What I Did While I Waited Three Years to Obtain Two PhD Fellowships

This is the second of a three-part article on why it took three years to obtain two PhD fellowships, and how God used the waiting period to turn things around in our favour. You can read the first part here. In today’s post, I share the things I did as I waited for this day to come.

The waiting period was somehow frustrating. I was on a 3-year non-renewable contract with the university, and this meant that I had to obtain a funded place on a PhD programme by the year 2017, otherwise I would have to look elsewhere for employment.

The policy itself—that MPhil holders seeking academic appointment at my university could only be employed for a non-renewable contract period of 3 years—was frustrating, especially given the staffing situation in some departments.

What made the situation more frightening was that in addition to my immediate family, I was taking care of my dad, and two siblings who were in tertiary school. If I wanted a more sustainable employment in academia and especially in my university, I needed to obtain a PhD as soon as I could. So, what did I do when this was not forthcoming?

I took care of, and bonded with, our son

I mentioned earlier that my going to Cambridge would have coincided with the birth of my son, Nyamedea, and I couldn’t imagine the trouble both my wife and son would have gone through after the Caesarean Section. Even with support from family members and friends, it would have been hell for them without me. And this is why.

Patience went through the surgery in April and she needed to heal. While we had her mother come stay with us for some weeks, often Nyamedea will sleep only when I carried him in my chest and paced back and forth. I would do this for hours until about 2am when the boy would put to sleep.

Then in August of the same year, Patience started attending to her duties as Graduate Assistant at the Institute of African Studies. Nyamedea was just four months old and we couldn’t afford to put him in a crèche.  School was in session for Patience’s mother who teaches at Sefwi.

What this meant was that I had to bring him every morning to my office. My office became a crèche and ‘collection site’ for food particles. For those who have seen my video updates on how I bond with my son, you will understand where it started from—it’s mostly a result of the time I spent with him in those formative months as a baby.

I was very privileged to have my own office, and to have very supportive staff who would offer a helping hand during times when I had to go teach a class, attend a faculty meeting, or when Nyamedea’s cries for attention were just unbearable. Even staff from other offices were willing and ready to help. But there were those days when no matter what I did, Nyamedea would cling to me. During those days, I wished there were paternal leaves for fathers.

The whole experience affected my research output and health. That year the Dean wrote on my appraisal form that I should be encouraged to publish, and I developed severe chest pains for a long time from carrying Nyamedea to and fro my office.

I engaged in research activities and networked with other scholars

Before Nyamedea’s birth, I had been engaged in some research projects. I went back to them, presented a seminar paper, and participated in two international conferences, one in Chicago, USA and the other in Edinburgh, Scotland. My return to research resulted in the publication of a paper by the third quarter of 2017, and by the middle of the fourth quarter, had resulted in the acceptance of my paper abstract for a conference in Leicester, UK.

I continued focusing on improving myself by seeking advice from my mentors and by networking with other scholars from Africa and beyond. It was through such engagement that I got hint of the Lisa Maskell Fellowship and applied. Without the networks I built during this period, I doubt I would have been telling this story, and without my position as faculty member, I wouldn’t have received funding to attend these conferences.

I improved my language and teaching skills

If you recall, in my last post I wrote about the demands a PhD in Classics required. I began going through my previous lessons in Greek and Latin and reading more to improve my proficiency. Then I engaged a private tutor to teach me French.

Although I couldn’t make it through the number of months I set for myself due to work and family demands, the three months I spent learning some French was worth it. I can’t say I have met the requirements I desired, but when I go back to it, I know it won’t be as difficult as when I began.

I also continued to give myself to teaching in my department, and was privileged to attend two workshops that shaped my teaching methodology and philosophy. My three-year teaching period also enriched academic life in the department and helped improve staff-student ratio.

We mounted a PhD programme and successfully applied for a full fee-waiver for the first four years of the programme

There was no PhD programme in Classics in Ghana but by 2016 my department had a programme approved on paper which had not been advertised. Together with my former head of department, I pushed for the advertisement and commencement of the first ever Classics PhD programme in Ghana and successfully applied for a full-fee waiver for admitted students in both the Classics and Philosophy PhD programmes.

So, I used the waiting period to help create opportunities here in Ghana not just for myself, but also for my colleagues and those who would come after us. I remember being asked by a well-known professor what I wanted, and I said I wanted PhD funding for myself and my colleagues. Then she said, “let’s talk about you”.

But I didn’t want to be successful alone—I wanted to carry my colleagues along. And so, I became a constant reminder to follow up on our proposals. A month after obtaining approval to our proposal for fee waivers, I received the two PhD fellowships—the very news that has generated these series of articles. I declined one, which then passed on to one of my colleagues. And while I am not a beneficiary of the fee-waivers due to my acceptance of the other fellowship, I am excited that the rest of my colleagues can complete their PhDs within the next four years.

