On 13 December 2019, the Cameroonian Prime Ministry (PM) and the Ministry of Higher Education (MINESUP) published a list of 1,237 of PhDs retained in the first phase of a Special Operation to recruit 2000 lecturers into the eight state universities in Cameroon. The list was immediately contested by some unrecruited PhDs and social media activists who insisted that the recruitment process was characterized by irregularities such as the recruitment of Master’s holders, repeated names, doubtful ages, the recruitment of civil servants, among others. PhD student and social media activist Boris Bertolt, for instance, circulated a list of specific names to buttress his points for each category of irregularities. Four days afterwards, some disgruntled unretained PhDs (many of whom would soon cross the recruitment age limit of 45) began an indefinite protest within the premises of MINESUP.
Some of the protesters attempted suicide and were rushed to hospitals. After intensive medical care, the hospitalized PhDs returned to join their protesting colleagues at MINESUP. Despite press conferences granted by MINESUP and a fruitless meeting with the disgruntled PhDs, the protest continued until 09 January 2020 when it was called off after a second meeting between MINESUP and the protesters who were surprisingly appeased by the announcement of the second phase of the recruitment originally earmarked for 2020. It is unclear if the documents launching the special recruitment ever stated that civil servants were ineligible, but it is uncontestable that the special recruitment was aimed at PhDs, not Master’s. Although MINESUP’s Professor Jacques Fame Ndongo finally acknowledged some errors in the recruitment process in a Facebook video, he provided no convincing details about those errors (irregularities) and how they would be corrected. And he didn’t promise to remove the Master’s and repeated names on the list and replace them with deserving unrecruited PhDs as requested by protesters. Nevertheless, as social media activist David Eboutou – Officiel reported, at least two of the protesting PhDs were recruited as assistant lecturers under the numerical replacement option at the University of Douala on 22 January 2019. Two specific names Eboutou mentioned were political scientist Dr Brigitte Lekane Vomo (one of those who had attempted suicide) and psychologist Dr Adeline Douanla. In early February 2020, the University of Dschang announced a numerical replacement call for PhDs and it was hoped that more of the protesting PhDs might be recruited.
Public Reactions to the PhD Protests
Public reactions to the PhD protests on social media (especially Facebook) were varied. As signaled earlier, some people decried the irregularities that marred the recruitment process (a common aspect of corruption in Cameroon), consequently pledging their support for the disgruntled PhDs. Statistician and political commentator Dieudonné Essomba, for instance, described the PhD recruitment process as an incarnation of bad governance and corruption in Cameroon. While some social media users lamented the fate of the protesting PhDs which, according to them, shows how “useless” education is in Cameroon, others ignorantly mocked the protesting PhDs for not being able to create employment for themselves and other Cameroonians.
Some young entrepreneurs made mocking advertisements of training sessions for the PhDs. Certainly, it is important to promote entrepreneurship at all levels of education in Cameroon, Africa and elsewhere (a point I will return to later), but it must also be noted that not everybody can, must, or wants to, become an entrepreneur. Besides, if everybody becomes an entrepreneur and a job creator, who will then work for who? Interestingly, some Facebook users (e.g., Solomon Ateh Pemamboh, Ngwane Hansel, and Valerie M. Viban) came to defense of the disgruntled PhDs, cautioning others against mocking them because it is their right to strike and because it is an uphill task to earn a PhD. Student journalist and blogger Solomon Ateh Pemamboh, however, found it worrying that “one of them attempts committing suicide because government has not employed her as if that was the only thing she could do.” He further adds: “To me it shows some signs of desperation, which is not of good image to such an academia [sic] of her caliber. There is just too much you can do with your PhD than working for the government.” Indeed, there are countless things a PhD can do, as I will discuss later.
