Job search post-PhD: The bad, the ugly, the insane, and everything in between

Have you ever had a job interview with an all white panel and then have them look straight into your face and ask you: What does diversity mean to you?

Welcome to my world!

This has been a series of blogs about my PhD experience. This is the climax or anti-climax depending on how you look at it. You should read the other blogs in the series to appreciate the story in its fullness.

Twende Kazi!

It is a year to the end of my PhD and I am panicking big time. I am working HARD on my thesis. I have to finish in time because my scholarship is timebound. I do not have money to sustain myself beyond the life of the scholarship. I am working like a DOG! At the back of my mind there is the question- so, you finish your PhD, then what? Do you stay in Canada or North America broadly speaking or do you return to the ‘shithole’? I am heavily invested in the conservation field in Africa, so I am more inclined to go back. But what will you do after returning? If you tell any of the other Africans there you would like to return, they think you are CRAZY! I start looking for jobs a year to the completion of my PhD. I was open to the idea of starting a job as I finished my PhD. I was just terrified at the idea of finishing the PhD and having no job. I send out numerous applications. I also send some to North America but my main focus was in Africa/Kenya rather. Africa is a country! I do not hear anything back from all my applications. I am panicking! I am getting stressed. The headaches that I used to deal with in the first year return. I start having nightmares. I am feeling like a total failure at this point.

I decide to change strategy and write to organizations directly and introduce myself and my skills. One of them actually responds and they ask me for a Skype call. The lady conducting the interview is white. Oh I had checked their website and all their staff except one were white. This is a conservation organization working in Africa. She tells me that they are always looking for talent. We talk about my work experience, interests, etc – the usual stuff. At the time I had a Ghanian housemate. After the call she turns to me and asks:

Why is that lady interviewing you? You should be the one interviewing her!

She was actually pissed by all of this.

Me: Welcome to the CONservation field in Africa. Power is fully consolidated in white hands. If you are going for a job interview in this field, you are likely or let me say guaranteed to be interviewed by a white person(s). They are the ones who will decide your fate. This is especially so in the NGO arena. There may be some African faces at the interview but those are not the power holders.

The lady does not contact me after that. I guess she found me to be deficient in TALENT. I reached out to the one African working in the institution and asked him why that was the case. He told me that is just the way it is. Then he told me not to bother applying for a job there – look elsewhere, he says. By the way, Africans from countries that have more self-determination cannot understand the predicament those of us that work in the conservation empire find ourselves in. It is complicated discourse.

I keep sending out applications. I am writing my thesis, I am working (for survival), I am looking for jobs! It is hectic. The more time passes, the more I panic. At some point I see adverts by a university that was starting in Africa. They were talking about innovative methods of teaching, change, transformation, etc. They sounded like my kind of people. They advertise for some teaching positions and I apply for some of them. One time, the dean (who happens to be from Vancouver) contacts me. She tells me that she will be in Vancouver and we should meet. I see this as a very positive prospect for my job search. We meet in a café and have a very nice conversation. She then tells me that I would hear from the recruiting team. She also set up a meeting for me with the president/founder of the university. I was thinking my chances were good. After a couple of weeks, they contact me and we set up an interview. Part of the interview was to deliver a lesson to a mock undergraduate class about climate change. I had been a teaching assistant for a course on climate change in my university, so I drew from some of that material. Part of the panelists included a white man who had the most disinterested look on his face during the full duration of the interview.

Feedback after the interview?

Oh you do not seem to know much about climate change nor wildlife conservation?


Wildlife conservation? Where did that come from? Bizarre!

I told them off nicely and continued with my search. This position was to be based in Mauritius by the way. I was not really keen on moving to a whole new country, so I was not not too sad.

