February 9

My Momentous PhD Journey: Experiences of a Natural Scientist in Social Science Research – by Renis Auma Ojwala


Two years ago, a few months before Covid-19 pandemic, I crossed over to social sciences from natural sciences. I began my PhD journey in a social science field despite having a strong and long-standing background in natural sciences in particular water and fisheries science; having done my BSc in Applied Aquatic Science and MSc in Limnology and Wetland Management. I was very excited to start a PhD, but the excitement was transient. It was very tough at the beginning with lots of anxieties to grasp or understand the concepts, practices and theories used in social science fields, more specifically feminist theories in gender studies. I had no clue about anything to do with gender studies. However, I knew about women participation in fisheries because I participated in a number of projects by WWF-Kenya in Lamu County Kenya on gender mainstreaming in marine conservation a few years ago. Where we worked with local women on various development projects including establishing Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs); and mentoring female students. What I knew about gender back then was visiting secondary schools and talking to the girls and awarding the best performing and vulnerable female students scholarships to keep them in school; and working with local women to improve their livelihoods through VSLAs. In VSLAs, the local women used to save their low-incomes weekly and in turn take loans that could help them in expanding their small businesses in order to reduce pressure on fisheries resources.

When I commenced reading gender related books, articles, journals from local, regional to global publications, it was confusing at first because I became a Jack of all trades and was somehow gambling since at that point I felt I needed to do more to catch up with the gender experts. I remember vividly well, when I first encountered Ecofeminism Book by Prof Susan Buckingham on ¨Gender and Environment¨ and Feminist Political Ecology Book by Wendy Harcourt and Ingrid Nelson on ¨Practising Feminist Political Ecologies: Moving beyond the green economy¨. I read the two books in a month, but couldn’t understand why, how and where I needed to apply these theories. Reason being, I missed the foundation course on Research Methods in Social Sciences offered at the university and had to wait for the next class the following year. This disoriented my beginning in part as I wasn’t able to develop my research methodology without it. However, I used that opportunity to review literature, attended several workshops, webinars and took part in other PhD elective courses within and outside the university, which were equally important but more relevant to gender issues and concepts rather than research methodology itself. It was until I attended this course that I began to appreciate its name ¨foundation course¨. As its name suggests, it was indeed very important to be offered at the start before anything else to all beginners. It was an insightful and informative course and the knowledge and skills gained enabled me to understand the concepts and the implications of feminist theories in research design. I then managed to get my bearings and things started falling into place, in other words there was a subsequent flow of activities, and I know that that reduced the workload of my supervisors at some point as I felt stagnated or was only making baby steps.

My deep appreciation to my supervisors for their invaluable support and guidance through this process and still work in progress; they never gave up on me during those hard and challenging times. They always talked positively about my progress even when I knew I wasn’t doing much at the time. I felt inspired with their words of encouragement every time we had our bi-weekly supervision meetings for updates. They created time for meetings every two weeks to discuss my microscopic progress that tremendously improved my understanding of many gender concepts and theories as well as their applications especially in formulating research questions, questionnaires and interview guides.

As indicated in my first blogpost, my research topic was immensely motivated by my past experiences as a fisheries scientist and the underrepresentation of women in the ocean science sector, which is well-known as a male domain. My curiosity and interest led me to focus on a research topic about gender equality in ocean science for sustainable development in Kenya. The aim was to examine the status and trends of gender equality in ocean science institutions including universities and research institutes. To achieve this, I instigated my research with analysis of the existing institutional gender policy. The research further investigated the effectiveness of these gender policies by analyzing gender-disaggregated data of students and staff. The existing gender disparities in the institutions led to further research through administering questionnaires and conducting in-depth interviews with selected participants, primarily ocean science professionals both women and men, young and old, to solicit more information on their experiences, perceptions and challenges in ocean science fields or workplaces.

“Don’t Be Afraid of Being a Beginner”

Regarding my fieldwork experience, I am glad it wasn’t as scary as my beginning. I had a pilot survey at the university as a pre-test of the questionnaires and interview questions, where my colleagues overwhelmingly participated in filling the questionnaires and giving their responses and feedback on my interview questions. This helped me a lot in mastering the flow of the questions and gave me the confidence of asking questions as well as probing and prompting during interviews for more clarifications. In the field, I strategically started by visiting institutions which I had contacts with and were easy to access. With the help of my mentor in Kenya, being a retired public officer in fisheries she helped me to connect and expand my networks with so many people and organizations both locally and nationally. She took the initiative to introduce me to the management team (Directors) especially in the institutions where I knew nobody. During my field work, I realized in some institutions they were only acting fast after I was formally introduced by her. Many people were ready to listen to us, and I managed to reach many Kenyan ocean science institutions. It wasn’t as easy or smooth as it sounds but what I learnt during this period is that patience pays, as it became part and parcel of my many virtues. Of course, not all institutions were willing to participate. I have a few whom I recorded in my black book, those institutions that did not give me a chance to air my request, by leaving me in the hands of secretaries who promised to send me emails once my requests were approved but never did. Other institutions acted so well by accepting to participate, but later defected or muted after several reminder emails. While a few others took long but later responded after several trips and reminder emails. Nevertheless, the good news is that 90% of the targeted institutions responded. According to a few private organizations, they defected because they felt this research needed sensitive information and data that they were not willing to disclose even after promising to keep their names confidential in any publication and statistical summaries. On the positive side, the majority participated and I collected incredible data beyond my expectations being the first time conducting a social science research and without a field assistant.

