Thursday, May 30, 2024

What a PhD is and what it is not


After having completed a PhD degree myself, and having supervised and co-supervised a number of PhD students, I would like to offer some humble advice and pointers to those aspiring to pursue a PhD degree. I find that many people misunderstand the purpose of getting a PhD degree and the commitments and sacrifices that it calls for.
A PhD is the highest academic and research degree from a university. I have seen both remarkable successes and disappointing failures amongst students pursuing this academic accolade. It takes more than just brain power to complete a PhD.

A degree by research is very different from a degree by coursework. A degree whether at the undergraduate or masters level is heavily structured. Students just have to be disciplined and rigorous in following this predetermined structure regimentally, without much creativity required of them. Of course, creativity is demanded from the student in completing assignments and projects but the demand is nothing close to what is required for a PhD degree be it PhD by coursework or PhD by research only.

The most important prerequisites for pursuing a successful PhD programme are passion, inquisitiveness, creativity, discipline, persistence, perseverance and meticulousness (or attention to detail). I did not mention intelligence not because it is not important, but because it is less important than the other attributes I have mentioned. Others may have different views. Of the aforestated attributes, I consider passion to be the most important. Some students start out enthusiastically but lose steam halfway through or towards the end. They lack passion or the love of knowledge. As the saying goes: “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going”, success in a PhD is simply that. The harder it becomes, the harder you have to strive. Sometimes, you do not see the light at the end of the tunnel but you still keep looking for it because you know it is there. When you love what you do, failure is not an option.

Some people do PhD for the wrong reasons. Some take up postgraduate studies because they could not secure a job after their first or second degree. Some do it because the jobs they have taken up require them to acquire a PhD, for example, an academic or a research position. These cannot be the sole reasons for pursuing a PhD. You cannot force yourself to do a PhD. You must have the passion to do it.

The PhD is an academic journey. There will be failures but mainly successes along the way. You may encounter some foes but mainly friends in the same boat as yourself. It always helps to be in a group of students to share both your setbacks and achievements. Working alone in a silo is the worst you can do to yourself. There are certain things you want to discuss with your fellow students that you cannot discuss with your supervisor; matters that may be academic or personal.

Your supervisor is your mentor, guide and consultant, not your teacher. You have to teach yourself through his guidance and wisdom. He is more of your friend than your master. He does not dictate to you what you must do, he merely points you in the right direction. At the end of your PhD journey, you would have been more knowledgeable on the subject of your research than your supervisor. I have heard of students not being able to complete their PhD because they could not get along with their supervisor. This is the worst scenario that can happen to a PhD candidate. If you do not have a supervisor you can work with, you will not get your PhD no matter how good and how hardworking you may be. So, choose your supervisor wisely. Just a few months ago, I met a doctoral graduate in the Netherlands who told me that to be supervised by this one professor carries more prestige among his peers in the working world.

A PhD degree needs sacrifices, especially when you are a family person. Family is always important and should always be your priority. However, you and your family members must be willing to make sacrifices that are necessary. There can be no gain without pain. That is why when you finally get your PhD degree, your family members can even be happier and more proud of you than you yourself, because it is as much their accomplishment as it is yours. Their sacrifices must be duly appreciated.

So what does it mean when you have a Dr. before your name? Does it mean that you are an expert on a certain subject matter? Hardly so. It means that you are both a seeker as well as a generator of knowledge. It means that you have enriched the world and added on to the vast body of knowledge through your PhD contribution. The world has become a slightly better place from the knowledge that you have contributed through your PhD thesis, discoveries and publications. Your work get referred and cited by other researchers in your field, as they absorb your new knowledge to generate new discoveries and knowledge of their own.

Your PhD is an end that should be justified by its means. The research methodology, the analysis and the interpretation should justify the conclusion. The new knowledge must have been tested and challenged by your peers and rigorously defended by you. It is an accomplishment unequal by any other feat. Once you have obtained a well-deserved PhD degree, you become your own teacher as self-teaching becomes a common practice. You are always curious and tend to read a lot, not just on your subject matter but on everything. You will find doing new things, exploring new frontiers and taking up new challenges more scintillating. In other words, it will change your life and your perception of things.