I applied for a project officer position at the African Union. They sent me a response saying I am not qualified. Not qualified? I even thought I was overqualified and I was thinking that I could start low and rise through the ranks. All because of love for Africa. Haaaa!! It is one of those abusive marriage kind of relationships. I decided to go for a higher level positions – I never heard nothing back from those. I applied for a managerial position in an African conservation organization. They sent me a response saying I am not qualified. Note: I had done consultancy work for this very org, but they told me I am not qualified. The plot thickens!

I was now beginning to feel like it was going to be absolutely impossible to find any work. At some point I had conversation with a fellow PhD student from Turkey. He had just finished his PhD and got a job – through connections/referrals. He told me as he got close to finishing his PhD he could not sleep. He used to wake up in the middle of the night and look at his wife and child and have a panic attack. He just did not know what to do. I realized that this job search thing is a huge source of stress for many PhD people. He is the one advised me to create a website. I do not think my website has ever helped in my job search, but I am glad that I have it.

After some months, I got another invitation for an interview. I was very optimistic about this one. It was for a role focusing on Africa, but based in Europe. I thought that could work. My house internet was not very good and this interview was happening very early in the morning. I took my 45-minute bus ride to campus to take advantage of university internet. The interview starts. The whole interview panel is white. I am taken aback but I keep a straight face and get through it. Towards the end of the interview one of the white ladies asks me: What does diversity mean to you?

I answered the question. I will never forget this as long as I live. This was an assault to all my senses and intelligence.

After the interview, I convened a Kamkunji with my Nepali and Ghanian friends to discuss this phenomenon. What? How dare? I did not get the job. The regret came weeks later.

There was a conference on campus. My supervisor advised me to attend because there were big shots from the Forestry sector and it would be good for networking. I find this thing called networking so hard. I generally find it difficult to talk to strangers. I really challenged myself and really talked to everyone and anyone I could find. One of the big shots wanted to go greet his colleague who worked in forestry. He did not know how to navigate campus so I offered to take him. It was a 20-minute walk and it was raining. I was hoping that would lead to a job but he flatly told me that they were not recruiting. I sort of gave up on job applications for a while. I started thinking of what business to do when I get back to the ‘shithole’. I signed up for a soap making course. I paid CAD 70/KES 5600 for that. I thought I could start that business nikirudi. At some point I started thinking that if it could get so bad, I could get a job at Starbucks serving coffee. Then I remembered that I had met a Kenyan scholar at a conference at the beginning of my PhD. He told me I should contact him when I complete my studies because they offer post-docs. A post-doc is …ah this is actually hard to explain. Its basically a research position but with pay. I was not too keen on post-docs because I felt like that would be like doing another PhD and my brain was fried at that point. Some post-docs are also teaching positions. Anyway, I reach out to him and then he tells me to get back in touch when in Kenya so that we can meet and discuss some possibilities.

I graduated and returned to Kenya without a plan other than to contact this scholar- and start making soap for sale! We have several meetings and work out some research project. The next hurdle was to secure funding for this project because their organization did not have enough money to fund the whole thing. It was to be a one year project. In the process of finding funding for the research project, my would be boss (a PhD holder and African) told the potential funder (a non- PhD holder, but white) that: PhD’s are cheap labour, so she should not worry about high salaries (for me) and things like that. Beggary can make you do and say strange things. Also, the power of the white-skin PhD can make people do strange things. This is not all. The white lady from the organization giving/considering to give funding is just a pill. And its one of those organizations that give you little money and break your back with bureaucracy and useless budgets and other nonsense. Ah bure kabisa!

By this time I have spent so much time and money attending meetings with these guys. I am getting totally TIRED. Luckily, a friend contacts me about some consultancy project and I get on board. I had told everybody and anybody who cared to listen that I was job hunting. That is how this friend contacted me. We work on this consultancy gig for a couple on months. Its my line of work so quite enjoyable and it takes my mind off thinking about this proposed research project, job search, etc. This also keeps me away from starting my soap business. Oh I had also gone to one of the malls and seen that there were so many people selling soap. That kind of poured water on my business idea. Also, I was not too confident about my soap business because the one I made in the class gave me rashes! On the flipside it smelled so good. I had used all my favourite essential oils- lavender, lemon verbena, lemon grass.

