How to apply for graduate school in North America

When I completed my masters at the University of Nairobi, I was completely DONE with education. DOOONEE Kabisa! The masters had bruised me. I was doing it while working and it was a hassle and a half. Story for another day.  Anyone mentioning PhD stuff to me shortly after my masters got a very nice rebuke.  Three years later, I started looking for a PhD programme.  Why the change of mind? I was in a job that was not secure. It was in the NGO world. Whether you have a job from one year to the next in that world is dependent on donor funding.  At that point the organization was in dire straits. It was a struggle. At some point we all took a pay cut and worked for  four days a week, instead of five. I was looking for jobs elsewhere, but none were forthcoming. Then I thought: Why not look for a PhD programme?

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That would tie me down to something for 4+ years. I was tired of living year to year in the NGO world.  In addition, I used to work with a lot of archaeologists and anthropologists and I admired them. I thought it was nice to dedicate your time to understanding something. To be an expert in something.  And thus, the search for a PhD program began. I registered at the University of Nairobi- I think that was actually two years after my masters. I even paid fees for the first semester. I went for orientation. The room in which this was conducted was poorly arranged.  Just a normal classroom, nothing fancy – some chairs facing this way others facing that way.  Along  one of the classroom walls was one of those big yellow Chinese dragons. I was so irritated by the fact that this orientation for PhD students was being conducted in a room that was not well organized. They could not even be bothered to remove this dragon from the room! This is a sign of things to come, I thought to myself.  The professors came in and assured us that people actually do graduate with PhD’s from the Uni of Nairobi, without being made to suffer for like 10 years. I was not convinced. I kept looking at the dragon! I sat through the presentation, but decided I would not go through with it. I withdrew from the programme. False start. Yes, they gave me my money back. They retained a small percentage, I do not recall how much.

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Source: Britannica.com

I cast my gaze elsewhere. I started looking at North America and Europe. I was even willing to do another masters if it came with a scholarship. I tried several Erasmus Mundus programs and got nothing.  I had a friend who was studying the USA at the time. I asked her what the procedure was. She told me that the first step is to secure the interest of a professor who is willing to supervise you. How do you do that? You have to write to them and sell yourself, your research interests, etc.  I will talk about that later in this blog.  So, I started writing to Profs in the USA. Some of them expressed interest and asked me to apply. This required you to pay registration fees of up to USD 50 for each application. I think I applied for two. Never got nothing! Other Professors did not even bother to respond to my emails.

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I had a friend of a friend who was  doing her PhD in the environmental field in the USA. She would check my letters to Profs in various colleges in the USA. In one of my many letters I wrote that my inspiration was the work of Wangari Maathai and then in brackets I wrote RIP. Wa! The scolding I got! What is RIP!? How do you expect people to know that!? On and on it went. I generally think that people who have studied in the USA are quite harsh in their feedback and or critique. I gave up on sending my letters to her to check. She was also very surprised that I did not know Jane Goodall! How can you be in the environmental field and not know Jane Goodall? That was another bout of scolding. Knowing what I know about Jane Goodall now, I feel no remorse/shame of not knowing her or her work then.  I completely gave up on the USA because all unis required that you either do GRE or GMAT. I did GRE and FAILED flat. That was a total waste of my money aki. I do not think these tests are a good measure of assessing one’s intelligence by the way. I would still fail even if I did them today. So, what to do? I was groping in the darkness. I sort of took a break from it for a while and just continued working and job searching.  All this time I had not really firmed up what I wanted to do discipline-wise. I just knew it had to be in the environmental field.

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One time a friend visited me. We were looking at my pictures from a recent trip to Mt. Kenya forest. She knew about my search for graduate schools. She told me: You should study something to do with forests. Look at you in this picture. This is the happiest I have seen you. I need to frame this picture and put it somewhere in my house, because from then on I got some kind of focus. I had been working on cultural heritage sites and some of them were situated within forested ecosystems. I loved being in those sites. I had at this point read all of Wangari Maathai’s three text – Unbowed, The challenge for Africa, and Replenishing the earth.  It all came together. I now started looking for a programme that was focusing on forests. In January 2012,  I attended a conference in Jordan. In a conversation with some colleagues, I mentioned that I was looking for a PhD program related to forests. One of them asked me if I had looked at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. I had never heard of it. When I got back to Kenya, I looked at the website and started writing to Profs there. So, here goes the procedure.

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In Mt. Kenya forest

 

Step 1: Look at the website of the faculty you want to study in and look at the Professor’s profiles therein. Usually, there are detailed profiles outlining their experience, expertise, areas of research interest, whether they are recruiting graduate students, etc.  The next step is to find those that align with your own research interests. You may not have very refined interests at this point, but it would be good to have a rough idea of what you want to do.