I audited a postgraduate course in gender at the Institute of African Studies

My initial PhD proposal was on class and equality with a departure from gender equality. But on further reading and discussion with my mentors, I made substantial revisions to the proposal by focusing on gender equality in Platonic and African philosophical thought. It was this proposal I submitted for the PhD fellowships.

In order to enrich my understanding of gender in African cultures, I audited a postgraduate course in gender at the Institute of African Studies. The professors who led the seminar were very helpful. I discussed my proposed study with them and they were excited to have me audit their seminar.

I contributed to discussions, critiqued papers and made presentations on them. I am sad to say, however, that due to work demands, I could not sit through the whole semester, but the few weeks I spent there enriched my understanding of gender and helped to refine my PhD proposal.

I continued putting my gifts to use

I didn’t let the frustration from the delays prevent me from serving people. I provided mentoring, counselling and career guidance to numerous young people from within and outside the university.

I set up a mentoring class in my department to help students navigate aspects of life that were not discussed in lecture rooms—something to get them prepared for work after school and life in general. We met every Tuesday in my office from 10am to 11am. In addition, we hosted a bible study in my office every Tuesday at lunch time for our mentees.

I gave myself to speaking and counselling sessions with individuals and groups. Together with my wife, I helped newly married couples to understand the challenges of the first year of marriage and how to manage them.

At church, my wife and I continued to serve as Junior Youth teachers, and I helped my congregation to develop a mentoring programme for young people, while I continued to write for our blogs and organise Christian conferences—including the Mimesis Christou Bible Conference and Missions and Family Life Conference.

I published a book and took a course in ministry

By March 2016, I had published my second book on Christian spirituality—Are You Waxing Cold?—and spent some time talking about the subject of my book in congregations. As someone who has been involved in Christian ministry since age 17, I took the opportunity to get some training at the seminary, both to refine my own theological views and to make me effective in reaching out.

The training helped bring to fore the errors in my theology and provided me the skills for doing proper biblical study and interpretation. It also helped to enrich my speaking and writing ministry.

And, finally, I prayed!

Though not in chronological order, these activities happened within the three-year period I was feverishly seeking opportunity for a fully-funded PhD programme. By now, I guess you have learnt some lessons, but in the final part I will bring out these lessons more clearly for your own encouragement and purposeful waiting.

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I Caused It but God Did It: Why It Took Three Years to Obtain Two PhD Fellowships

Last week my wife Patience shared a testimony of how she secured a fully funded PhD scholarship, and she used that to communicate a very important lesson on acting on our beliefs and prayers.

Two months after she commenced her PhD, I received two PhD fellowships—a Lisa Maskell Fellowship to study Ancient Cultures in the Department of Ancient Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship to study Classics at the University of Ghana.

I was among about 18 students from Africa and 10 from Ghana respectively who were selected for these prestigious fellowships. But not many know that it’s taken me three years to finally secure a place on a fully-funded PhD programme.

In this three-part article, I want to share with you why securing a funded place delayed, what I did myself to cause the delay, how I made use of my waiting period, how God used the delay to work out His plans for my life, and the lessons I have taken from the three years of waiting.

Some background

Immediately I submitted my MPhil dissertation, I began making plans to enrol on a fully funded PhD programme. Considering the academic path I had chosen and the investments I had made in acquiring an MPhil degree without financial support, it was crucial that I secured a place on a funded PhD programme if I ever wanted to start a PhD by the end of the first year of my marriage.

Yes, I wanted to get married first but I had no fiancée (the story of how I got married two years after this will be for another day). And to get married as planned, I needed to be financially stable.

Once my work was submitted, I put in an application for Teaching Assistantship, then in August 2014 I was appointed Assistant Lecturer. It was a month prior to this—July 9, 2014—that I proposed marriage to my platonic friend of six years. By the following year, on July 25, 2015, Pat and I were married.

So, it seemed my plans had gone through smoothly, and I was ready to commence the process of obtaining a funded place on a PhD programme. Since no university in Ghana had a PhD programme in Classics at the time, my options were limited to schools abroad. However, it will take me two more years before my plan will materialise, and these are the reasons why.

I limited my options

One of my goals was to complete a PhD in a maximum time of four years, so US schools were out of the question—it takes 5 to 6 years to complete a PhD in Classics in the US.

Besides, to read a PhD in Classics, I needed to have done three to four years each of Greek and Latin at advanced level, read some primary sources in their original languages, and while on the programme, acquired proficiency in two additional foreign languages (including German, and French or Italian).

I couldn’t have met these requirements immediately and I was not ready for the long journey. I also told myself that if I was going to study outside Ghana, it would be better to do it beyond my continent. I therefore limited my options to the UK, Canada and Australia in the first few years.

