21 May 2020
The woes of Egyptian PhD students
Published online 20 April 2011
The challenges students in Egypt face while pursuing their PhD's is deterring many, as they question whether it is worth all the trouble and the costs.
Mourad Bassuoni spent seven years working on a PhD that explored the relationship between certain bacteria and cancer, a topic he initially thought would be interesting. He did not choose this topic, but it was assigned to him by his supervisors who — when he was fortunate enough to meet with — tended to disagree with each other on how he should proceed.
Over the years, the cost of his self-funded research began to weigh heavily on him and his enthusiasm for science waned. Finally, fed-up with a never ending dissertation and the ceaseless retaking of notoriously long and hard exams, he gave up. He remains Bassuoni, the prized "Dr" preceding his name — a title of deific proportions in Egypt — beyond his reach.
However, his story is not unique. The percentage of successful doctoral candidates in some Egyptian universities can be as low as 5-10%.
Loose guidelines and tight budgets
There are over 35,000 students enrolled in PhD programmes in Egypt, much more than the universities can employ. There is no official timeframe in Egypt for doctoral studies. While some universities, like Cairo University, Egypt, set a maximum limit of four years, these guidelines are flexible. It is not uncommon to see some PhD's taking up to seven years to finish.
The paucity of funding is more consistent than the PhD programme in Egypt . A United Nations report in 2006 showed that public spending on science was so low that if it was spread out evenly across all Egyptian universities, each department would receive approximately US$ 17 per month1. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Egypt spends less than 0.2% of its GDP on science and development.2
One of the countless consequences of such a tiny government contribution to science is that PhD students often fund themselves, and young people without enough money are excluded from postgraduate research
"The PhD for an average medical student at a public university here in Egypt would cost around US$ 1,500 over the four to five years it takes to complete. This may not seem like much, but for an Egyptian, this is quite a financial burden," says Fatma Hammad, an endocrinologist and PhD supervisor. Sometimes, it can cost much more than that, especially when the candidate needs equipment and materials unavailable in Egypt.
Funds and supervisors
It’s not just the system or institutions that need to change, it’s also the mentality of the people in them.
Dina Husseiny completed her PhD at Ain Shams University, Egypt, in 2008 on the links between environmental factors and the incidence of breast cancer. Her research required conducting extensive tests on numerous patients.
Husseiny's first test was finding adequate laboratories and medical resources. "There were no such facilities at my university to use during the four years it took me to complete my PhD," says Husseiny. "I had to pay for everything, which isn't a problem if you are handing out questionnaires, but when you are conducting ultrasounds and mammograms on several patients, the costs add up." Even though Husseiny conducted her work in a public hospital, she still had to pay for all the tests herself.
Then there is the problem of supervisors. It is normal practice to have several supervisors for a PhD in Egypt. Husseiny considers herself lucky because she was well-treated by her supervisors, but they could not provide enough help since they were inexperienced, especially with how to write a good dissertation, and hardly had enough time for her. "I had to get a lot of assistance from other professors who didn't work as advisors." She says such connections to other faculty members are key to a successful PhD in Egypt.
According to Mounir Hana, a food scientist and PhD supervisor at the Faculty of Agriculture in Minia University, Egypt, a doctoral thesis supervisor is paid 250 EGP (US$ 40) for each student at most public universities over the course of the PhD. So, a supervisor working with ten students would be paid 2500 EGP (US$ 400) for four years work, if not longer. In turn, most supervisors give little time and effort to help their doctoral candidates.
Husseiny's brother, Ahmed, who is now a PhD supervisor after gaining a PhD on the role of the protein angiogenin in tumour growth at Ain Shams University, Cairo, doesn't think better pay would fix the problem.
"We will give more of our time, but the problem is many of us don't even have the know-how to begin with." He suggests that some supervisors know little about the international standards for writing a research paper.
Ahmed Husseiny says he was never taught how to write a dissertation. He had to spend an extra year writing his dissertation — the subject of which he had no choice in — and meeting the conflicting demands of his two supervisors.
"The PhD student here in Egypt faces numerous problems. I understand how hard it is and my job as a supervisor is to help solve as many of these as possible. Unfortunately, many supervisors do not bother and end up adding one more hurdle in the student's way," says Hana. "I remember one incidence around 20 years ago when one PhD student committed suicide by jumping from a moving train in complete desperation"
A different picture emerges of private universities, which enroll less than 1% of Egypt's post-graduate students, including doctoral candidates. Recently, the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt, started a PhD program in applied sciences. Reem Al-Olaby, who is part of the first class of doctoral candidates at AUC, says her advisors have been very supportive so far and that most of the facilities available and tools are at hand.
Yet, even private universities in Egypt compare poorly with international standards. In 2010, AUC didn't rank in the top 200 universities in the world. Nevine Shalaby, a former AUC biology student, graduated from AUC about a decade ago and decided to pursue a PhD overseas. "I knew that to seek proper scientific training I would have to leave the country."
Shalaby, who now holds a PhD from Boston College and works at Buszczak Lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says one of the central problems was that she "did not learn to do research or think like a scientist" while studying in Egypt.
Nevertheless, Shalaby is optimistic. "I do think there are probably enough people to get together in the near future and seriously consider building a foundation to fund an international standard scientific institution." Her optimism is reflected by the Husseinys and Al-Olaby, who believe that Egypt is now perfectly poised for a long overdue academic revolution, one to follow the 25 January Revolution.
In the meantime, however, their hopes for the future of Egyptian science remain cautious. As Al-Olaby says, "It's not just the system or institutions that need to change, it's also the mentality of the people in them. It will take time, but we have to start fostering a culture of scientific thinking and research first."
- Belal, A & Springuel, I. Research in Egyptian Universities: the role of research in higher education, UNESCO Cousteau Ecotechnie Chair, South Valley University Egypt. (2006) Avaliable at: http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/files/51625/11634283495Springuel-EN.pdf/Springuel-EN.pdf (accessed on 20 April 2011)