While working on the consultancy gig I always looked at Linkedin from time to time and sent in applications when I found a suitable job. But by this time I was totally JADED. I was just sending them in for the sake of it. Then one day I saw some job and lazily submitted an application. Surprisingly, they called me back. I had a series of job interviews and got it. I had sent over 300 applications and only got one. Job searching is a job in itself. Such a drain. The job is in my beloved field of conservation and is interesting so ninachapa kazi sawa sawa. About a year into the job I learn that a white male colleague with the same qualifications as me and doing the same exact job is paid up to USD 1,000 more per month than me. WHAT?? Yes. This field of CONservation will just be the end of me as we know it. At some point, I hear about a disease that is spreading around. COVID is the name. I am not too interested or concerned. I do not think it has something to do with me as such. I am just happy the disease has not emerged from Africa. If it had emerged from Africa, we would not hear the last of it. These African SavaGES have eaten bats again! The outbreal of Ebola showed me things. I was in N. America at the time and travel was a nightmare. I would go to the USA and return to Canada and the immigration officer asks me – have you been to Africa? Yeah, because Africa is a village- you can be in Ethiopia in the morning and walk to Sierra Leone to have lunch. I wish these people knew how hard for Africans to travel within Africa. Things unfold so quickly and within a very short time, I have no job – because of COVID! Ninapigwa na butwaa! Whaaaaat? It is back to the drawing board.

So now I am at it again. Sending in applications. Sometimes not bothering. And so on and so forth. Then I see a job in the very organization I told you about earlier in this post. The one where the white lady was interviewing me and my Ghanian housemate asking WHY! That one. I apply. They contact me. The same lady contacts me actually and asks to have an introductory call. It is a managerial position in the field of conservation. I have a look at the website. The staff is still SO WHITE. There are a few sprinkles of the darker races of the earth hapa na pale but it is pretty white. We have a short conversation-not more than 15 minutes. At the end of it she tells me that they will contact me about the next steps in the interview process. After about a week she sends me an email saying that I will not proceed with the interview process because they consider me to be unqualified for the position. Apparently, what I have is academic experience and they are looking for someone with hands on natural resource management experience.


This field of conservation will be the end of me aki!


I have academic experience? Me? I thought that I have more natural resource management experience than academic experience, but what do I know? I threw out all that stuff about not burning bridges blah and told her exactly what I thought. I not only burned the bridge, I bombed the bridge. Punda amechoka! Punguza mzigo! Why bother to call me if you do not think I am qualified? You can decipher about my qualifications or lack thereof from my application package, can’t you? Why waste people’s time with these calls and all this fluff? Given my vast experience in job searching, I think that a person looking for job is a very vulnerable person and should be treated with kindness, whether they get the job or not. Should I ever be in a position of power or in a position to interview people, I will do my level best not to traumatize people or just to be plain nasty. People can and should use power responsibly. There are too many bullies – ALL Over!

Why not look for jobs in universities, research agencies – such places? Aren’t those some of the places where people with PhD’s are supposed to work? Ideally, yes. BUT Kenya is not a merit-based nor straightforward society. When is the last time you saw job ads from these institutions? Most of them do not advertise. To get a job there you need to know someone or go and present yourself to say a Head of Department in the University and beg for a job. I am not quite comfortable with this method of job searching. I prefer the other more straightforward method of applying for jobs and going through the interview process. What is the issue with this one of kuomba kazi? I just feel like you will be beholden to the person who “gave” you the job – either in reality or emotionally. It is a burden I do not want to deal with. I am also afraid of sexual harassment. The thought of going to these offices occupied by men (yes, most of them are men) terrifies me.