I hope I have inspired some of you to pursue a PhD degree if what you read here is what you really want from a PhD. On the other hand, I hope I have also discouraged others who have a misconception of what a PhD degree entails, so that you will not go down the road of failure. A PhD is not for everyone.

Dr. Masauso Chirwa, Postdoc, PhD, MSc, MSc, BA


    • What rubbish is this? Are we in 1969?
      Ba Chirwa, Zambians need a good president. Zambia need good ministers. Zambia don’t need phd.
      PHD- Pull Him Down. Is not what I am doing. I teach too, you all know that.
      Can you imagine Kambwili, Kampyongo and Lusambo are DR. Kambwili and Dr. Lusambo?
      This is how trashy Zambia has become.
      Take your phds and use as toilet paper.

    • This article would have been more interesting (to me) if it had addressed honourary degrees in Zambia, given that every politician in Zambia is now a “doctor” – and yes, with a small “d” – and yes, these politicians do have small “d1cks” as well.

      And yes, I do have a real Ph.D.

    • This article adds no value to the body of knowledge. I think you just wanted to let us know that you finally have a PhD. How I wished it was a Bemba who wrote this because my mbuyas know how to boast. Are you Chirwa from Chama (Muchinga)?

    • @Nostradamus: Are you jealous of what? This is what beings our country backward because of people like you. You cannot find any good in the article but to criticize. Never be emotional be always look at things from a positive perspective. The Article is informative.
      Well done Dr. Chirwa. Forget some of the Pull him down passing negative comments.

    • Nostradamus: Dr Chirwa has not written his piece with some president in mind. To me he has written in general terms, perhaps with the object of provoking debate. And what a good job he has done!

    • Zambians amaze me with their love for titles, I can guarantee you chirwa just got these PhDs of reading publications on the internet and it was not lab based. The only Zambian i respect with PhD is Larry Mweetwa, his works in drug discovery speaks for itself. he has 6 academic degrees all obtained in the UK but i have never ever seen him boasting or writing or wanting to be called Dr. Larry. The guy is humble and down to earth, the only thing he is a runatic obsessed with HH and UPND

    • ”After having completed a PhD degree myself, and having supervised and co-supervised a number of PhD students”

      So nigga you said you a post doc meaning you are still green or fresh, in uk a post doc can not supervise another PhD student, you need to gain more academic experience.

      Just the way this guy introduced himself is self centred.

  1. “So what does it mean when you have a Dr. before your name? Does it mean that you are an expert on a certain subject matter? Hardly so. It means that you are both a seeker as well as a generator of knowledge. It means that you have enriched the world and added on to the vast body of knowledge through your PhD contribution. ” THIS IS A FARCE!

    Albert Einstein was awarded a PhD by the University of Zürich, with his dissertation A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions. He formulated the theory of relativity encompassing two interrelated theories: special relativity and general relativity. Never did Einstein use Dr. Einstein.

    • Actually, literally all senior staff at The World Bank Group possess PhDs. None of them use such titles before their names. Only attention seekers use such titles before their names. If anything, most such PhD holders elsewhere use the titles at the end of their names (in brackets) e.g. Masauso Chirwa (Phd). Medical doctors are appropriate professionals to use such titles before their names. The rest niba kawayawaya fye

    • Chaos theory:

      You do not have a Ph.D., that is obvious. But yes, this Masauso is overzealous in his usage of these titles.

      If you insert “Dr.” as a prefix to your name, you do not insert “Ph.D.” as postfix (and vice-versa).

      And medical doctors do not have Ph.D.s by default. If they do not have a Ph.D., they can not use this postfix even though they can use the prefix “Dr.”

      I hope that helps.

