This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world. In this post, Upendo Msalilwa talks about goes into getting a PhD in Tanzania.

Upendo Msalilwa measuring the Diameter at Breast height of the baobab in Kilimanjaro region, Tanzania (Photo by Geofrey Soka)
Upendo Msalilwa measuring the Diameter at Breast height of the baobab in Kilimanjaro region, Tanzania (Photo by Geofrey Soka)

Where are you getting your PhD?

I am a third year Ph.D. student in the Department of Biodiversity and Ecosystem management in the school of Life Sciences (LiSe) at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Tanzania. I will be getting my Ph.D. from the NM-AIST.

How long does a typical PhD take where you are located?

The period allocated for pursuing a Ph.D. at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) is 3 years but it may be extended up to 6 years depending on the nature of the research project. Experience has shown that most of the Ph.D. students finish their Ph.D. studies within 4 years.

So far, I am progressing well with my Ph.D. I have taken the core courses, four graduate seminar presentations and prepared three manuscripts, all of which have been submitted to journals awaiting editors’ decisions.

Aside from research, what else are you expected to do as part of your PhD?

Aside from my research, since I am Ph.D. student by research and thesis I have taken the following core courses: (i) Research Methods and Communication (ii) Philosophy, Ethics and Social Imperatives (iii) Foundations of Law in Science, Engineering and Technology (iv) Innovation Management and Competitiveness (v) Entrepreneurship and Management.  In addition, I have attended various scientific conferences so as to increase the knowledge in scientific writings, volunteering with various biodiversity conservation and research projects that are conducted by my employer, the Tanzania Forestry Research Institute (TAFORI). I have also been participating in various local community/youth educational and awareness creation programmes in Tanzania. 

Tell us about the process of completing your degree. How “important” or “weighted” is your defense for your graduation?

In my university, there are two tracks to complete a Ph.D. programme: Ph.D. by coursework and Ph.D. by research and thesis. With regards to Ph.D. by coursework, a student is required to take common core courses, programme/specialty/elective core courses, and take graduate seminars and research. To complete a Ph.D. by research and thesis, a student is required to take common core courses and graduate seminars, and conduct research. A student by coursework is also required to attend the mandatory courses in the first year, and publish at least two papers in indexed scientific journals. Students by research and thesis may take the core courses at any semester and must publish at least three papers before the graduation.  There are five core courses which everyone must take. All Ph.D. students must earn at least 540 credits before graduation. Every student is required to provide a minimum of six graduate seminars before graduation. The graduate seminars are presented and examined at the departmental level, where students and lecturers are present.  

In my university, there are two tracks to complete a Ph.D. programme: Ph.D. by coursework and Ph.D. by research and thesis.

In all Ph.D. programmes, students also must complete formal defense for their research proposals as well as their theses. The theses must be reviewed by the two external and one internal reviewer before the defense. The panel normally consists of at least 5 members of academic staff, two are the external reviewers. The reviewers are from outside the university normally are the may be both national and international. This panel is the one that will be responsible for examining the student’s thesis, but students and other university staff are welcomed to listen on the oral defense.

Tell us about your research

Upendo Msalilwa and field assistant (Emilian Mayemba) assessing the baobab elephant debarking in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania (Photo by Geofrey Soka).
Upendo Msalilwa and field assistant (Emilian Mayemba) assessing the baobab elephant debarking in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania (Photo by Geofrey Soka).

My Ph.D. research project focuses on understanding the status of African baobab (Adansonia digitata L.) populations and their ethno-botanical importance in the semi-arid areas in Tanzania. Baobab is one of the most important non-timber forest products providing ecological and socio-economic significance to rural communities in Tanzania. Currently, the tree species is of high economic value internationally due to the high demand for commercial baobab products. The demand for baobab has increased so it is important to examine the use values and patterns of A. digitata by different ethnic communities in semi-arid zones of Tanzania. It is also important to examine the extent of domestication and conservation strategies by different ethnic communities and predict the future management of A. digitata populations particularly in the face of climate change. My researchaims at gathering information on the status, distribution and ethno-botanical importance of the African baobab, among other tree species, to formulate effective policies that will contribute to effective and sustainable management both within and outside protected areas in the semi- arid areas of Tanzania.