So, I am thinking of starting a biashara of selling fabric from west Africa but then there is this COVID thingy! There is an excellent article by Dr. Mordecai Ogada about the politics of the origin of COVID. I am not sure who has eaten bats, pangolins, snakes, or whatever else and if the source is from these so-called wet markets – All I know is that I have nothing to EAT – metaphorically speaking. At the peak of COVID I used to have these stressful dreams. In one of them, I was with my uncle. We saw a lioness. I told him to just leave it alone. He did not listen to me. He went ahead and kicked it in the stomach! The lioness was F-U-R-I-O-U-S. None of us needed to be told what to do next. Run for dear life. We ran and ran and ran!!! The lioness was behind us in hot pursuit!! We got to a small house that was raised on stilts and barged through the door and barricaded ourselves inside just in time. I was so angry with my uncle I was not talking to him. Hapo ndio COVID shenanigans zimenifikisha! Naomba serikali inisaidie!!! na iingilie kati!!


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Other blogposts in these series (in order):

  1. How to apply for graduate school in north America
  2. Surviving in the west as an African graduate student: Stories from the first year of my PhD
  3. Tips for surviving in the west as an African graduate student
  4. Racism in the west: Stories from an African graduate student

Racism in the west: Stories from an African Graduate Student

Let me preface all of this by saying that I find racism so detestable and so very stupid. If I was not affected by it, I would not be talking about it because I find it so energy sucking and mind numbing. Also, let me point out that I did not start experiencing racism when I moved to the west. I had been working in the conservation sector before that and that is the headquarters of racism in Africa. So, nothing new really, but these experiences and stories must be documented. Here are some of the most common manifestations of racism that I came across:

  1. When taking classes

I already talked about racism you experience when taking classes, especially if you are asked to work in groups. That is when you start seeing both covert and overt racism. My fellow Nigerian student told me that she struggled with this so much. If the professor left the students to form the groups by themselves, nobody would want to be in a group with her. In one of her classes, the professor had to intervene and form the groups by herself. By the way, we are talking about graduate students. Petty as hell. These are people who are 25 years and above mostly, but you see utoto galore!

2. On the bus/train

I did not experience this or perhaps I did experience it and did not notice. I used my time on the bus to demolish interesting books by African/indigenous scholars. Other African students would tell me that white and some Asian people would not want to seat next to them on the bus. They walk in, find that the only vacant seat is next to an African and they opt to stand instead of seating next to what they consider a sub-human, I guess. You might infect them with tropical diseases like Ebola and such. I was too busy consuming Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Okot P’Bitek, Chilisa, Kovach, Linda Smith and others to notice that people did not seat next to me. When you are reading such thinkers, you are in another universe. You barely notice what is happening around you. Intellectual hypnosis!

I met some of my very good friends on the bus. Only Africans spoke to me and I only dared to speak to Africans. One time I met a Ghanian student on the ride to campus. I had been watching a series about African Kingdoms that week. We spoke about the Asante Kingdom from where he comes from. He thought I was so knowledgeable. We became good friends and I got invited to many parties at their house. The fufu and Jolof were just incredible -always. Then I met another Kenyan who happened to be called Kendi, just like me. I went for many parties at their house. She is married to a Congolose – the parties were very pan-African. Sombe was oh!!Just too yummy. Then, one time I met an Ethiopian guy on the bus. That story deserves its own heading so let’s move to the next number.

These are not the stolen Haloween pumpkins. These were at a friend’s place.

