Doing a PhD in Sudan

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Thilo Küssner, official #hlf14 blogger for the german blog section: If mathematicians want to illustrate the development of their discipline in the last 30 years in Korea (where I am currently working) they like to mention that the number of publications of Korean mathematicians in scientific journals increased during this period from 3 (three) in 1981 to currently more than 50,000 (fifty thousand) each year. These figures might give the impression that there would have been no Korean mathematician thirty years ago, but that of course is not true as such. It is true, there was no research but just teaching at universities. But there were still many Korean scientists: to conduct research they went abroad, mostly to the US. (At that time of course also the standard of living was much higher there than in South Korea which had been completely destroyed by the Korean War.)

This only changed when they began with graduate courses at Korean universities in the 80s. Inevitably, scientific research then established himself equally to teaching at universities.

Similar problems exist today in many developing countries. It is often cheaper to send the few doctoral students with scholarships abroad rather to offer their own doctoral programs. And even if the money is available for doctoral programs, there is lack of scientists who could take care of graduate students.

Also the Sudan is confronted with these problems. A new way is gone now since almost 5 years at the computer science department of Sudan University of Science and Technology (SUST) in Khartoum: foreign professors supervise local PhD students in “part-time”. That will be the topic of this article.


A little background

Let us start with some general background information on the Sudanese schools and higher education. In Sudan, there is about a dozen of public universities covering all subjects. Moreover there are private colleges and universities that focus on popular, lucrative subjects such as medicine or policy, sometimes computer science or physics, but none mathematics. The school system (8 years of elementary school, 3 years high school) is better than in many other African countries, basically all the children go to school, with of course some difficulties in unstable regions hitten by the war or sometimes also in nomadic tribes. High school graduates have a similar background as students in European countries when they enter university.
The faculties are quite small by our standards. The SUST has in mathematics three full and one associate professor, moreover some assistant professors. In computer science, there are only assistant professors, almost all under 30. (However the Dean is an older assistant professor, originally trained as a mathematician.) The professors all have a PhD, but are not conducting research beyond that. (At the computer science departments of some other universities there are no doctoral employees at all, only part-time teachers with master’s degree.)


Earlier times

Of course absence of active research means that it is difficult to find topics for PhD and Master’s theses also. If you ask a professor for a master’s thesis, a typical answer might be “no problem, bring me a topic and a supervisor, then you can do it”. Students sometimes seek to their topics appropriate supervisor at other universities.

Naturally it would be much more difficult to find a supervisor for a doctoral thesis. Although SUST has had a doctoral program since the early noughties, the students were sent abroad at the expense of the university, for example to Malaysia or South Africa, because there you have costs lower than in the US or the UK. (With the money for a doctorate in the UK you can pay three promotions in Malaysia. By the way, universities are funded from tuition fees and there is little government support.)


A new program

The solution, which could perhaps serve as a model for other countries: since 2010, foreign professors work in “part-time” as a supervisor for local students. They come from Germany, the US, Great Britain, but also Asian countries, Tunisia and South Africa. Their payment (for the first year in which they teach their future doctoral students online) is on the order of a European monthly salary, but of course their flights and hotel are taken.

There is a dozen of supervisors hired each year, which will then each take about three doctoral students. (There is a performance bonus of $ 1,500 a year for each actually supervised PhD.) The professors are on the one hand young professors of about 40 years, who want to enlist in this way doctoral students, and on the other hand older professors over 60; the intermediate vintages are virtually absent. Some professors apply in the next years again in order to take more students.

In practical terms, the doctoral studies work like this.

For the first semester, prospective doctoral students occupy some preparatory online courses.

At the beginning of the second semester, the foreign professors come for at least a week to Khartoum, talk to the students and hold a two-hour lecture. The students obtain an impression of the research areas of potential supervisors and can decide at the end of the week for two of the professors as possible advisors. During the second semester the professors then teach online classes to “their” potential graduate students. This online course provides an introduction to the research area of the respective professor and is completed by an examination at the end of the second semester. The online courses are taught with conventional software such as WebEx, which allows for a “chat”: the professors may ask questions, give exercises, etc.

During the second semester, the students therefore are still working towards two possible PhD topics, at the end of the second semester they will opt for a supervisor. The third semester is then dedicated to familiarize with the thesis topic and must lead to a publication, for example in a conference proceedings. At the end of the third semester there is again an oral examination (or rather presentation of the dissertation topic), attended by two more professors in addition to the supervisor.

After the highly structured first three semesters it comes to the actual work on the thesis, which then of course proceeds as normal. As usual, it is up to the supervisors and doctoral students to decide how they organize their further cooperation.

The content of the article is based on a longer interview with Rasha Osman, official information is to be found in the following PDFs:
Call for Supervisors
Description of PhD

You may read this blog post by Thilo Küssner also in German here: Promovieren im Sudan

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