I had a number of challenges which are worth mentioning but not meant to discourage but encourage. Some of the exasperating reactions I received from some people like one male officer who allowed me in his office and listened to my request but instead called his secretary and told her to direct me to a female officer because he viewed gender issues as a women’s affair, as he said ¨I am not a gender person let me refer you to someone¨. Some people still believe that gender is a women’s issue and they don’t want to associate with anything revolving around this topic. There is also another person who asked me where I will work with my gender expertise. Some people, both women and men, still want to live like their forefathers and carry on with the cultural practices, norms and beliefs that worked back then and harmful to one gender. Changing the mind-set of the current generation will go a long way in eliminating the deeply-rooted stereotypes and discrimination against women, girls and the marginalized groups. These harmful norms often hinder women’s access to and control over natural resources as well as their full engagement in decision making. Mind-set is one of the challenges that we as researchers and gender equality advocates are trying to change through awareness creation, sensitization and capacity building so that people can realize the dynamics in life and the society, and appreciate the benefits of gender equality in workplaces.

Another challenge was majorly caused by COVID-19 which affected my planned face-to-face interviews, I had a few done physically less than 30% and the rest of the interviews done virtually. This came with other challenges as well, as some people, especially women, sounded too busy to find or create time for interviews. For instance, there were some people who couldn’t log in to the zoom meetings or calls in time during interviews. There were others who could let me wait for one hour after logging in even after writing follow up emails or calling their phone or in some cases I ended up rescheduling the zoom meeting to a later date. Others preferred night calls after work, and others had no access to the internet so I had to use alternative methods like WhatsApp or phone calls for the interviews. In cases where I had to do face-to-face interviews or visit the institutions, I took all the precautions such as wearing face masks and keeping social distance when conducting interviews. Concerning travels, I avoided public transport at all costs because most public service vehicles in my country are known to violate traffic rules even during the pandemic and are usually crowded due to excess numbers of passengers. I therefore opted for motorcycles or taxis most of the time, which not only saved my time but also saved me from contracting Coronavirus.

My typical day as a PhD student runs 24 hours, not because I like working but sometimes there is no sleep and the ideas keep mingling in my brain and mind robbing my sleep. I often sleep with a pen and a book, so that I could note my ideas as they appear and disappear at night. However, I usually have a whole week plan with all the activities that I need to start working on or complete by the end of each week. Currently, I am working on two papers. If one is with my supervisors, I draft the other and when I feel I need to get some break out of writing I transcribe the recorded interviews. In summary, a normal day for me starts in the morning by reading relevant articles on the topic and summarizing them, then in the afternoon hours I write one or two paragraphs of my paper as well as analyze the remaining data.

That said, my advice to the upcoming researchers both women and men, is to do what you are passionate about and be ready to learn from others; be ready to be teachable and empowered to improve your skills and knowledge in your field of study. We are the generation of change, efforts and commitments from all stakeholders are needed to help restore and save our oceans from plastic pollution, oil spills, eutrophication, untreated sewage disposal, overfishing, climate change and many other anthropogenic activities. We are the people who can provide the science needed for the ocean we want. Together we can find the solutions to the deteriorating oceans which are currently happening rapidly than we had thought. To young women scientists, I urge you to do what you like most but don’t be afraid to try new things. Success is for those who show up and do the right things. I always believe that I can do anything as long as I have the support needed to face it and even do it better.

In conclusion, I have gained an enormous amount of new skills and knowledge in the past two years. I have added skills in qualitative data analysis by use of sophisticated software like otter.ai for interview transcription and NVivo for data analysis. During the data collection process, I created awareness to many men and women by exposing them to gender equality policies in their institutions. By asking them if they were aware of the policies that existed and the best practices on how to deal with some of the challenges they were facing in workplaces like sexual harassment. My confidence has also improved greatly during this period. I can feel the change in me and the need to empower more women through increasing awareness on their access to education and employment opportunities to take up roles in ocean science disciplines and institutions including decision making to effect changes that will improve their lives and the environment without feeling incapacitated and make their voices heard without feeling intimidated.

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