The burdens of academia

After the Master’s, one is often faced with the choice between finding a suitable career opportunity and doing a PhD. I never had to make this choice, as I always knew that I wanted to work in academia…. I will tell the story of how it all started – well, after my master’s- who knows, maybe this will help guide your next move!

  1. Getting into a PhD.

I have been blessed to do a PhD at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Many people often email me from different countries asking me “what is the best way to get in?”

— Afraid of rejection, I got away as far as possible so I don’t even have to try

I tried to get into the University of Victoria (UVIC) first. UVIC is a very good university and fairly smaller than UBC, and I thought it would be perfect. I had the impression, probably from my peers in Rimouski (Quebec) that the UBC’s Fisheries Centre is much more competitive and I ended up thinking that I did not stand a chance to get into UBC Resources Management and Environmental Studies (RMES) program. I could certainly not imagine how a girl like me, coming from a country people often mistakenly place in Europe or refer to as Nigeria (but is actually Algeria), could be supervised by the renowned fisheries experts, Rashid Sumaila or Daniel Pauly. I gave up before I even started. I was wrong. UVIC, the great university located in Vancouver Island, too is highly competitive. I sent three applications to UVIC, and two of them were lost somewhere. I must say, getting anything from Rimouski (Quebec) to Western Canada during winter must be a nightmare for Canada Poste. I crossed Canada by bus and I know that buses often carry mail, which they ‘may’ easily lose. At the end, I was rejected even before my application was reviewed. Then I met with a potential supervisor, and although she was excited and in a good mood [the good mood is very important when you meet with your potential supervisor, the image they keep of you can be associated with that mood], we never followed up, maybe because I didn’t want to work on the non-fisheries subject she was proposing… or [probably] other candidates were much more qualified. I was disqualified even before I applied. Needless to say, I gave up UVIC. Deep inside, I really wanted to work on fisheries.

— Trying to convince myself a PhD was not the right thing for me, and a call centre probably was…

Then, I tried to find a job, or should I say get back to my old job that I had in Quebec as a student, but based in Vancouver BC, at Telus. It is a good employer after all. I sabotaged myself. I had an excellent profile; I am very good at customer service and engaging with people, which is a big part of my researcher’s work at UBC. I was not there yet. I had an interview very quickly. When the hiring manager asked me what my weakness was for a job where you answer phone calls in an English speaking province of Canada, I answered “My English is very bad”. I did not stop there. He then told me that my English was great and I insisted it was bad. I shot myself in the foot. I clearly knew that was not for me. I had a dream somewhere else.

— Facing reality and confronting it… I can do IT, I just need to find how…

After a few minutes of hesitation in the corridors of the Fisheries Centre (now the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries), Janice – the Director’s assistant- ambushes me and tells me “he’s here, come on he is available”, and almost drags me into his office. There he was… what should I say, after all “my English is bad”. Plus, it is Rashid Sumaila! A man who literally came up from the bushes of Nigeria to the white house, literally!

 — Introducing myself, after all I am not some urban legend that everyone talks about

Obviously, before I met Rashid, I had spoken with my Master’s supervisor, James Wilson, on the best ways for approaching him. There I was in his office, telling him that I was going to the IIFET in Montpellier… That is kind of the equivalent of “the weather today is amazing” in a regular conversation.

— Going to conferences, or really, professional stalking which is often called “networking”

I did go to the IIFET in Montpellier in the summer of 2010, and I did see him there along with some of his students, post-docs and research assistants. That was my dream team. I “networked” as much as I could and even made friends. When I came back to Vancouver, I had dinner with some of them.

— Once my name was out there, I grasped the first opportunity that presented itself

As I was emailing Rashid back and forth, he sent me a call for PhD applications in the Marine Mammal Research Unit with Andrew Trites. I sent Andrew my resume, which he shared with Brian, one of his staff. Brian, went to visit his friend Kristin Kleisner, a post-doctoral fellow working for the Sea Around Us at that time supervised by Daniel Pauly, another legend, French this time, no definitely a Canadian who speaks German, was born in France, raised in Switzerland, worked in the Philippines, did his PhD in Ghana whose lagoons he came out from. Let’s say his story is complicated. Brian asked if Kristin (or the Sea Around Us) needed a volunteer. “Yes”. She emailed me while I was on vacation in Algeria in asking me if I was still interested in volunteering to work on the global marine protected areas database. I was thrilled!

— Volunteering is one good way of proving myself

I met her and Ashley, another post-doctoral fellow at the Sea Around Us and I began shortly after. I was very clear that I wanted to do a PhD. I was so excited that I remember my first encounter with Daniel. Kristin took me to his office to introduce me, and when he asked me the question “why do you want to volunteer” and I replied, “because I want to do a PhD with you”.

— I worked very hard, I arrived to the office every morning before my “boss” and I worked more than ever, for free… and it was worth it

I lived very far from “work” and it took me around an hour and 30 minutes to get to work every morning. I was always well dressed, and very prepared. I would go back home with work and finish it until late at night, every day. I really wanted to prove myself.

