Philip Cotton — Advancing Academic Staff

(From left to right, Dr. Emmy Maniriho, advisor to the Vice Chancellor at UR; Andre Uzamurengera, Assistant Lecturer at UR; Dr. Bonfils Safari, Dean of Physics at UR)

LC: I read that there was a report a few years ago about the student to PhD ratio in the school that you co-authored, and there was a goal to increase the number of full professors with PhDs in the coming years. Is that going well? 

PC: It’s a global issue. None of this is specific to the University of Rwanda. It’s just how you go about doing it that matters. Universities like ours have a history or a tradition of not actively recruiting PhDs. If you go on to big academic job websites around the world, you’ll see that Yale recruits for professors in biology and computer science and material science and all sorts of strange and weird and wonderful areas. In the global south, universities don’t really have a tradition of doing that. They take the best performers of the undergrad, the first class honors degree honors, and they put them in the university’s tutorial system, give them Master’s and PhD training and then push them up through the system to assistant lecturer, lecturer, senior lecturer, assistant professor, professor. So we are now beginning to change that and recruit people. We have an increasing number of people who are coming into midway posts. So every member of staff in the UR has a signed agreement that if they haven’t already signed up for the Master’s degree program that they will sign up for the Master’s degree program and if they get a Master’s become registered in a PhD program. But it takes how many years to do a PhD? It’s going to take four or five years for some people. 

Imagine if someone says to me “I want twenty percent of your staff to get phds in the next five years,” I can’t do that. The university would implode. We are looking for sandwich systems. And then if people want to do postdocs that is another six months or a year. So that’s what we are doing with swedish universities, we have a sandwich PhD program and we split site phds. People maybe do their phds training at the swedish university but they do their field work in Ewanda. 

Sorry, can you explain what you mean by a sandwich PhD program? 

So people go away for maybe six months to take courses like research courses, statistical methods, quantitative interviewing and then you come back for three to six months and you have a twenty percent teaching commitment but you’re still working on your PhD courses, your data collection and field work. Then you bounce back to the university and do three more months of desk work, learn more lab techniques and methods, and then you’re back with your twenty percent teaching commitment continuing your research. The other eighty is spent perfecting your data collection and in the field. That’s the kind of thing. And then we keep people anchored in their research based in Rwanda addressing problems faced by the communities here, and the data is being generated in Rwanda and it’s data we can use to influence policy. 

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