3. Job searching for African professionals in the west

So, I meet this Ethiopian guy on the bus. We start talking. Oh you are from Kenya – my neighbour! He had also spent quite a bit of time in Kenya and he knew many places. Then he looks out of the window and sees a friend of his and waves. Then he tells me: You see that guy I just waved at? He is from Rwanda. When he lived in Rwanda, he worked as a TV news anchor. Then he moved to Vancouver. He thought that he could find the same level of job when he moved, after all, he was qualified. He starts applying for jobs and gets nothing. It takes so long for him to get a job. His family back home thinks he is doing well because he is abroad. They expect him to be sending money. He is nearly homeless. At some point he cut communication with them. I do not think he has spoken to them for over a year. He decided to use agencies to help him to search for jobs. One day he got called for a job interview. He wore his best suit and tie and showed up. He even carried his academic credentials in a folder. When he reached at the site of the interview, he realized this was a construction job. As in mjengo! He wore a suit and tie to a mjengo interview! By this time we are laughing out so loud, people on the bus are beginning to look. Why are these sub-humans making noise? They must be thinking. The way the story was narrated was SO funny! The Ethiopian guy carries on: Ati he came here looking for a TV anchor job! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!! Do you know where I work? I work as a security guard in a mall. And we both go haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! I did not ask him what he was doing back in Ethiopia because I had to get off the bus. I did not even get his name or contact and never saw him again. I was laughing so much I was crying by the time I got off the bus.

NB. The buses there are quiet or rather the people in the bus are quiet. Sio kama hizi zetu where there are preachers yelling, people selling everything from dawa ya mende to njugu karanga. They are QUIET. If your baby cries, people look at you badly. So, believe me, we were totally making noise in there!

If you have no sense of humour, you will not get it. We Africans laugh at our sorrow. And it is because this guy was laughing his head off and narrating the story in the most humourous manner that I was laughing. This was one of my best days on the bus!

Now, if you are an African professional moving to the west, please know that you will not get a job of the same stature as you did back home. There are doctors and lawyers driving taxis out there. The infrastructure of racism will now allow you to get opportunities matching your qualifications or experience. Actually, they treat you as though you have no experience or education at all until you go through their system of education and jump through all the hoops. Another friend from Nepal was telling me that even in the low skill arena there is a hierarchy jobs. Jobs that do not require a lot of energy like blowing leaves during Fall are reserved for white people. You will not see immigrants from Asia or Africa doing such jobs. And when I think that high school graduates and other lowly qualified white people hold powerful positions and earn large salaries in my beloved conservation field in Africa, I shudder!

4. Searching for housing

If you have read the other blog you will see that a Nigerian student helped me get accommodation outside campus. She had been told of that house by a fellow Nigerian student who was moving out of that very house. It is easier for Africans to get housing through this network of referrals by other African students. When it was time to come do my research I left the house I was staying in because I did not want to continue paying rent for many months. I was conducting my research in Kenya. As the end of my fieldwork drew nearer I started looking for another house. I kept sending messages to people who had posted ads and got no response from many of them. The only one who responded, asked me to list all the spices that I use to cook. You should have seen me trying to think through what spices I use. I did not hear back from her after sending the spice list. I asked the friend of mine I have mentioned in previous blogs to call landlords and go check the houses for me. She called a few and went to see the houses but none of them was suitable. I was getting really desperate because it was a few weeks to my return. Will I return to Vancouver and be homeless? There is not like here where you can ask someone to host you. Most people share houses and just have a single room. She called one more landlord and they agreed that she could go see the house. When she told her that the person who was looking for the house was not her but her friend from Africa, she asked her: Is she black or white? My friend was so offended and left there in a huff! She informed me of the proceedings. I wrote the lady a nicely nasty email. I went all Martin Luther K on her – I shall not be judged by the colour of my skin…. She even had the temerity to write me back and say: it looks like you black people have not moved on. You should forgive. White people have moved on. I did not have time to respond to that email. I was already getting stressed out about not finding a place. I decided to reach out to practically every African student I knew and asked them if they knew of any available housing. Luckily, another Nigerian student came through. She knew of a friend who was looking for a housemate. I did not want to fuss about what was and wasn’t in the house. I paid immediately. I moved into that house and never left until I left Vancouver. I could not bear the stress of looking for a house again. And mind you, I was renting a room in a house. It was a two bedroom house. You share the house with another person. Each one of you has their own bedroom but you share all the other spaces. I was paying CAD 500/KES 45,000 per month for that.