Yet some other Facebook users sought to diagnose the causes of PhD unemployment or overdependence on government jobs and to explain the global rise of unemployment among PhDs. For example, writer, literary scholar and entrepreneur Dr Oscar Labang (Labang Wang Kencholia), in two Facebook posts entitled “Cameroon and the PhD Syndrome” ” part 1 and part 2, chose to diagnose the causes of the PhD scandal by establishing a typology of PhDs in Cameroon and the various motivations behind their pursuit of the doctoral degree. Labang identified two types of PhDs in Cameroon: the consequential PhD and the intentional PhD. For him, a “consequential PhD is one which is earned because of circumstances beyond the individual’s control. It is a consequence of the individual’s inability to get a job or gain entrance into a professional school. While they work hard and pray to achieve one of the two, they use the quest for a PhD as a form of solace” (Part 1). He added a second category of the consequential PhD: “those engineered by Supervisors for the Sup’s own selfish academic ends. Generally, Associate Professors require the supervision of doctoral Thesis for promotion to professorship. So, some supervisor [sic] mislead students into PhD programs just to have a candidate. I know a couple of instances where candidates have said ‘my supervisor is the one insisting’” (Part 1). He described a third category of this type as “the adventure seeking PhDs” who “get into the PhD because all their friends are doing it or because they want to prove a point to someone. They want to be PhD not because of clearly defined goals and plans but because everyone in their cycle is or about to become a PhD” (Part 1).
In the second post, Labang discussed what he calls the intentional PhDs which he places under three categories: “Quest Hero(ine) PhD, Non-status-quo PhD, Inspired-to-become PhD.” He argued that for the inspired-to-become PhDs “their eye is on the PhD and nothing else count [sic],” adding that their “inspiration doesn’t need to be from a young age. It could be someone who went to the university just for a BA/BSc but got so overwhelmed by the sanctifying unction of knowledge that they become book monks/nuns” (Part 2). The non-status-quo PhDs, he continued, “are people who already have a job, earn a decent salary, can survive without a PhD but are determined not to just fit in the status-quo. They are driven by one of three things: thirst for knowledge or quest for better pay or social prestige. Most career professionals who go back to school for PhDs fall in this category. The thirst for Knowledge is usually predominant because if it was just about money, they can simply use a godfather to get a promotion or appointment and the rest is history as experienced in Kmer” (Part 2). I believe that those civil servants recruited among the 1237 PhDs last December fall under this category. And there is no doubt that hard working civil servants in any country on earth deserve and have the right to develop professionally – change of ranks, promotions, occupational mobility, etc. Meanwhile, Labang explained, the quest hero/quest heroine PhDs “are people, usually from very poor backgrounds, who undertake a tedious and often long journey in quest of the PhD – e.g. a Grade 1 teacher who later goes to ENS then for a BA, and later goes to higher ENS then for MA and finally PhD. Yes, I know people who have taken this route and are great Professors today. This group is has [sic] aspects of the two other categories but because of the long obstacle-filled journey they endure, their distinction becomes evident” (Part 2). Obviously, there are overlaps in Labang’s categorization (typology), particularly with regard to the categories of intentional PhDs. For instance, there are instances of overlap between non-status-quo and quest hero/quest heroine PhDs as they grow from lower educational levels and professional qualifications to higher ones. The present writer (who is currently a doctoral student) somewhat fits into all three categories of the intentional PhD. “If one looks at what individual’s in the first and third category go through to become PhD,” Labang wrote, “it is easy to explain why attempted suicide for nonrecruitment is a possibility. However, the determination of those who fit in these categories usually surpasses the urge to end it (Part 2). It must be noted that most intentional PhDs are expected to have not only a good mastery of their research fields, but to also demonstrate enough professional flexibility, a heightened sense of maturity, and the ability to put their skills to use in various contexts, not only in academia. From this perspective, it is difficult to believe that PhDs from this category would choose suicide if they are not recruited, since they can explore many other opportunities.
In his own Facebook post, youth leader and reproductive health promoter Jude Thaddeus Njikem rightly argued that PhD unemployment is not only a Cameroonian problem and that disgruntled PhDs shouldn’t be blamed. He stated that “it is a crisis that needs urgent redress,” adding that “the unemployment crisis for PhD holders emerged due to ‘flawed’ and ‘unplanned’ policies of the respective ministries.” Citing research and statistics from countries such as the USA, Finland, the Netherlands, and Belgium, Njikem illustrated that there is a global crisis of unemployment for PhDs. As he explained, nearly 40% of PhDs surveyed in 2014 in the USA hadn’t found a job, neither in academia nor in the private industry, at the time of their graduation.
