My Journey into the PhD program began when we were invited by our partners from the School of Agricultural Sciences, Makerere University to partner in the development of a proposal. This proposal was for the competitive grants that had been advertised under the RUFORUM Community Action Research Program (CARP). At that time, I was working with an NGO (Women of Uganda Network), where we used radio, mobile phones, Web 2.0 tools and the Ushahidi platform to engage with and share agricultural information with smallholder farmers in Northern Uganda. I came in as the “ICT in Agriculture” partner working with rural farming communities.
Our Proposal was titled “Outreach Framework for Strengthening University-Farming Community engagement for Improved and sustainable Livelihoods (SUFACE)”, led by Dr. Peter Ebanyat as the Principal investigator. One of the requirements for the CARP call was that the proposal had to include one PhD student and three Masters students. I ended up becoming the PhD student in the project.
Joining the PhD Program
I enrolled for the Doctor of Philosophy in Agricultural and Rural innovations of Makerere University in the academic year 2012/13. It was a three-year program with one year for coursework. We started our coursework year in September of 2012 and I had full sponsorship under the RUFORUM CARP project, so I was not worried about tuition and research funds. The first year started very well until I started facing family challenges. My spouse got very ill with kidney failure and was hospitalized for an entire year. Juggling school, hospital and family became my life. I was determined to keep up with the program but there were days my brain would simply not function. Towards the end of 2013, my spouse lost the battle just as we were completing the first year. My supervisor at that time advised me to take a dead year. But a lot was happening at the same time because immediately after that bad spell, I got called for a job that I had applied for a year back. The job was in Nairobi, Kenya, meaning I was to change geographical location. I had to make a lot of critical decisions and real fast. If I took up the job offer, that meant I was going to have to lose my scholarship.
Losing the scholarship The decisions l had to make were the most difficult at that time. I had very supportive Supervisors (Dr. Prossy Isubikalu and Dr. Bernard Obaa), who counselled me, but at the end of the day, the decision was mine to make. I dropped out of the CARP project, took up the job offer and decided not to take a dead year, but continue under self-sponsorship. I changed my research area from “Integrated Soil Fertility Management and ICTs” to “Conservation Agriculture and ICTs”. That meant I also had to change supervisors and very quickly work on a new proposal ready for presentation to the Departmental research committee. The Department was supportive and I was assigned new Supervisors, Dr Haroon Sseguya and Dr Florence Kyazze. I was now navigating new terrain, new supervisors, new topic, new geographical location (Machakos and Laikipia counties in Kenya) and different language-Swahili. This last one was not a problem since one of my previous job assignments was in Tanzania. I must commend my Doctoral committee and my supervisors, I was able to work hard and have the proposal in time for the scheduled proposal defense. I passed the proposal defense and had to make minor changes before I was cleared for data collection. That also meant I had to make frequent journeys back to meet with my Supervisors and Doctoral committee.
The search for research funding Two years had passed and I was entering into the third year with no data collected yet. I had saved up some funds but not enough to complete the entire data collection process. I used the funds I had to collect data in one county (Laikipia), but could not proceed to the second county (Machakos) as I had run out of money. Meanwhile, I was busy applying for research funding, and could not breakthrough. I continued working with the data that I had collected while sourcing for research funding, and at the same time applying to present my work in conferences. In 2015, I secured funding from AuthorAid and presented my partial findings at the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society, IEEE ISTAS conference in Dublin-Ireland. That Award grant covered my travel expenses and accommodation, but not research. I was able to publish a conference paper “ICT supported Extension Services in Conservation Agriculture Information Access for Smallholder Farmers in Laikipia County, Kenya” (see Link) in the 2015 IEEE International Symposium on Technology in Society (ISTAS) Proceedings, ISBN: 978-1-4799-8282-0.
Securing research funds and returning to Makerere to complete writing Then towards the end of 2015, RUFORUM advertised for Doctoral finalization grant under the Carnegie Corporation of New York. I applied and was awarded the funding in May 2016. This funding marked a very crucial stage and a turning point in my PhD career. It enabled me to complete the rest of my data collection (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Data collection in Kenya
I realized if I continued working, I would never complete the PhD. Therefore, I made another major decision, I quit my job in Nairobi and returned to Makerere University to concentrate on writing. As part of the funding requirement, I was required to present a paper at the Fifth RUFORUM Biennial Conference in Cape Town, South Africa which I did (see Link) and published another conference paper. Writing, rewriting and presenting to the Doctoral Committee, peers and the Departmental seminars was an ongoing activity for most of 2017 and 2018. Writing Journal papers was also part of the process, since it is a requirement to publish before you graduate. For most of 2017/2018, I did nothing else but “bench” in the University library from 8:00 am/9:00 am to 9:00 pm daily except on Sundays. I almost became a recluse, but I knew I had to pay back to my family especially after all the support they had given me. Finally, under the mentorship of my supervisors in September 2019, I successfully defended my PhD and I graduated in January 2020.
Lessons to share
There is a lot to learn during the massive PhD journey, I summarize and share my own experience and lessons that emerged along the journey: the PhD journey is an interesting one, a lot of learning happens, new networks are formed, new skills acquired and resilience built. It is very important to stay positive, focused and keep going even when there are delays on some issues; the most important lesson is to keep writing even when it looks like you are writing nothing. Some days, I would sit in the library and only come out with a paragraph, imagine a whole day. But all those small paragraphs build up into a page. It is also very important to build social capital and networks. Having a peer group where you keep presenting to each other, reminding and lifting each other
always led me to the next step. Reading other people’s work, contributing to discussions I realized was where most of the learning took place. Of course, if you are in the same cohort, people keep dropping off as others complete or drop out completely; it is therefore important to form new networks and keep going. You may be one PhD in the Department, but not in your general area of study, so connect to others for mutual support, guidance and learning. It is also very important to present your work to professional bodies. Participate in conferences, seminars and accept feedback. It changes the way you think and opens up new ideas you had not thought of.
And lastly, remember to always exercise your body and mind. Pray for your peace of mind and also be thankful that you have reached the epitome of Academics. Not everyone reaches there, but with being patient and the will of GOD you will make it! Never Give Up!
Janet Cox Achora works with the World Bank funded Agriculture Cluster Development Project of the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries- Uganda, as the Communication and Knowledge Management Specialist. Previous work experience was with the African Conservation Tillage Network- Nairobi Kenya. She holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Agriculture and Rural Innovations from Makerere University, A Master’s Degree in International Community Economic Development (ICED) from the Southern New Hampshire University, Massachusetts, United States and a Bachelor’s Degree in Library and Information Science from Makerere University, Uganda. Janet can be contacted at email: firstname.lastname@example.org