Doctoral candidates – Are they getting a raw deal?

Increasing the number of PhD students without providing them with the necessary support and resources needed to achieve quality educational outcomes is unlikely to serve either national development or individual institutional needs.

Recent global developments, including in developing regions, indicate that doctoral training is increasingly a subject of policy interest and scholarly pursuit.

Despite the paucity of data regarding the current landscape of PhD production in Africa, it can be seen that the continent’s developmental needs underpin the demand for more doctoral graduates due to their critical importance in driving economic growth, the shift towards a knowledge society and the improvement of quality in the African university system.

Influenced by an interesting array of innovative practices from within and outside the continent, African higher education institutions are trying to respond to global changes and challenges by increasing the number of PhD holders. However, it should be noted that PhD programmes on the continent remain limited and are undertaken under a plethora of challenges and strains.

Need for expansion

Starting from the government’s ambitious 2008 plan to train 10,000 masters and 2,000 PhD candidates, Ethiopia has been pursuing a path that increasingly acknowledges the need to produce a greater number of doctoral candidates in its universities to contribute towards the improvement of research output.

The share of PhD enrolment began to increase particularly from 2011-12 which may be attributed to the government’s calls and the increasing involvement of universities other than Addis Ababa University in the production of PhD graduates.

In addition to the manpower need highlighted in government development plans, the 2008 white paper of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education emphasised the need for the expansion of postgraduate programmes with the major goal of improving the academic qualifications of university staff. The same justification continues to serve as a major raison d'être for boosting PhD programmes in local universities and the training of an increasing number of candidates outside the country.

Changes are ongoing, both in the size and diversity of PhD programmes initiated across the various public universities, although the rate of success remains meagre. Currently, local universities award more than 300 PhDs each year, up from a low of 21 in 2010-11. As of 2016, more than 3,000 students have been pursuing doctoral studies at local universities. In 2017-18, 3,994 or 5.2% of the total number of students enrolled in postgraduate programmes went on to pursue doctoral training (Ministry of Education, 2018).

While the exact number of people studying abroad is not available, the national trend is tipped towards significantly increasing the number of PhD holders across the country.

Exploratory survey

Given this background, we conducted an exploratory survey to examine the support systems offered for PhD programmes by gauging the experiences of 164 social science students pursuing their PhD education at the four social science colleges of Addis Ababa University (AAU), Ethiopia’s flagship institution. The sections below report some of the major findings obtained.

The AAU started offering PhD programmes in the early 1980s. Although other local universities now offer doctoral programmes, AAU’s dominance in terms of enrolment, diversity of programmes and graduates remains unchallenged. In fact, the figures for the past 10 years show that Ethiopia’s premier university is the powerhouse of the country’s PhD production.

Most of the PhD programmes at AAU are attended by candidates drawn from public universities – an indication that the programmes are still targeted at augmenting the qualifications of university staff which is far below the national requirements of 30% PhD and 70% masters.

Currently, the proportion of Ethiopian university staff with PhDs stands at 14%. The three most important reasons why respondents chose to pursue a PhD corresponded with the aims of the national plan: career development; upgrading knowledge and skills; and developing research skills.

Financial support and resources

Another aspect of the PhD programme investigated was the availability of financial support and resources needed for doctoral students.

Our findings indicated that the financial support students are receiving is considered meagre and the resources needed to run the programmes successfully are quite poor. Candidates’ level of satisfaction regarding the financial support and resources made available at AAU were invariably rated as ‘poor’ and ‘fair’. As a consequence, a significant number of respondents admitted that they engage in extramural work to meet their financial needs.

In a similar vein, the overall adequacy of facilities for PhD programmes at the university was rated as unsatisfactory. Candidates in particular rated the availability of laboratory, clinical or other similar facilities poorly. Library as well as electronic research resources and services were similarly indicated to be deficient.

On the issue of support, candidates claimed they were given little assistance in seeking funding, grant opportunities and developing professional contacts that could help them secure additional financing and enrich their exposure and knowledge during their PhD programme. They also disclosed that there was little technical training to facilitate the preparation of assignments and the write-up of their final dissertations. Support for the publication of articles was also limited.

Candidates also felt they were disadvantaged by their lack of exposure to seminars and conferences where they could take advantage of additional learning and networking opportunities. The respondents claimed that their departments arranged few conferences or seminars, as a result of which candidates were constrained from actively participating in knowledge-generation and dissemination activities of the sort expected at PhD level.

It was felt that limited exposure in these areas could be a barrier to acquiring relevant experience to help them to actively engage in research production and dissemination later in their careers.

Ongoing demand

Concurrently with global and regional trends, the policy directions set by the Ethiopian government recognise that the demand for doctoral education is set to grow further. In spite of this evolving need, this study revealed that the support provided to PhD programmes at the country’s oldest university leaves much to be desired.

Although AAU is a large university (approximately 49,000 students) and there could be relative differences in terms of the structures, systems and outputs across its faculties and colleges, the overall deficiencies observed in the social science colleges, as regards funding and key support areas, likely have negative implications for the quality of PhD training being provided at a national level.

In a similar vein, given the limited opportunities for conference participation and publications, the contribution of doctoral students to knowledge production and dissemination appears to be constrained.

The findings suggest the need to improve the doctoral education offered at Addis Ababa University and elsewhere in the country where similar conditions might be prevalent.

In conclusion, we argue that national plans and sectoral needs cannot be met merely by increasing the number of PhD holders. What is also needed are commensurate resources, strong systems and structures, qualified and experienced teaching staff, and a healthy and collegial learning environment. A consideration of these factors will help the country to produce the right type of PhD candidate who can support both its developmental and institutional needs.

Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States, and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at or

Dr Getnet Tizazu Fetene is an assistant professor of sociology of education in the department of educational planning and management at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. Dr Fetene worked as a senior researcher in the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden, and has ample experience as an education and health education consultant. He may be reached at