A few months later, Daniel asked me to do a catch reconstruction for my home country, Algeria (not Nigeria), thanks to the trust and the recommendations of Kristin and Ashley. The opportunity for West Africa presented itself as I was dreaming to work on the region. As a side note, I even co-wrote a proposal with my husband at the time and a professor at UBC told us “it is too ambitious”. Just the idea of working on the region was ambitious, according to him. I beg to differ. After a phone call with WWF-WAMER at the time, my PhD was set. Daniel relied on recommendations of his researchers, a glimpse at my very modest resume (no peer reviewed publications back then even after my Master’s), but a lot of ambition, 4 spoken languages, and hard work. Well, I most certainly have other qualifications, but I am not exposing my resume here. Besides, others probably had those same qualifications. The Sea Around Us was set to welcome Dyhia Belhabib as a PhD student. Shortly after came the MAVA Foundation funding that allowed me to work on my dream region, West Africa. Hey MAVA, thank you!!

So how I got there? I volunteered and gave up some of my leisure time and it was worth it. The opportunity had to present itself… I just had to work hard until it did.

 

  1. Finishing the PhD.

I believe many of us would link PhD to “the thesis”. Well, I finished my PhD in three years and one month (exactly). Some finish it earlier, but the average time was 5 years at the Fisheries Centre. My first motivation was that the project I worked on was tied to funding. The second motivation was that one of the project outcomes was to work with African experts to publish peer reviewed papers and so I had papers on the way that I co-wrote with colleagues from West Africa that helped in my thesis writing. My third motivation, well, not everyone can do this one. I was expecting a baby, and I needed to finish before baby was born. I submitted the defense version of my thesis the day before he was born, and that was not by chance. It was a Friday when I finally submitted my thesis, and I was talking to my belly saying “well, you can come now”… The baby was born on the Saturday the next day at 12 pm.

I published 5 of the 6 chapters of my thesis.

During the three years of my PhD, I destroyed the reputation that 22 West African countries were data poor. They are not. They just needed to translate their data into something people can use easily. I produced over 24 reports, over a dozen peer-reviewed papers, and a huge database that documents all catches including those by the nasty Chinese, European, Russian and Korean illegal fleets (among others). Governments used the data we built to create management initiatives or complement existing data and strategies.

What helped me the most is knowing my limits. When my committee told me I was too ambitious for adding in another chapter (I must say, a topic I really like), at first I was stubborn “I can do it”. Two weeks later I was telling my supervisor “I cannot do it”. After all, in addition to writing a thesis, publishing papers, travelling to conferences and meetings at FAO, and being about to have a baby, I took on a consulting contract for Oceana, which I also delivered on time. I already barely slept. Sure, a huge belly didn’t help, but the idea of finishing after the baby was born was scary to me.

— Know your limits, it is just a thesis, the core of the job, the research, the people and the network you build and the trace you leave behind are also important.

I also stopped all student activities. I did not take part in welcome BBQs, or in student meetings and organized trips. I was aware these were sometimes important for building a resume, but I did most of it during my master’s.

— Rely on your committee’s wisdom.

If your committee tells you can’t do something, then think about it before you say “no”.  Sometimes they don’t know how capable you are, but most of the time they know better.

— You are not inventing the wheel. You may discover something, and you can still do it at the end of your PhD.

— If you have to publish your thesis, you can still try big journals but if a paper takes you 2 years, it is probably time to move on, wrap it up and submit it to those smaller journals.

— The paper work for committee meetings and for thesis submission and defense can take time, do not under-estimate this component.

— The comprehensive exam isn’t that difficult…

Give it some time while making sure you keep up with your research work. I grasped the opportunity that I was doing literature review to study for my comprehensive exam. Not that it was complicated at all, but I didn’t spend a year thinking of it as a huge obstacle. I thought of it as a formality.

— The reward…

Finally, you deserve that big overpriced ceremony the university proudly organizes for its graduates. It is worth it and it is definitely a very good way of telling yourself “I did it”.

 

  1. Getting a job.

This part is very difficult and heartbreaking I must say. This is where one discovers that mentors are not easy to find and that support is much more than some “words of support”.

At the end of this year (2016) I will be facing a new cross-road. My dream job is  to be a professor. I got into a post-doctoral fellowship instead, well to begin with. Then, I became a Research Associate. It would be unrealistic to think that I would become a professor right after my PhD.  Becoming a professor is only a tiny part of what I would like to achieve. Being my own Principal Investigator with a project that deals with accountability by bringing people together and using citizen science. It seems over-ambitious, but over-ambitious is who I am. Without this ambitious, I would not have started working on finding data for data poor areas otherwise. I believe I can build upon what I have accomplished so far, with the many colleagues I work with in the region, and create a solid baseline that will guide the choices they are facing and the decisions they make which affect coastal communities.

What I have achieved so far tells me I can do more. However, as the title of this contribution notes: it is a burden. It does take away your sleep. Junior researchers like me are faced with the challenge of gaining the trust of often big funders, and then even if they have found that, they will be faced with the political dynamics within their institution, then when that is solved they will have to learn how to work with denialists (not in scientific concepts but in your capacity and abilities).

With all these burdens, I would like to say that my reward is the help I have been able to provide for people. My research at the end, is mediatized, becomes meaningful when it is used to reduce illegal fishing, allowing people who need it the most, to not need it as much anymore!

My research brought me together with my heroes from West Africa, people I would have only read about, otherwise.

My research allowed me to observe real problems of people that cannot be solved with the best economic theories but with the best network of solutions that can only be developed in academia or by its researchers.

So I am there again –at least soon- telling myself: “The opportunity will present itself, I just have to work hard until it does”… Working hard can be looking for it…”

 

 

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