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East Africans size up post-doc drought

Heavy teaching burden and lack of research funding hinders post-doctoral training in East Africa

Researchers in East Africa face frustrating career hurdles after completing their PhDs because of a lack of post-doctoral opportunities.

Post-doctoral training is the norm after a PhD for budding researchers in most parts of the world. However, such “post docs” are still a rare sight in Africa.

Recent attempts to boost post-doctoral openings in East Africa battle with teaching pressures on university staff and a shortage of funding, top academics from the region say.

Student cohorts have grown faster in East Africa than in most other countries on the continent. Rwanda’s student enrolments grew 55 per cent between 1985 and 2002. Uganda saw a 37 per cent growth and Tanzania 32 per cent in the same period.

More students mean more teaching, and less time for PhD holders to go deeper into research. This is a problem for the region, says Hassan Mshinda, director-general of the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH).

East Africa needs more post-docs to drive economic development, he says: “We need to have a cadre of people who will lead in knowledge production. Scientists are most productive during their postgraduate training.”

COSTECH recently joined forces with Swedish and Dutch development funders to boost post-doctoral funding. The US$2.1 million programme, which takes off later this year, will fund research teams involving two post-docs from any of the three participating countries.

“The idea is to cultivate a culture of post-doctoral training,” says Mshinda. Such a culture is missing in many African institutions, he says.

Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture is getting help from the Wellcome Trust, a UK medical research charity, to establish post-doctoral posts. It offered four posts last year with a grant from the Trust’s African Institutions Initiative, established in 2009.

But more donors need to target the post-doctoral gap in order to tackle the problem, says Grace Masanja, research director at the National University of Rwanda, based in the city of Butare. Her institution faces an immense teaching burden. Between 1963 and 1993 it graduated 1,900 students. This year it has 12,366 students on its books.

This has had a negative effect on the 21 post-docs the university recruited in 2008, none of whom has been able to complete their research projects on time.

“The post-docs should have finished six months ago but they haven’t. They are heavily involved in teaching because we have lecturers studying for their PhDs abroad,” Masanja says.

She adds that there is no easy solution to the problem. She prefers to have PhD holders teach than let more junior degree-holders teach while the PhDs hone their research skills.

“People who have PhDs should be teaching. In the past we had people with bachelor degrees teaching,” she says.

However, some researchers don’t see the post-doc drought as a problem.

A small break from supervised research can be a good thing, says Nelson Boniface, a geology lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Since returning from Germany with a PhD in 2009 he has not been able to take up a post-doctoral position in his homeland.

But he says that he would rather teach for now.

“With post-docs you have to leave everything behind to conduct research and do publications,” he says. “I want to do it sometime, but I’d like to get some experience first.”