Tuesday, April 19, 2022

I have now been trying to encourage researchers, for over 10 years. I wrote my first journal article when I was 25 years old and it was challenging and confusing. How to write an article? Is it good enough? Who will publish an undergraduate researcher? Do I have an original thought? Is this the structure of a paper? What if my arguments are all wrong? I had no one to guide me through this and I really wondered how one could do this alone. Over 20 years on, I want to create a safe and nurturing space for young researchers to explore their ideas.

When I began teaching, in addition to my routine teaching and administrative duties, I started to take on researchers. I started with one then another, and I have to date, cumulatively engaged with over 50 young and upcoming researchers. I believe I have made an impact on some, and others have and continue to impact me. I then teamed up with colleagues at the School of Law to develop a mentorship programme within our research area, called the Committee on Fiscal Studies. Our team now has over five academics from different disciplines, all trying to support and build researchers to the best of their ability while conducting their own research in fiscal studies.

Several academics and non-academics have asked me how I have managed to develop researchers. I have been reflecting on how one could do this under the current systems in place at the University of Nairobi (UoN) where there are many opportunities, old and new. These opportunities include: one, self-motivation; two, support through research grants or teaching; three, graduate assistant programmes and most recently, the university’s mentorship programme. I have explored all except the graduate assistant programme.

Informal Mentorship at the School of Law

I put up a notice on the School of Law notice board and I announced it in my classes. I would get 15 undergraduate law students looking to do research on average. I would usually give them a task that consisted of research on a topic chosen by the student or myself, or a case analysis. I quickly realised only 3-4 would submit a piece to me, and if lucky, within the time frame I gave them. I call it natural attrition. My success to date has been with engaging with 1st and 2nd year law students. It takes me approximately 1- 1½ years to mentor a researcher to the level where they can participate more meaningfully in the various projects they assist me on. In mentoring the students, I expose them to conference attendance, moderating talks, rapporteuring, developing PowerPoints, writing reports, case analysis, writing literature reviews, data collection, reviewing articles and, when possible, teaming up with me on publications.

I then tried to mentor fresh law graduates. The need to gain admission to the Kenya School of Law understandably proved to be a limitation in working with this demographic. Despite some dropping off almost naturally on account of their lived realities and trying to find work-life balance, some have gone on to become some of my most amazing researchers.

I have had a similar experience with masters students and graduates. Payment of researchers may be necessary beyond a six month training period to keep a researcher in research even though still in training. I tried training doctoral researchers, but many of these are so busy juggling work and study that they find little time to work on building their research skills. However, this is wholly understandable, and my solution has been to add them onto grants and try to keep tasks as aligned as possible to their doctoral topics and foci. I also found, in general, that working with younger students is more likely to lead to more embedding in a research career than with older student researchers who are often in more advanced stages of their career and thus have many competing interests.

COVID-19 Period Mentoring in 2020-2021

During the COVID-19 period, I released a call on my Twitter account asking if anyone felt like they were at a loose end and willing to undertake research with my team. I received feedback from researchers globally and began trying to engage with them online as ICT systems grew more robust. This was interesting as I met researchers from CSOs, the UN, the private sector, and students globally, all of whom were willing to discuss research. I remain in contact with many of them although they have since then shifted back to their work. During our engagement period, they helped transition my team online, attended our talks, and did COVID-19 related research voluntarily for over one year.

Another benefit of the COVID-19 period was that due to reduced travel time and time lags in moving systems online by different institutions, the students who joined in 3rd year managed to engage with me more. I continue to engage with them, and they continue to support my work based on their availability which has been a relief as I grew to rely on them to assist with often very technical work.

Creating a multi-disciplinary approach to researcher mentorship: Mentoring economists

During COVID-19 I added economics students to my team. Mentoring economists has been a mixed experience. The undergraduates are promising though their communication skills have required a bit more attention than those of their peers at the School of Law for whom a level of mastery of the English language is mandatory and critical for the course. Their willingness to learn has allowed me to spot some wonderful researchers who are very flexible and open to new spaces. I have also had more time with them as jobs seem harder to come by unlike their peers in law who seem to get jobs within their pupillage period, economists do not seem to have a similar job trajectory and as a result are also more flexible in working in a diversity of areas including internships while they find their place in the world.

The UoN Mentorship Programme

Early this year, UoN began piloting an alumni mentorship programme. Given that I already had three teams of about 5-8 researchers each, I wondered how I would be able to accommodate the additional five mentees. Prior to this, I had grown accustomed to working with individuals who approached me, knowing what they wanted and what to expect. Working with assignees was thus a new experience to navigate. I gave them a task and promptly lost three who felt there was too much pressure. I then realised it was not necessarily the pressure I put on them but rather the pressure they put on themselves to do their best for me, since they did not now me they were also trying to impress. I now have the remaining two  (with the door remaining open for the three that dropped off). This experience prompted a reflection process on my part which I hope will also allow me to get to know the researchers without scaring them off….it is an experiment.

Conclusion

My experience with student researchers revealed that young researchers have amazing ideas and interests and I learn a lot from what excites them, this keeps me very up to date on a variety of topics I would not of my own accord look into which allows me to develop and engage in multi-disciplinary work. However their enthusiasm often is limited by absence of certain  soft skills like verbally presenting onself precisely, speaking in public, organising time as well as referencing skills and clarity in written communication. Engaging with researchers in other disciplines has also helped me realise how legal my arguments tend to be and this has encouraged me to also open up my mind to what being multi-disciplinary truly means.

All researchers who join our research team get added to the research team’s Whatsapp group. Upon their exit, we never remove them from the group, as we continue to consider them a member of our team. I have found that this approach of ‘Join us in Peace and Leave us in Peace’ a good way to allow them to freely communicate with us when they need to leave and when they want to return. The parting is often sad, sometimes difficult if we do not part on very good terms, but I feel their absence on the team and am always glad and excited for their new opportunities for growth. Then back to my reality which is engagement with the next group of young researchers.

Currently, I am looking for journalism and communication students interested in research as well as any other specialists willing to explore the possibilities. I currently have taken on a nursing researcher and a political science graduate.  I am looking forward to the challenging interaction. I am aware that many academics have been mentoring researchers for much longer than I have and perhaps my reflection dooes not add new information to the discourse but I do hope they will add comments on their experiences to this piece.