heavy teaching loads, poor funding, low completion rates, and infrastructural issues such as inadequate electricity, libraries, and internet access. These issues are beyond the SSRC’s influence. But there is an issue it can influence.
As I write this, one of my doctoral students is probably sitting in a dark room wondering how her research went downhill. The reality is that at some point in the doctoral journey, and for reasons that need not detain us here, the supervisory relationship might be strained. In rare cases, this strain could come from excessive “creative” control by the supervisor. A fellow described this as the “imposition of ideas on the students by the supervisors because of boss-protégé relationship.”
Next Gen facilitators routinely try to ensure that “supervisors are included as partners to new ideas that their students bring from our workshops.” While it is difficult to offer a formula for handling complicated supervisor-student relationship, one thing is clear: Supervisors hold considerable power over the research. Accordingly, I offer some practical advice: If you develop an insight from a workshop, as much as is possible, make this insight also a product of interactions with your supervisor.
Research should be ethically responsible. Ideally, universities should ensure that the research they approve is not only ethically sound but also methodologically feasible. This is the duty of research ethics committees. Generally, even in the social sciences and humanities, research ethics should be overseen by a committee composed of thematic and disciplinary experts. If research committees fail in their work, there is a risk that proposals suffer from methodological challenges such as questionable qualitative and quantitative choices to non-justification of informed consent, data collection tools, triangulation of methods, and management of data analysis for optimum results.
Accomplished scholars are usually open to new knowledge. Accordingly, doctoral students should be eager to explore new ideas, receive comments positively rather than defensively, and consider their supervisors as stakeholders in a successful doctoral project. They should also be attentive to their supervisors’ insights, maintain meaningful boundaries and, of course, display single-minded dedication to their doctoral project. As a former Next Gen fellow, I am grateful and delighted to be a part of facilitators who are contributing to the rising quality of higher education in Africa.
Banner photo: Photo credit: Line Sidonie Talla Mafotsing.