In Finland, “A growing number of people with PhDs — more than 2,000 — are joining the ranks of the unemployed in Finland. Those with doctoral degrees in disciplines such as biology, chemistry and environmental science are most affected, while a forthcoming study suggests that not even the private sector is looking to hire those with PhDs,” Njikem wrote. Although unemployment rates are very low among Dutch PhDs, most of their jobs are not found in academia. Njikem revealed that “Only 30 per cent of PhD holders find a job at a university or academic medical centre. The remaining 70 per cent tend to work as researchers at consultancies or engineering companies.” And he rightly argued that one mustn’t work in academia to be recognized as a PhD holder, adding that he knows a PhD who wasn’t recruited some years ago but started a private research institute and was doing well therein. Njikem concluded that “Those marketing makeshift solutions to make these PhD holders employable or creative are just contributing to the systemic problem” because “We cannot solve a systemic problem with a simple fix.”
More Evidence for Global PhD Unemployment
Indeed, there is an alarming increase in the rates of PhD unemployment globally. Referring to the US educational context, Scott Jaschik in a 2016 Inside Higher Education article (like Njikem above) affirmed that the number of PhDs is on the rise at the same time as the percentage of people obtaining a doctorate with no job waiting for them. Jaschik added that science and engineering PhDs are topping the charts of new doctorates in the USA. In 2014, for instance, only 61.4% of new PhDs in all fields had a job or a postdoc commitment and the percentage was as low as 54.3% in the humanities. This means that employment rates in the sciences and engineering are higher than in the humanities. Paradoxically, it must be noted that Cameroon and many other African countries produce an alarming majority of their PhDs in the humanities.
Gwilym Croucher reveals that in 2015 “Australia graduated over 10,000 postgraduate research students – the vast majority of these were doctoral students. There were over 65,000 research higher degree students enrolled at Australian universities last year with most full or part time PhD students.” In a 2015 Guardian article, Jonathan Wolff makes similar observations about the PhD unemployment crisis in the UK. Wolff cites a 2010 graph from the Royal Society which suggested that “of every 200 people completing a PhD, only seven will get a permanent academic job. Only one will become a professor.” Thus, there is an acute shortage of tenured academic positions globally, thereby leading to the rise of postdoctoral research positions, unemployment, or employment outside academia.
Kendall Powell observes in a 2015 Nature article that the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions has plateaued and, in some places, it is even shrinking,” a situation which compels many postdocs to pursue careers outside academia while those who want to remain in research stay in postdoc positions for many years. Powell indicates that out of over “40,000 US postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been so for more than six years…” This is what Sydni Dunn calls “the rise of the post-post-doc,” as PhDs move from one postdoc to another in the hope of ever landing a tenured position. Despite the uncertainty that comes with hopping from one postdoc to another, postdocs are vital for PhDs who aim to work in academia: postdocs further ground themselves in research, expand their networks, and render themselves more academically marketable.
Certainly, from the 1993 university reforms to present, there has been a gradual rise in permanent government employment of PhDs by the state in Cameroon where state universities grew from one in 1993 to eight in recent years. But Cameroon produces a disproportionately alarming number of PhDs than the state and even private sector can absorb. It suffices to take a look at the number of PhDs produced by the University of Dschang alone in the last few years on their website, a majority of them in the humanities and social sciences. This implies that if serious measures are not taken, Cameroon is likely to witness more PhD protests in future. For this reason, I would like to suggest some solutions aimed at both Cameroonian Higher Education (HE) authorities and individual PhD students or graduates.
Suggestions to Remedy Increasing PhD Unemployment
From the foregoing discussion, especially the contributions from Labang and Njike, it is uncontestable that the PhD scandal in Cameroon is a complex issue which needs well-thought-out and holistic solutions. This is an attempt to contribute to finding some solutions to the problem, since much of what precedes is largely diagnostic. Obviously, more responsibility for the recent PhD scandal could be attributed to Cameroonian HE authorities, but PhDs themselves carry part of the responsibility. Broadly speaking, I will proffer solutions aimed at both institutions and individuals. It is also my hope that the suggestions will indirectly pinpoint both institutional (state) and individual responsibilities in the problem. My overarching suggestion is that Cameroonian universities should limit the number of new PhD candidates and strive to render doctoral training in the country more competitive.
