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The PhD Journey | What do you wish you had known before doing a PhD?


Submitting my thesis at the Oxford's Examination Schools in September 2019

On 28 September 2015 I took the biggest leap in my academic career, leaving Nairobi for Oxford to start my PhD. To say I was scared is an understatement.


Retrospectively, I wish I had spent less time doubting my abilities. I wish someone had told me much earlier in my life - maybe even long before I applied to a PhD program - that I didn’t need an Einstein-level IQ to do a PhD. Had I known that earlier in my academic journey, I would have been more confident in myself, my abilities, and my research. I would have communicated my ideas far more often and more confidently without feeling like I wasn’t intelligent enough.


Growing up, I lacked female role models and mentors who had gone far in education, so I never thought I would pursue a PhD. For a very long time, I assumed a PhD was reserved for the very intelligent few. I assumed I needed an above-average IQ to manage being in a PhD program. Also, I always thought a PhD was the preserve of relatively older people, mostly men. I had never met a young woman with a PhD in engineering. All through my undergrad, I barely encountered a female lecturer in our department.


As American actress Elizabeth Marvel says, ‘If you can see it, you can be it’. Seeing someone like you in places you dream to be in can boost your confidence. The opposite is also true: If you don’t see many people like you in your dream professions, it can unconsciously dampen your aspirations. When I got the PhD offer, I was deeply worried that I didn’t have what I thought it took to manage a PhD journey. I now realise that what you need more than anything is a curious mind. If you enjoy finding out things, searching for solutions to problems, and investigating theories to explain some phenomena, then you are likely to enjoy and thrive in a PhD journey. Certainly, the journey will be tortuous at times, with sharp uncomfortable corners and a lot of uncertainties, demanding painstaking attention to detail, but with a curious mind, a spirit of grit, and constant support from advisors and people around you, you should be able to successfully hack the process.


What do you wish you had known before doing a PhD?

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