    • On the contrary medical doctors should never use Dr in front of their names unless those with PhDs. All they need to do is say My name is John Katundu M.D.). You dont see welders going round introducing themselves as I am Welder Masauso Chirwa

    • I agree with you Chaos theory … the obsession about titles in Zambia is actually worse in academia and Unza is good example. Many of those dons want that to be known from the very start that they are Dr. or Prof. fimo fimo when their so called contribution to knowledge or betterment of life is hardly known or felt where it is needed.

      I read about Einstein’s massive work on relativity (especially general) and disappointed that he never acknowledged the special contribution the woman he divorced and mother of his two sons made in the area of math in which Albert himself was not particularly good! Perhaps to make up for that he surrendered his entire financial reward that came with the nobel prize to the poor woman …

    • “After having completed a PhD degree myself…”

      Herein lies the problem. There is no such thing as a “PhD degree”.

      There is only PhD.

      One expects persons who claim to possess Doctor of Philosophy Degrees to know the difference.

    • Furthermore, one does not complete PhD degree. One completes PhD studies and obtains a PhD.

    • My black people love titles. Even outside of their professional settings they want to be addressed by their title.
      When they have a Phd the first name becomes “Doctor”
      When they become a preacher its “Bishop”
      When they become a politician its ” honorable”
      Too many people with big titles with no actual progress to speak of

  2. Like one of my academic supervisors commented that why you Africans and Indians like the titles like dr. dR. DR. BLA BLA. That is simply nonsense. That is what he said, nonsense. What is going on in Zambia is styupididty at its best.
    If I read article above it is nonsense. Rubbish. Today leaders don’t need title, just need education.
    I teach at a Community College, you know that, just to help individuals get into job market. I just teach them the JOB language. And I meet so many of my former students, repairing vehicles, working in supermarkets, teaching kids etc. And listen to this: one of my former students is now a millionaire playing BASKETBALL in NBA and he has no PHD!!
    Stop these Ba Chirwa before you loose credibility. You will loook like a fool brother.
    Chirwa, go and advise…

  3. Having a qualification is one thing and doing the job is a different ball game. Lungu is the typical example.

  4. Maybe because no Zambian Institution awards DSc that’s why we consider PhD to be the highest. I have seen in the US and UK they award DSc, DEng, DEc, LLD etc, and they consider these to be higher than a PhD.
    Do we have any such at UNZA or CBU?

    • Dokowe,

      They are equivalent. They are all Doctorate degrees. It mostly depends on the institution you attend.

      Zambia is not ready to dish out Doctorate degrees. Outside of Zambia, these Doctorate degrees are useless.

      Let them lie to themselves.

    • Yes UNZA had Dr Dake with a DSc from MIT in the early 1970s who was my lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering and as students we asked him the difference between a PHD and a DSc but was too humble to say it was higher.

    • DSc, LLD, etc are not necessarily higher than PhD. Some universities prefer to name the degree according to the field. Thus while many prefer to say PhD in Engineering, others will say DEng. This practice is the same at lower levels. Some (like UNZA) will give BEng for Engineers and BAgricSc for agriculturists. These are degrees with balanced practical and theoretical content. Others prefer to give BSc (Engineering) and BSc (Agric). Normally the BSc is the higher degree and has more theoretical content.

    • No. Those degrees are different from PhD and they are LOWER than PhD. For example, LLD is different from PhD in law. DBA is different from PhD in Business Administration. PhD means Doctor of Philosophy in a particular discipline, it involves much deeper engagement with your area of specialization than simply a Doctor of that discipline. The biggest difference between a PhD and all these other Doctor degrees is that a PhD is specifically a RESEARCH DEGREE, these other Doctor degrees are like CRAFT or APPLIED degrees still focused on building advanced skills in that area but not necessarily research. There is no way a DSc can be higher than a PhD, unless you don’t work in higher education.