- At the Institutional Level
- Besides reminding aspiring PhDs that they can never be all employed by the state, Cameroonian HE institutions (both public and private) should reduce the number of PhDs they produce by tightening admissions criteria. Although some scientists think that limiting the number PhDs would be a loss to science and society, Julie Gould explains that some “labour economists have been advocating for a reduction in the number of graduate students who enter biomedical sciences for several decades.” Similarly, Gwilym Croucher recommends that “It’s time to reduce the number of PhD students, or rethink how doctoral programs works” in the Australian context. In the case of Cameroon, for instance, this reduction is imperative in the humanities and social sciences. It will be helpful to insist on promising and relevant research topics (linked to local problems in most cases), to vet and reject PhD applicants coerced by supervisors for selfish reasons, to insist on at least one scientific publication in a respected journal before PhD admissions, and so forth. Therefore, there is need for transparent and credible interviews (oral examinations) of PhD applicants in addition to studying the files they submit.
- Cameroonian HE authorities should create a conducive environment for the introduction of an industry-funded PhD scheme as it is the case in most Western countries today. By industry-funded PhDs, I mean that national institutions, parastatals, museums, banks, etc. could identify problems they face and sponsor brilliant PhD candidates to research them and come out with possible solutions. For instance, in a country like Denmark, many PhDs in art history are funded by museums and most of them end up employed in that sector and/or shuttle between it and academia. In the case of Cameroon, there will be need to tackle corruption which will likely hamper the process of hiring the best PhD candidates for such industry-funded projects.
- Entrepreneurship should be introduced within PhD curricula in Cameroon, regardless of academic disciplines, since it is uncontestable that the state, academia, and industries can never absorb all PhDs in any country on earth today. This calls for more structuring of the PhD programme so that more emphasis is not only placed on the final dissertation but also on PhD courses, including those on entrepreneurship and creativity. In this way, before PhDs graduate, they shall have brainstormed on possible ways of using their research outside academia, especially in the business sector. And they shall have identified the other skills and competences which they develop alongside their doctoral research. For instance, a PhD in African Literature should be able to work in the book and journalism sectors or setup an enterprise therein. Importantly, the whole educational system in Cameroon and Africa should embrace entrepreneurship. This is a must in the present century.
- Cameroonian HE authorities should insist on the organization of seminars and conferences for PhD students in order to afford them more research and networking opportunities. A postgraduate conference like the one organized by the English Department at the University of Yaoundé 1 in June 2019 is commendable in this regard. Regrettably, some PhDs in Cameroon graduate without ever attending a research seminar or conference, not to mention publishing in a peer-reviewed journal. Consequently, HE institutions should provide official policy insisting that PhD applicants must have published at least one article before admission, and at least one paper upon defense of their PhD dissertation as the University of Yaoundé II decided in 2018. And there must also be emphasis on the quality of journals: that is genuine and respected peer-reviewed journals, not some predatory journals where a paper is submitted and accepted the same day without any blind peer review by experts in the field. Some academics in Cameroon, whether ignorantly or otherwise, even publish in some of such doubtful journals. There should be chances for doctoral candidates to disseminate knowledge (their findings) through non-traditional channels such as local newspapers and TV and platforms such as The Conversation (where Cameroonian scholars are quite invisible). Moreover, it is becoming fashionable in most Western universities to accept PhD dissertations either as unpublished monographs or in the article-based format (dissertations comprising published and submitted or publishable articles or book chapters). The latter format provides opportunities for the PhD’s research to be reviewed or critiqued by many experts in the field (through peer review) and also enables networking and more competitivity for the budding researchers/academics.
