Studying Abroad: A Choice or An Obligation

Dr. Larissa Kojoué, PhD in Political Science, defied the odds and pursued her doctoral degree as an African woman. After being forced to move to France to receive the training she desired, she wrote a book, You will be a doctor, my child, with her colleagues to inspire her peers to follow their academic goals of higher education, to prove to them that this degree is not just for the elite.

(Find the newsletter this is written for here.) 

 

“Doctor Larissa,” an expression that continues to take some people by surprise. In Cameroon, a doctoral degree is not only a diploma, but also a grail that represents the prestigious, “elite” people. Access to doctoral programs requires an unwavering commitment to the goal paired with a particularly fruitful creativity. Earning a doctorate is truly a challenging obstacle course.

Larissa Kojoué, Cameroonian Doctor in Political Science, tells us what it’s like to pursue a doctorate in Cameroon and discusses her recently published book “You will be a Doctor my Child”, released earlier last year by L’Harmattan, which brings together crossed testimonies from other PhD students in Africa.

 

Pursuing a doctorate in Cameroon

Scholarships do not exist, or rather, are so rare that to the average person, it’s impossible to get one: they’re reserved for particular people. The funding available comes from international cooperation, mostly in the context of projects sponsored by foreign researchers. The funding typically lasts only few months and rarely covers the time required to complete a thesis, especially in the humanities or social sciences. Those who decide to do a doctoral thesis do so, in general, without funding, without a follow-up, without a real deadline, without effective supervision, and especially without any other means except the strong will to achieve it.

According to a recent report published by the African Union of Educational Outlooks, Africa produces less than 2% of the world’s research (Unesco, 2010). PhD and master’s programs are among the weakest in Africa. Because of the strong demand for higher education programs, university staff, particularly in French-speaking countries, are often poorly qualified to provide high-quality training. These shortcomings are reinforced by the lack of minimum means for conducting research and thereby the opportunity to participate in the global knowledge economy. To be a professional in higher education, a PhD is required, and it is a determining factor in improving the quality of education systems in Africa. However, the majority of university teachers are research assistants and assistant teachers. In most cases, these are PhD candidates. Reconciling a full-time teaching position (sometimes more than 300 hours per year) while conducting research (doctoral and postdoctoral) is a big challenge. Abandonment cases are extremely frequent (especially among women) due to the lack of retention policies. An easy way to deal with this lack of resources is  consultancy with development organizations. Nevertheless, consultancies monopolize time and harden the way for internationally recognised research standards (De Sardan, 2011).

 

"You will be a doctor, my child"

Isolated in our African universities, lost in academic trial and error as much as in our material problems, we have felt the need to break out of the confinement in which we are locked up, both our own institutional environment and the fierce international competition that is playing out in the field of knowledge. As young african researchers, we chose to exchange our points of view on the matter and wrote, "You will be a doctor, my child" in order to gather, encourage, desanctify, and reevaluate the doctorate. To convened because the PhD experience is a human adventure; beyond objects and disciplines that interest us, we wanted to talk about motivations, sacrifices, pressures, hopes, and others in a therapeutic aim. To encourage our peers not to give up. We also thought that we needed to desacralize this diploma to make it accessible. This title is not a hopeless quest and getting it does not make us super heros. Becoming a doctor does not systematically make us scholars, but makes us aware that knowledge requires courage, perseverance, and above all, humility. Finally, reevaluate the doctorate in the sense of making it a weapon to truly understand the world around us.

 

Choosing to study abroad: A default choice

Like me, some candidates do not hesitate to leave the country to realize their dream, and I made this choice with the assurance of having access to the resources necessary for my intellectual development. These are: libraries,  availability of books, effective scientific supervision, stimulating scientific life through seminars, colloquia and congresses; an environment conducive to concentration and scientific questioning. The University of Yaoundé II in Soa did not offer me any of that.

I remember that, in my university, it was not possible to borrow any books. Not only were the most recent books at least five years old, but also there were never enough copies on site for those who needed them. In the last year of my Master's degree, the classes were held in a room that was graciously called the "henhouse". There was no light,  and there were no bathrooms. It looked strangely like a coup, except that we were not chickens, but rather we were victims of a university that still struggles to reappropriate university principles. I also remember the unhealthy, paternalistic, and sexual ambiguity some teachers imposed on their female students.

At the Institute of Political Studies of Bordeaux where I completed my thesis, I had a hard time calling my teachers by their first names, rather than addressing them as "Professor X" or "Doctor Y". I completed my thesis in four years with a mobility grant (which is not available in Cameroon) that allowed me to conduct fieldwork. In Cameroon, even if you and your supervisor feel that your work is ready, the cumbersome procedures leading to the thesis defense adds to the frustrations of an already difficult journey, both physically and emotionally.

After graduating from IEP Bordeaux in 2013, I have been a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montreal from 2014 to 2015. Since October 2016, I am a postdoctoral fellow at INSERM/SESSTIM/Aix-Marseille University. These postdoctoral opportunities are certainly rewarding, but the fact remains that they are precarious. Now, I strive for a secure researcher position, ideally in Cameroon.

 

 

1 Makoudem T. Mariènne, « Quel parcours pour les doctorantes camerounaises ? Cas des femmes mères de famille » in Larissa Kojoué (dir), Tu seras docteur.e mon enfant. Expériences et postures de recherche des thésards africains, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2017.