Specifically, my PhD research is looking at:

  • Assessing the status and distribution of A. digitata populations in different land uses in different agro-ecological zones in Tanzania
  • Examining the use values and patterns of A. digitata by different ethnic groups in different agro-ecological zones of Tanzania
  • Examining the extent of domestication and conservation strategies by different ethnic communities and predict the future management of A. digitata populations, particularly in the face of climate change
  • Investigating the local peoples’ perceptions on the established ethno-botanical values of different parts of A. digitata in different agro-ecological zones of Tanzania.
  • Determining variations in Cyclopropenoid Fatty Acids (CFPA) contents, physio-chemical properties and fatty acids composition in baobab seed oil from different agro-ecological zones of Tanzania
  • Testing an efficient method for removing or reducing the concentrations of Cyclopropenoid Fatty Acids (CFPA) in baobab seed oil from different agro-ecological zones in Tanzania.

Before the main field data collection, reconnaissance surveys were carried out in the baobab growing zones in Tanzania. The aim was to obtain actual information about the ecological zones, terrain characteristics, land use systems, ethnic groups, the distribution of the baobab and well as reconcile the reality with the proposed methodologies from the project proposal. Some of the methodologies associated with my research include:

 Ecological surveys that were conducted in selected protected areas as well as in the communal land for population characteristics assessment of A. digitata. Belt transects (1 km long and 50 m wide) were laid both in communal and protected areas. In each transect, Global Positioning System (GPS) waypoints, girth at breast height (gbh) and height of juvenile, adult and sub-adult trees were recoded. Additionally, stem damage was recorded.

Baobab oil was subjected to different temperatures and with varying time were experimented in this study to determine the effectiveness of these parameters in reducing the harmful CFPAs in baobab seed oil for human consumptions

I will also collect socio-economic data about key issues key issues including the main uses, use patterns, harvesting parts, seasons of harvesting, number of trees grown on each farm, evidence of recruitment ever seen, factors affecting sapling survive, present conservation measures, its cultural and socio-economic importance and on the indigenous criteria used by local people for the selection and domestication of A. digitata. This will be done through household questionnaire surveys, focused group discussions and participatory rural appraisal (PRA).

What are some challenges with getting a PhD in Tanzania?

The major challenge associated with obtaining my Ph.D. has been inadequate research funds for conducting research. Another challenge is lack of expertise to assist me in quantification of Cyclopropenoid Fatty Acids (CFPA). I am gratefully to the British Ecological Society and Jomo Kenyatta University for financial funds and quantification of CFPAs respectively.

What do you like about your PhD and the PhD process?

The admission requirement for a Ph.D. student by research and thesis include that a student must have published at least one paper as the first author.

The Ph.D. process has assisted me in widening my research capability in field data collection, data analysis and report writing. It has also broadened my knowledge in scientific writing. The reasons why people pursue the different Ph.D. routes is either due to their specialty or the availability of funds. Students may be interested in studying certain program but opt to go where funds are available. Again, there are other institutions such as Universities and Research Institutions in the country that require their staff engaged in research to hold PhD. Staff are therefore compelled to join the program because they are afraid of losing their job. In my case, I joined Ph.D. program by research and thesis because I had previous experience in research and published several journal articles. This gave me more time to do my research and learn new skills in data analysis and scientific writing. The admission requirement for a Ph.D. student by research and thesis include that a student must have published at least one paper as the first author.

Why did you want to get a PhD and what are you hoping to do once you’ve finished?

I am working with the Tanzania Forestry Research Institute (TAFORI) as a Research Officer. TAFORI conducts research in forestry so obtaining my Ph.D. degree will increase my knowledge in conducting research in innovative ways. I will continue working for TAFORI after my acquiring my Ph.D.

You can learn more about Upendo’s research here and read her recent papers here.

Read more posts in this series here.