- HE authorities should introduce and promote the postdoc culture in Cameroon in replacement of the current (sometimes arbitrary) part-time contracts for lecturers/PhDs. Such contracts should not only focus on teaching assignments but include research dimensions (e.g., the lecturers must publish at least one article while holding the position) which must be demonstrated during application. As such, there will be more competition and the postdoc contracts/positions will improve CVs and render their holders more competitive even internationally. This would also avoid situations such as those of some protesting PhDs who have taught part-time in public universities for many years and their names produce nothing as an article on Google Scholar. In addition, HE authorities could initiate more partnerships and exchange programs with foreign universities and institutions (both in Africa and elsewhere) which can provide research exchanges in the form of postdocs to PhDs from Cameroon.
- Finally, HE authorities should consider removing age limits when it comes to the recruitment of PhDs and rather place emphasis on productivity and competitivity. There is a sense in which a new PhD above 45 years with a track record of reputable publications and professional activities is preferable over a new PhD in the mid-twenties without any publication. Above all, research and proof of research, not necessarily age, should matter, at least in some cases.
- At the Individual PhD Level
- Aspiring PhDs should endeavor to choose good and relevant research topics. Ask yourself what the society will benefit from your research and if you are not replicating research already done elsewhere. Also, it is becoming more fashionable nowadays to undertake interdisciplinary research (working beyond classical disciplinary boundaries) in order to tackle the pressing needs of the twenty-first century. Such research more likely leads to employment both inside and outside academia. And Cameroonian universities must be receptive to such approaches and avoid conservative measures which hinder innovation, experimentation and curiosity. We need new and relevant departments in Cameroonian universities. Without any intention of discouraging people from specializing in fields of their choice, I will emphasize the point about relevance of research topic to local realities and contexts. While a PhD in British literature, for example, can be easily recruited in the various English departments in Cameroonian universities, the same might have limited chances at the international level. Personally, I know PhDs in such domains who have not found work outside Cameroon. Suppose that a Canadian university needs a professor of British literature, would they choose a Cameroonian with a PhD in that field from Cameroon or a Briton with a PhD in that field from Britain? Your guess is as good as mine. Surely, a Cameroonian PhD would have more advantage if the same Canadian university needed someone with a specialization in African literature. Again, I do not mean that Cameroonians must not specialize in British, American, French, Canadian or Australian literatures, but someone who thinks strategically in terms of relevance and employment prospects beyond Cameroon (in a world with increasing PhD unemployment) might think twice.
- Aspiring PhD candidates should cultivate the habit of research and dissemination as early as possible. Of course, unlike in the Western world, there are no (post)graduate journals in Cameroon, but students must not only publish in student journals. With increasing competition in admissions to Master’s and PhD degrees and scholarships abroad, it is very important to start publishing in academic journals as early as during Master’s studies. Personally, I began attending and presenting papers in academic conferences just after my Bachelor’s and Teacher degrees. By the time I obtained a prestigious European Union Erasmus Mundus Scholarship to do my Master’s in three European countries, I had already presented three papers in conferences in Cameroon and published two articles therefrom in peer-reviewed journals. I remain grateful to those scholars and mentors who initiated me into research culture so early and also organized the conferences where I presented papers (e.g., Professors Teke, Mutia, Ngwa, Njika, Neba, and Drs Labang and Ndi Shang). During my Master’s studies, I published an article directed connected with my future (now ongoing) PhD project. And I have continued to publish even as I pursue my PhD. There is no doubt that my publications must have played a favorable part in my highly competitive PhD admission and funding. Obviously, a serious and committed scholar would always do research and publish, whether they are employed or not. But believe you me, I know a PhD holder in Cameroon who somewhat fits into Labang’s typology of non-status-quo PhD (he has a stable employment and for that matter in the teaching domain), but he told me a few years ago that he was keeping all his articles to only publish once he becomes a university lecturer. Such attitudes cannot promote competitivity and productivity.
- Institutional support or not, individual PhD students who aim to compete internationally should seek avenues for research exchange abroad in order to raise their research standards, improve their CVs, and expand their networks. Universities in countries such as Norway and Denmark (e.g. Aarhus University), for instance, require their PhD students to undertake research stays abroad and provide all the necessary institutional support to make this happen. They also organize midway trial defenses for doctoral research in progress and sometimes hire scholars from abroad to serve as opponents (examiners) in those events. During the final defense, at least one opponent must be from abroad. While this is not yet official policy in Cameroon, individual PhD students can explore exchange possibilities such as those offered by CODESRIA, DAAD and Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence in Germany, la Francophonie, the Commonwealth, and Doing a PhD in Africa, among others. Prospective Cameroonian PhD students should check with their institutions as some of them have partnership agreements with foreign universities which provide opportunities such as the co-supervision of doctoral dissertations. Within the framework of most co-supervision agreements, PhD candidates can undertake research stays in the partner (co-supervising) universities abroad. Any PhD student aiming at global competition and being aware of rising PhD unemployment must seek out such opportunities. Laudably, a few Cameroonians are already doing this.
