My doctoral journey started in 2017, when I received an email from THRiVE confirming acceptance into the PhD program. But perhaps the actual journey started in 2016 when I first approached my mentor Prof. Baldwyn Torto to support my application for the PhD fellowship. Whatever the starting point was, I was returning into education after being in a full-time job for four years.
PhD registration: After receiving the fellowship award, my first step was to take a leave of absence from work. Next I started the process of securing registration at Makerere University. But this turned out not to be as straight forward as I had envisioned and after six months of trying I opted for KCMC. By this time I was behind the THRiVE required deadline of six months for preliminary registration. I met my university supervisor, Prof. Reginald Kavishe in early 2018 and through his assistance, I was able to get registration within three months.
The Research trajectory: My PhD aimed to identify compounds derived from natural plants with activity against the transmissible stages of the malaria parasites. My expectation at the beginning was to do specific experiments, write three papers, submit thesis and graduate. This sounded straight forward, easy and doable. But to my surprise, I ended up doing quite a number of experiments, some of which did not end up in my final thesis. This is when it dawned on me that PhD research was way different from what I had encountered at Masters. My objectives kept changing and the flow of the thesis only became clearer towards the end. Also, the amount of reading and writing was above normal. In fact, midway through, I started wearing prescription glasses due to too much screen time and there were days I had to work overnight just to catch up. Many of my weekends were far from free. Actually, I do not remember ever going for a holiday.
During my doctoral studies, I also had the opportunity to participate in community and public engagement (CPE) activities. At the beginning, I had a feeling that CPE was going to be a great distraction but to my surprise it did not derail me from completing the thesis. Instead, it gave me a sense of fulfillment and motivation. I even did a documentary and posted it on you tube. Also, I was a finalist in the 2020 Falling Walls remote in the category of Science Engagement.
The things I could change: The first year of my PhD involved writing a review paper as I waited for university admission and funding from THRiVE. At the start, I had no idea what writing a review entails but I delved in it anyway. After working on it for a year and accumulating several versions, I realized that writing a review is much more difficult than a research paper. It took me three years to publish the review paper. Also, during my first year, I kept myself busy by attending induction seminars and workshops.
If given another chance, I would strategize differently. First, I would only focus on research papers. And secondly, I would only attend a few courses that are essential for my PhD. My doctoral project was interdisciplinary requiring skills in chemical synthesis, machine learning, insect biology and disease vector ecology. For most of the objectives, I had to learn new skills. Chemical synthesis was really hard and my experiments failed several times making me to feel stuck and stressed. In fact, I contemplated leaving although I could not gather enough courage to walk away from it all.
Completing PhD; I spent three years pursuing my doctorate. One thing that kept me going was the fact that I wanted to have a PhD. I am not sure if this is a valid reason but somehow it worked for me. So I pushed on until I was able to submit my thesis. When I received the examiner’s report about two months later, all I needed to do was minor revision and I graduated a week later. However, I was not able to attend the graduation ceremony because of COVID-19 pandemic.
My wins: In 2020, I was selected as a fellow of the Mawazo Learning Exchange (MLEx) and last year (2021), I was one of the recipients of the icipe Governing Council, best published science paper. But, perhaps the glorious moment in my PhD life is when my story featured on the Frontiers in Tropical Diseases web page on world malaria day.
Important lessons: This PhD experience taught me many things: first, you need a strong motivation to engage in PhD research because you will always find a legitimate reason to opt out. Second, it is important to have regular meetings with supervisors and being based in an institution where you have access to all you need for your doctoral research helps a lot. Finally, never compare yourself with others. There were moments I felt everyone else was publishing and graduating apart from me and this made me to panic but still I graduated in time.
This writer is Dr Trizah Koyi Milugo is a THRiVE-2 PhD Fellow