Ph.D. by 30: My story in Brief

Hi everyone. I have been asked to share my story several times in the last year or so. I have shared my story in various platforms, mainly local media in Malawi and I thought I share it here for anyone interested in my academic journey. This may be one of several posts and I will also cover a bit about finding scholarships for postgraduate studies in the series. But first, my story, in brief.

I was always a kid who liked school. I didn’t like staying home from school even when it was necessary like if I was sick. I hated failing in class and would cry if i was not among the best performers in my class. It is this love for education and success that ultimately helped me get to where I am so far, but much, much more played a role.

I went to various government primary schools as a kid. These are free government primary schools, and I even learnt outside, under a tree as in those schools there is more kids than the infrastructure to handle them. A while later my dad got a good job and I did about one term in a private primary school before going off to secondary school at age 11. It is in secondary school that I was introduced to Economics and fell in love with the subject. I thought the subject helped answer a lot of questions in how the world worked and maybe I could help answer some of those questions myself (idealistic right?) I decided at age 14 that I wanted to study this for my career. I want very good at it though, albeit being a math-head. I got my first A in my finals, after getting D’s and struggling, but I enjoyed it and was willing to keep at it.

Me and my late mom, Rosemary Lapukeni, at my Secondary School, when I was 11

After high school I only applied to university programs that had an Economics track in one way or another. Thankfully, I got into the program for training economists in my country at the time: Bachelor of Social Sciences at the University of Malawi, Chancellor college. And I majored in Economics.

I did my first degree from age 17 to 21. At age 20, when I just started my final year, we lost my mom and I wanted to take the year off. After much convincing, I went on ahead to finish the bachelors, albeit dragging my feet. I skipped class a lot. At that point, I didn’t care much about top grades and success anymore. I just wanted to finish. When I did, my grades were not good, and I barely made it. I had ambitions to do a masters right away prior to this, but at the end I truly did not have the energy to start applying and looking for scholarships. During my undergrad years, I started the Indigenous Economics Club which still runs today and did some surveys in the field of Indigenous Economics with Professor Chinyamata Chipeta. I also worked a bit in a commercial bank while waiting for university entrance exams and did a certificate in accounting during the “gap” year, which is just the year we usually waited between finishing secondary school and going to university in Malawi.

Bachelors degree graduation, 2011 before I had a smart phone era ha ha

These few experiences helped bump up my cv, demonstrated leadership and also made me realize I wanted to work in the public sector. I did a few more jobs after my bachelors including research enumerator for survey with the government, data clerk at another commercial bank which paid very little but it wasn’t for the money, I needed the experience, and I taught some Economics at a private university for a semester before finally landing a job at the central bank. I worked very hard, ensured I was excellent at my work and even got an award for being exceptional! About a year into that job, age 23 I started applying for master’s programs in Economics. It was very difficult. I got more rejections than I can count, and some said it was because of my grades, though my cv was quite outstanding. I was on the verge of changing my career strategy, even diverting from Economics entirely, when I finally got a scholarship to study an MA in Economic Policy Management in Zambia.

I did excellently there, gave it my all. I was top of my class and I got to present my thesis paper in Malaysia and it later even got published. It was the first time I had anything published, something I never thought I could do at that stage. I thought I needed 20 more years at least. I realized then I enjoyed research a lot. And when I finished the program, I started doing my own personal research papers and have not stopped since.

Masters degree graduation in Zambia, 2015

With those excellent grades from my MA, a thesis that was published and a few more articles after that, getting a Ph.D. scholarship was not as difficult as my MA experience. Sure I got a few rejections here and there, but I had decided I wanted to study in an advanced country- open my mind up to new experiences of learning and life and had my eyes set on Japan. It was so different to my culture, and at that point I figured I needed the culture shock, to be really out of my comfort zone and push myself to new heights.

I received a MEXT scholarship from the government of Japan, and moved to Japan in September of 2016, few months after turning 27. In June 2019, I successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis, two days shy of my 30th birthday, and graduated in absentia in September 2019. During my Ph.D. I did even better than my master’s degree, GPA average of 4.5/4.5 for my required credit subjects and completed within the three year period. During that time, I also met my husband, married a month before my defense and got an offer to join the World Bank Young professionals program few months before my defense. So by the time I was defending, I had my future job and love life, so to speak, on lock 😊. It was a great year, 2019! We went back recently to take some pictures on campus with my degree, two years later!

What’s the story here, you may not have done so well earlier in your academic life, for whatever reasons whether due to your own mistakes or outside factors. Do not let this disqualify you out of a bright future. I would not have thought I would be among the first to get a Ph.D. in my class. Similar to my experience in high school, where I got my best grade at my finals exams, I also did my best at my third degree. I stayed on, worked hard, persevered, and kept the faith. I believe in God, I am a Christian, and I believe that God desires for my success. He has put in us more excellence that we can imagine. If nothing else, let this encourage you to never give up. Now when I work, its not just a job for me. Being an economist is a drive, a passion, and that makes the “job” that much more meaningful.

2021 Photoshoot with my Ph.D., 2 years after graduation!!!!!!

I don’t know how many Malawians, let alone Malawian women have gotten their Ph.Ds. by the age of 30! I hope this story will inspire many more to pursue excellence for the purpose of impact.

Let me know where you are in your academic journey in the comments below. All the best with your journey. God bless you!

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