- Similarly, PhD students and graduates must constantly strive to improve their CVs and online profiles in order to remain competitive both at home and abroad. Besides being cautious and professional on their social media platforms, PhDs who aim at global job prospects should be present and active on professional networks such as LinkedIn, Academia.edu, ORCID.org, among others. Surprising, when I ran the names of some of the protesting PhDs on simple Google, then Google Scholar, I found nothing. I then proceeded to LinkedIn with the same results. Of course, I did not run all their names (which I didn’t have), but it is worrying to notice for those whose names I ran that a PhD holder, aspiring to lecture in a state institution, has no online trace of any publication. Yet, PhDs are individually responsible for their online presence and marketability. Since those PhDs began striking, someone might have recommended one of them for job or postdoc somewhere, if they had an impressive online presence. Who knows?
- PhD students and graduates should diversify their areas of competence and avoid having too much specialized knowledge in a century known for innovation and flexibility. Fortunately, we are in the era of the internet and the democratization of knowledge through initiatives such as MOOCs, open-access journals, YouTube, and so forth. If a PhD is not sure about employment prospects in their field, why not for instance learn new skills online. When we see PhDs in business administration and entrepreneurship complain about unemployment, it is disturbing. Of course, not all of them aspire to create businesses, but not all too should aim to work in academia. They could begin by designing paid programs to pass on entrepreneurial and managerial skills to companies in need. If they lack marketing skills, or suppose they are from fields such as hard sciences, they could take marketing lessons online for free (through MOOCs, on YouTube, on YALI.gov.state, and other platforms). They can learn coding for free online and set up a website to sell their PhD skills. They can learn video editing, journalism, publishing, agribusiness, and what have you, for free online nowadays.
- Finally, PhDs should be able to identify and market the other competences and skills they develop in their doctoral studies. By the time someone defends a PhD, they are expected to have consciously and unconsciously acquired many skills and competences besides specialized knowledge of their field. For example, PhDs possess skills and competences to manage time, projects, and people; write, synthesize and edit or proofread reports; conduct commissioned research; analyze problems; work in teams, among others. It is up to individual unemployed PhDs to identity and exploit (sell) such skills and competences. Protests alone may not do the magic, but more competitivity can greatly help in addressing PhD unemployment in Cameroon and beyond.
Starting off with the 2019 PhD scandal (protest) at MINESUP in Cameroon, I acknowledged the controversy surrounding the published list of 1237 recruited PhDs and public reactions to the incidence. Having established that most of the reactions to the problem were largely diagnostic, I therefore proceeded to proffer some suggestions aimed at reducing PhD unemployment in Cameroon and avoiding embarrassing situations such as the 2019 PhD protest. Given that responsibility for the scandal is largely shared by institutions and individuals, the suggested solutions (though overlapping) were directed at these two main actors. Overall, the proposals seek to promote my central argument which is the need to reduce the number of new PhDs and render the Cameroonian PhD more competitive both nationally and internationally. Importantly, Cameroonian universities should become more visible online and internationally in order to improve on rankings. It is my hope that this article should be helpful wherever possible and that it should provoke further discussions in the direction of curbing PhD unemployment in Cameroon and beyond. Of course, constructive comments are very welcomed.
*Kenneth Nsah is a PhD Student in Comparative Literature at Aarhus University. His creative writing is widely published under the name Nsah Mala. He also offers consultancy and advice on admissions and scholarships abroad. And he runs a Facebook page called After Higher School/Après le lycée where he shares scholarships and educational opportunities for Africans.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article was published in the print issue of The Voice Newspaper in Cameroon on 23 January 2020.