But all my applications to these schools were rejected, except those for Cambridge in the UK, Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and University of Sydney in Australia. However, the admissions came without funding.

I deferred my admission to Cambridge hoping to secure a Commonwealth Scholarship, but I failed to make it to the final round. By now I had spent so much time and money on preparing and submitting applications. I was both frustrated and tired. All advice to consider other options had fell on deaf ears.

I was obsessed with the top-notch schools

I don’t mean to say one should settle for schools that are sub-standard, no! And in no way am I demoting Stellenbosch University or the University of Ghana. Both universities have reputations to boast of, especially in Africa. But during this period, no university in Ghana had a PhD programme in my field of study and there was no access to funding to even consider these places.

But I should have created a balance and not applied only to first-rate schools. There are schools which may not match the likes of Cambridge and Yale, but they may be very good in their own right. I failed to apply this principle. All the schools I applied to were leading schools in their respective countries.

What this meant was that I was competing with foreigners who might have spent their secondary school period studying Greek and Latin and other foreign languages at advanced levels—and here was I, with limited preparation in these languages, applying for a position on the same programme as them. The least I could have done—an advice I failed to take—was apply to their one-year masters programme and then move on to do my PhD afterwards. 

I did not take my time to prepare

Looking back at the whole process, I did not take my time to prepare. I was so much in a hurry. It was like I had to do this now and now! My MPhil period was a very hectic and troubling one—I was self-financing my education, studying and working full-time, and taking care of two siblings and a father.

I slept on average three to four hours a day. I went through a lot of depression. One night, I boarded a mini-bus to Madina, alighted and walked from one end of the road to the other, returned to my hostel and slept. A month after submitting my work, I started working, then a year later I got married and started thinking about PhD. After going through all that, I should have taken my time to prepare.

We failed to plan well

My wife and I may have failed to plan well. I say ‘may’ because we both wanted a child in our first year of marriage, and I wanted to commence a PhD by the end of that first year of marriage. We were very unreal about the cost of carrying forward such a plan. Even if I had secured funding for the Cambridge PhD, I doubt I would have been able to take it up, for in the very month I was scheduled to leave, Patience delivered our son through Caesarean Section.

But, we did not want to hold back the possibility of having a child while we looked for a PhD at the same time. Our plan was for me to start and finish a PhD first, by which time we would have two kids, then my wife could commence hers while I took care of the kids. So, the failure in our plan was not in asking for a child and a PhD, but in failing to calculate the real cost and failing to design realistic timelines.

God may have been trying to save me from a wrong timing

While I acknowledge the part I played in causing my own delay, I believe, to some extent, that God was saving me from a wrong timing, and He was using my own mistakes to do this since I was not ready to listen to His voice.

Truth is, while my wife and I prayed about our plans for PhD, in our hearts we were not ready for anything that would cut short our plans. I believe if God had said, “Michael, your time to leave will be in January 2018,” I would have shouted back, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Our hearts were closed to any voice that would not agree with us.

This is what desperation and lack of trust can do. I had just three years on a non-renewable contract with my employer. So, at all cost, I needed to get a PhD to stay in full-time academic appointment. Otherwise, we were in for the hard times I experienced during my MPhil. However, my timing of applications may have been wrong. In our desperation, we couldn’t trust that God will bring everything into perfect timing before the end of 2017.

Updated: 09/02/2018

Continue to Part II of the article.

Waiting Moments: Be a Warrior not a Worrier

One of the most difficult moments in life is the waiting moment. It is a time when everything seems still, a stillness that feels like stagnation. Waiting moments could range from little things to major landmarks in our lives. It could be waiting for a job, marriage, a child, visa, admission, scholarship, breakthrough in ministry and many more.

There is usually a feeling of uncertainty, stress, sometimes fret, frustration and impatience. Waiting moments are not sweet moments. During these times, our character and faith are tested and, unfortunately, many of us fail the test. Some of us run ahead of God, usually in the wrong direction.

We seek shortcuts, the consequences which we face later. Some also resort to complaint and murmuring which sometimes result in blasphemy. My personal attitude has usually been of anxiety and worry which leads to frustration. These are normal human reactions but the word of God teaches us a different approach altogether, that which is contrary to our normal reactions.

The key scripture is Philippians 4:6:

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God.”

We see in this scripture the right attitude in moments of waiting. The sum of it is that we are not to be WORRIERS but WARRIORS. So, prayer is very crucial in waiting moments. We are to re-channel the energy used to complain, cry, curse, murmur, and blaspheme into prayer. Instead of counting our loss, we are to count our blessings (they are a lot, trust me) and give God praise.