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Step 2: Start writing to these Profs. You can start with one or cast your net wide. I started with one. Once rejected, I would move to the next.  Usually, the response will be along the lines of: I am not accepting any new students, I do not have funding, I am about to retire, etc. Those are the ones I got. Prepare to receive rejection. How do you make sure that they respond to your inquiry? If you write a one paragraph that is not compelling or a few lines, do not expect a response. Your letter has to be detailed and compelling. Here is the letter I sent to various Profs.  And by the way, do not even bother try selling poverty – we Africans have been trained to sell poverty. I am poor, please help me. Steer clear from the line of argument. That will not get you very far. What people want to see is what you have achieved, what you want to achieve, what value you will add to their department, etc.

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Step 3: Let us assume you get someone who is willing to supervise you. This can happen in cases where a Prof has research funding and is looking for students to conduct that research. In this case, then they will just tell you to submit an application to the university. Mine did not follow this route. I wrote to several Profs and got rejections. Then one of them responded. She was a director of an institute within the faculty of forestry. She told me she could not supervise me directly, but could co-supervise because of her academic standing. Only those who are hired as assistant professors or full professors can supervise. She then sent me a link to apply for a very competitive scholarship.The Graduate Global Fellowship. The deadline was tight. I had to collate all the materials required and apply within a week.  And I got it.  I had been so used to rejection at that point that when I could not believe something could actually go my way. I was energized! Once I got it, it became easier to find a supervisor. Professors do not want to take on students if they are not sure of funding sources. This is fully understandable. The program is expensive and highly demanding.  So, at this point I now had a supervisor and was invited to apply for the degree program through the university. And that is how I got admitted to do my PhD at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. This is in Canada’s west coast.

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During my first year at Uni of BC. Cherry blossom trees are a major attraction in Spring ( especially, March to April)

Please note:  A major difference between universities in Kenya and North America is that you have to secure the interest of someone who is willing to supervise you first. In the case of Uni of Nairobi, all I did is fill in an application form, paid and then got admission.

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Step 4: Once you receive your admission letter, you can start the gruesome process of applying for a visa and study permit. I think this one deserves its own blog post. But let me just say I felt very humiliated throughout this visa process application. They tested me for Syphilis! There is this clinic where you have to go to near village market in Nairobi. You are tested for TB, Pregnancy, Aids, Shyphilis! And then the results are sent to some place in London for assessment. If you do not pass these medical tests, you are not getting the visa and  you can forget all your study abroad aspirations. At that point I thought there must not be any kind of diseases in Canada. That if they were to get there, it was via people like me. I was shocked to get there and learn that there are STD epidemics in some regions, Aids, and all manner of ailments. Shyphilis was brought to Africa by Europeans, by the way. Let me not  even get into that for now.

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Note: I asked my friends from Europe if they were tested for all this stuff and they told me no. All this costs money. I think I paid up to the tune of KES 30,000  (USD 300) for all the required tests. This is how poverty is entrenched good people. Those without money have to keep paying for all manner of stuff. There is also a cost for the visa, ofcourse!

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Step 5: You have been declared to be disease free, and therefore fit to venture into the New World, alias the land of milk and honey. Your visa and study permit can now be issued. After this you are free to go depending on when the date of reporting for your uni is.

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The next blogs I need to write are:

  1. How to survive in the west as an African student. My scholarship was CAD 21,000 per year (including fees). When I saw that money and converted to KES I thought I had hit the jackpot. One of my supervisors had told me that Vancouver, where UBC is located is a very expensive city and it is difficult to survive on that kind of money. I said ahhhhh I am an African, I know how to survive/live on little. We! I will tell you how I almost dropped out of my PhD program in the first year…not  a year actually, first semester! I even wrote a letter to my former boss asking to get my job back, but ended up not sending the email. DRAMA!

 

  1. How to navigate race and racism. I will share with you my struggles to find housing as an African student. I will tell you about a time when I sent my  friend to look at a house for me. When she told the landlord that I was from Africa, the landlord inquired about whether I was white or black. My friend stormed out of the house in a huff and in furry! Then she gave me the email of the landlord and I went all Martin Luther King on her …..I shall not be judged by the colour of my skin, but by the content of my character, I thundered! I have nice, nice stories for you. Stay tuned.

 

  1. The ins and outs of a PhD program. The struggle! GawD! How to navigate supervisory committees, what is a committee? how to create networks, how to get additional jobs, how to not go crazy!

 

  1. I am not sure if this should be a separate blog on its own, but I need to write about job search after PhD. And ultimately, whether a PhD is worth it or not! And whether studying in North America is worth all the hassle or not!
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This is the friend who was helping me search for a house. I was doing my fieldwork in Kenya at the time and not in Canada. 

Disclaimer: There might be other procedures for application, but this is the one I am familiar with.