Dr Elias Rabson Chirwa’s PhD story under GTA

Dr Elias Rabson Chirwa

I had settled in relatively well with my career as a university lecturer and was prepared to offer my best to it. Anecdotal reactions from my students seemed to suggest that I was handling my teaching responsibilities sufficiently well. I became somewhat complacent and, for years, I felt that being a good teacher is all that would be required for progression in my teaching career. Our university system did not have a regular and transparent mechanism of alerting new recruits about what they would need in their performance of duty to be considered for career progression.

When I felt I had worked long enough to be considered for a higher position in the teaching ladder, I got a shock of my life.

Your teaching experience is long enough; your students are rating your teaching capabilities positively; but your research publications profile is so weak that it disqualifies you from consideration for a higher post”, read a letter that explained why I was rejected for promotion.

After days of reminiscing the shock and absorbing the reality of the rejection of my promotional application, I went to meet my boss for further clarification on such a damning verdict to such a hardworking teacher. The response was calm and reassuring.

I know you’re a good teacher; and a good participant in the university’s life; but you needed more research publications than what you have”.

It sounded easier said than done. Public funding for research in a university located in one of the poorest countries of the world is often hard to come by. When this is combined with poor skills in research proposal writing and grant application to the wider funding possibilities outside the public subvention, a whole lifetime academic career in a university can be confined to teaching. With the “publish or perish” ideology driving much of the career progression in most of the universities’ academic positions, confinement to teaching does not appear an enviable prospect. It dawned on me that I needed to join the bandwagon of teachers seeking research possibilities to increase publications. After years of trying, chance did not appear to be on my side. I became increasing anxious about whether any progress would be made in my academic career. I could see younger entrants to the teaching profession, who had been fortunate with research and publications, getting promoted to higher positions that could only remain a dream to me. The temptation to quit became palpable.

In the horizon of despair, a twilight of hope began to light the skies of late 2015. A friend who had noticed my vain struggle for career advancement notified me of an advert for PhD training under a novel and innovative arrangement of Graduate Teaching Assistantship of the pan-African Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) with funding from the Carnegie Corporation Inc of New York. After successful application, I started my PhD studies at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in April 2016. A combination of my hard work and the support of my supervisor, I completed the studies by April 2019, barely 3 years after starting, a record that was unprecedented for the institution. Several research publications were made, six times more than were needed to promote me to the next level back at my university. After the studies, not only did my university promote me, but they also gave me an administrative position to lead an academic group. More research and development funding is underway to my university as a result of the research proposal writing and grant application skills I obtained during my PhD training. I’ll remain forever grateful to the RUFORUM secretariat for coming up with novel ideas and innovative ways of broadening the scope for capacity building in Africa’s agriculture sector.

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