  5. The Bemba adage goes like this “Ubunga bushipelele noko mito” translated loosely means the mealie meal that is not ground by your mother is the same as ashes because it does not belong to you. The value of a PhD is only understood by those that have it but grossly misunderstood by those who do not have one. The various comments on this bog bear a compelling witness to this fact. The medical practioners are called Doctors as respect for a profession of medicine. To have a PhD, a medical doctor will still have to obtain a Masters degree and eventually a PhD and if they are in the academic field they get promoted to professorship depending on their perfomance and contribution to the scientific world.

  6. In Zambia now we have people calling themselves Engineer xxx. Is this the new norm? I seem lost as to where this has come from.
    By the way, I am also an Engineer but would never use it as a title before name.

    • You have to be a registered engineer with EIZ to be called Engineer Chinena by an Act of Parliament. Long before this act was passed in Zambia I was pleasantly surprised when my name was prefixed with Engineer in Zimbabwe. This is widely practised in Europe and Zimbabwe.

    • Yes @ John Chinena. The prefix of “Engineer” in Zambia seems to have east African origins. It in indeed a terrible new normal. We are so obsessed with titles rather than actual deeds.

    • @John Chinena
      It is only in Zambia where there is this avaricious obsession with titles You here things like Engineer John Chinena, Engineer Chansonso and Engineeress Mansonso. It’s very bewildering for us mere mortals. Don’t ask me if I hold a Ph.D. please!

  7. But I know wizards and witches in my area who are proudly adding this title to their names. Wizard Mulenga. Witch Mwila.

  8. There is total abuse of both honorary and academic doctorate degrees in Zambia and are more being acquired for the purposes of prestige other than contribution to national development.Most of them are therefore silently and corruptly being solicited for.Very few PhD holders in various professional sectors in Zambia have made impacts befitting their qualifications and if anything most PhD holders have performed badly at work places concentrating more on being worshiped than on delivering results.The real heroes in Zambia who have built this country are ordinary men and women with humble education.

  9. This is a very health and informative discussion. Let us keep our social media live by debating such important topics instead of some of these small and rather shallow. Not politics and insults please all the time please!This is 2019, we need to be knowledgeable.

  10. There is nothing wrong to prefer to be addressed by title or just by your name. It is a matter of preferenc. It is unfortunate that those without titles want everyone to be addressed by them. Again this is an african witchcraft like comments. People can kill because of some ones title.They have earned the titles so what is wrong calling them by what they are

  11. One view is that: There are lots of fools with degrees, include PhD. That is rather scary. It implies that among the graduates, some of them are not leaders but readers. Second view: No PhD, no nothing. That is also scary. It means only PhD can enter the Kingdom of God. What is the Kingdom of God, anyway? In pursuing a PhD, every reason is good enough: curiosity, prestige, conquest, discovery or even promote. Apply, get accept and start. Independent thinking is a measure of academic excellence.

  12. There are two types of PhD, honorary, awarded to someone as a mark respect or status like Dr Vernon Mwaanga’s and Academic like Dr Kambwili’s is academic.

    Which one are are you alluding to?

    • We have seen Dr Sosala’s “free thinker” (Mwine Lubemba’s) writing. And we can say he loves knowledge and exercising his brain power. No wonder he was acknowledged by a university in the USA. Manje those you are mentioning baba…what is the evidence for claiming a PhD? Dr Nevers Mumba was a robust preacher who was one of the earliest Pentecostal pastors to make waves in Zambia. Tiye nayo ma PhD.

      Mushota where are you?

  13. Does not make sense to me anyway. My main concern is high levels of poverty incase you don’t see. I hold a degree from DMU. Still doesn’t make sense to me as long as i see poverty. Bless.

  14. And to obtain your PhD your produce a dissertation and not a thesis. A thesis is at Masters level, strictly speaking.

  15. Some would call the article refreshing, others would call it wrong forum, yet others aspire and obtain a PhD to be recognised when they feel that society has ignored them.. My advise to felllow citizens is that what matters is not your contribution to society and your community and humanity above all. Not recognition or theft or corruption. Some or most even aspire for the title Honourable MP, just to polish up or sanitised their corruption.

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