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?

Really?

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.

The NERVE!

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

IMG_4009

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!!

THE END.

I am trying to monetize this blog. Please share widely within your networks. There might be other people who might like these ramblings.

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

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?

IMG_20190408_152353

 

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.

parade-Chinese-New-Year-Los-Angeles
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.

IMG_20190408_153432

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.

IMG_20190401_182553

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.

All-focus
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.

IMG_9080

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.

IMG_8916

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.

IMG_8888
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.

20140820_103103

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.

20140925_162856

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!

20150605_210732

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.

20151118_083150

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!

IMG_20140521_161155
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.