5. The white smile

This is going to be a difficult one to explain. If you have not seen it, it is quite difficult to conceptualize. White people would do a quick smile that involves just moving the lips, not revealing any teeth, and then look away. They cannot look you in the eye and neither would they say anything to you. I noticed this early on. I asked a friend who studied in the USA about this and she told me that – ah, they are just nervous. I found it so uncomfortable. How are you supposed to respond? Smile back? With teeth or without? A genuine smile should showcase your dental formula, right? Anyway, I was once speaking with an Ethiopian friend (not the one from the bus , another one). He analyzed it thusly: They behave as if they have seen something dirty. That is why they look away. People know about racism in the USA because its all over the media, but places like Canada are presented and like to present themselves as multi-cultural open societies. Hakuna kitu kama hiyo! In Vancouver the city was sort of segregated by race. There is a place where Indians, Chinese, White people stay, etc. Africans are not very many in that city, so they do not have their own block. As an aside, one of the friends I made there had MADE IT and was living in what was considered a white area. She told me that white people and their kids appeared shocked that they lived in such a neighborhood. Haaaaaaa! Wooohho! I have been to several parts of the USA and I found the white people there to be more friendly or more openly hostile. I prefer out and out racism by the way rather than the racism hidden behind liberalism and these fake smiles. Once I was visiting a friend in Kansas and white people were actually saying hi to me. That never happened to me anywhere in Vancouver – not even in the rural areas. I would say in Vancouver white people do not call you nigger with their mouth/voice, but rather by their body language.

Chilling with the great Dr. Selina Makana at Yosemite National Park. We were always the only two Africans in the whole park. We might as well have been part of the tourist attractions :)! But nothing new to me. Conservation spaces are like that. Such trips were serious therapy from the sting of racism and other struggles!!!

6. Stares if you are with a person who does not look like you

This will happen all the time but more so if you are with a white person. Its like its not expected or supposed to happen. Cognitive dissonance. One time we were at the swimming pool with Aneeta and her baby. I held her baby while she swam. I got lots of stares. If it were in the USA, they would have called the cops on me and said that I had stolen a baby! Some of this stuff may just seem like prejudice if you think of racism as structural injustice, but it is the superstructure of oppression. Its from developing a dislike or disdain for another person that you decide they should not earn the same salary as member of the superior race, right?

Aneeta and I in the University Rose garden. One of our favourite places to decompress!

7. Herpes

If you read the first blog in this series you will remember that I was tested for syphilis as part of the procedure to get a visa. Do you know I thought that there are no STDs there? I visited a friend who lived in one of the interior parts of Vancouver at some point during my stay there. One of the things she told me was a shocker. She told me was that there was an outbreak of herpes in that area. Whaaat???

What is the connection of this with racism? Why did I have to be tested for Shypilis in order to get the visa? I must remind you that it was introduced to Africa by Europeans . I had to pay money for that. I could have used that money to survive there. It was made to look like there was no Syphilis there and I was the one to take it there!

Just one last thing. White people are somehow able to forge very loving relationships with their dogs and cats but not with the likes of us. One time a Rwandese housemate of mine was walking around the shopping centre. She tripped and fell. She saw a white person who was saying oooooooooohhhh and moving towards her. She thought the person was coming to help her. To her utter surprise, the person just walked by her and went to pet a dog that they had seen near by. She was traumatized by these experience. haaaaaaaaaaaa!!!

Yes, of course there are a lot of wonderful white people. I know some of them. Some of them are my friends. The fact that there are many great white people does not mean that racism does not exist. I even feel so stupid calling people white, black, brown, etc. Anyway, I am not the one who invented racism. I am just a victim of it.

The next blog will be about job search post PhD. For this one you will need to fasten your safety belts. Its gonna be a BUMPY ride.