Anytime worry knocks at your door, pray. Anytime anxiety shows up, begin to thank God, blessing Him for being in control of your future. Your assurance is that Jesus has got your back covered:

“Casting all your care upon Him for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

It is a great privilege to pull all your burden and worries on Christ and go to rest. Jesus truly cares. Roll it, roll it all on Him! He cares!

Photo: FreeImages.com/Joshua Parent

The Sweetness of Your Word

Oh Lord how sweet are thy words to me

How comforting! How lovely.

They soothe my anxious heart

They heal my weary soul

They are strength to my bones

They are life to my failing flesh

Oh how sweet!

Thy words are directions to my wandering feet

Instructions to my wayward heart

O Lord how I love thy words!

They melt my fears

They embolden me

I face my foes

I win life’s battle because of thy words

Oh how sweet! How lovely.

I have hope, hope of eternity

I have peace, eternal peace

I have joy, joy unceasing

All because of thy words

Oh how sweet! How lovely.

Oh grace grant thou me

That daily I may feast on thy words

That I may reflect daily on the wisdom therein

Grace grant thou me

That I may follow steadily every detail of thy words

When all is said and done,

May thy words lead me to thy feet

Oh how sweet are thy words oh Lord!

(c) P. G. Okyere Asante, November, 2016

When I shared this poem with my husband, he asked, “Since when did you start writing poems?” I responded that poetry is part of the mine of gifts that have not been unearthed.

I can’t completely explain how I felt when I wrote the poem, but I know I was unwell; I had been to the hospital a number of times. The symptoms I saw scared me badly. Fear crippled me. I wasn’t only physically unwell but was emotionally and spiritually disturbed. I felt light and empty. I woke up in the morning and instead of feeling renewed, I rather felt tired. I struggled to step out of the house. No energy, no drive, no zeal even when I had things to attend to out there.

I had said few prayers both quietly and aloud: “Oh Lord have mercy on me!” “I am strong in Jesus’ name.” I blurted these out a couple of times yet nothing changed.

So I picked my Bible and began to feed on it. It was my major task. I read and read. I took break to eat, then came back to it. I did that for three days. On the fourth day I had renewed energy. I went out to do some weeding on our compound, something I hadn’t really done before. It was while clearing the weeds that the words poured out of my heart. I wrote them down while going to bed.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

The word had entered my soul and spirit, it had entered my joints and marrow to give strength to my body. It entered my heart and thought to drive away fear of the non-existent. The word had healed my anxious heart.

As we commit ourselves to studying God’s word every single day and completing the entire Bible in a year, make the most of it. It may seem like a waste of time but it’s not; in fact it is a great time saver. Be encouraged. Fight on!

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com/Nikolaj Bourguignon

A Moment of Testing. It’s Only for A Moment

I begin with a quote from John Piper:

We will have everything we need in this life, including painful things necessary to bring us to glory.

This week has been a moment of testing. A test of my patience, a test of my faith, a test of my resolve, and a test of my joy. I got betrayed by a very good friend, and it cost me some good amount of money and time. I also lost my step-sister on Thursday.

But yesterday morning, in just a moment, in just some seconds, under the razor of the tonsor, God spoke to me in a way that I never imagined. He spoke through the barber as he shaved my hair. The message was clear. God spoke from His word, and as I sat listening to the prophecy that was coming through this young man, my eyes filled with tears.

He spoke about my soon-to-be launched book and how it was going to impact greatly on the lives of people. He spoke of the challenges I had faced that week and how He was going to turn all of them around for my good. He spoke to me. He spoke to me…through a barber.

It was in a barbering shop…with Christian music playing at the background. It was a barbering shop with printed sheets of scriptural verses pasted all around (cf. Deut. 6:6-9; 11:18-20). There was no way anyone who came to the shop could avoid reading them.

He spoke to me. He spoke to me. And by the time he was done cutting my hair, I had received healing, I had received encouragement, I felt a heavy burden lifted off me (cf. 1 Cor. 14:3). That wasn’t all. In the afternoon of the same day God spoke again, this time through my wife: “When challenges raise their heads, you count your past miracles and believe that this one too will be a miracle.”

God speaks to us in so many ways. He has prophets in both the mundane and spiritual moments of life. He doesn’t speak only through those with titles such as ‘prophet’, ‘pastor’, ‘reverend’, ‘bishop’. He speaks through His children, in whatever profession they are. And the great thing is, whenever He speaks, He speaks from His word, so you know He is the One speaking.

Let your profession and workplace be a tool for helping someone find joy, encouragement, comfort, and salvation in the Lord.

God is faithful. No matter what you are going through, if you hold on to Him, He will crown you with victory. You won’t drown.  

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Cor. 1:3-4)

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jer. 29:11)

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isa. 41:10)

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. (Deut. 31:6)

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. (Isa. 43:2)