Loraine Mponela, one of the administrators of the Scholarship Opportunities for Malawians group on Facebook, asked me to share my experiences on scholarship issues with members of that group. By God’s grace, I have been supported through scholarships for all my three degrees: BSc, MSc, and PhD. I will, therefore, break down this presentation into three segments. It is a bit long. But trust me, as an engineer, I tried so hard to shorten it. Lol!!

BSc Studies

I embarked on my BSc in Electrical Engineering at the Malawi Polytechnic in 1994. One year later, I received my first scholarship from the Women’s Federation for World Peace (WFWP) on the basis of first year results. Apart from me, nine other students from different departments also received this scholarship. This scholarship came as a complete surprise to all of us. It was the first of its kind and it was not repeated thereafter. It included tuition fees, book allowance, and a monthly allowance of MK100. After completing my BSc in Electrical Engineering 1999, I was employed as a Staff Associate in Electronic and Computer Engineering at the same institution a year later.

MSc Studies

While working as a Staff Associate at the Malawi Polytechnic, my expectation was that I was going to get an MSc scholarship easily. But that was not the case. I applied for many scholarships but I was unsuccessful on all occasions. The closest I got to a scholarship was in 2002 when my long time friend, Dr Chimwemwe Gawasiri Banda, encouraged me to apply for the Beit Trust Scholarship. By then, Dr Banda had just completed his MSc in Civil Engineering with the support of Beit Trust. I attended the interviews for the Beit Trust Scholarship, but the result was not good. From that moment, I lost hope in scholarships. But there was nowhere else to go simply because I am generally passionate about research and academics. So I remained at the Malawi Polytechnic, working as an assistant lecturer. This was the most difficult period in my professional life.

In 2003, I met yet another friend, Dr Patsani Kumambala, who had just completed his MSc in Water Engineering at the University of Dar-es-salaam. His studies were sponsored by the African Network of Scientific Technological Institutions (ANSTI) with support from German Academic Exchange Service(DAAD). He encouraged me to apply for the ANSTI-DAAD Fellowship. I was very reluctant but Dr Kumambala told me that the application process was not tedious. Apart from filling the ANSTI application form and writing a motivation letter, I only needed to get an admission from a university that is a member of the ANSTI and one reference letter from my supervisors. I immediately applied for admission at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Within one month, my admission letter came and I submitted my application to ANSTI.

Six months later, I was offered an ANSTI-DAAD Fellowship, which allowed me to study for an MSc in Computer Engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal from 2004 to 2006. I graduated in April 2007. As an MSc student, I was offered fee rebate, worth 80% of the tuition fees, courtesy of the university’s Graduate Assistant Fund. The objective of this fund was to support promising MSc students. Selection was based on undergraduate academic records.

PhD Studies

During my MSc research, my supervisor gave me the liberty to work on a topic of my own interest. I developed a research topic focusing on the application of computational intelligence in communication networks after reading many research papers. One Cameroonian friend, Dr Ngatched, who was in the final stages of his PhD research, advised me to work hard and write a number of conference papers and at least a journal paper from MSc work. He told me that by so doing I would increase my opportunities for a PhD scholarship. Courtesy of his advice, I had three international conference papers and one conditionally accepted journal paper from my MSc research on my graduation day. This made it easy for me to be accepted for a PhD studentship at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria. I joined CSIR in October 2006 for the PhD studentship. I signed a six month contract, during which I came up with a PhD proposal. I was expected to sign a three-year contract thereafter, but I didn’t.

During my time at CSIR, I got in touch with Prof. Witold Pedrycz from the University of Alberta in Canada and Prof. Kaoru Hirota from Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan. Both of them are world renowned researchers in computational intelligence. I used to interact with both of them concurrently. As the desire to do my PhD studies with a world class supervisor in Computational Intelligence grew stronger and stronger, I took a break from CSIR and went back to Malawi to work on applications to the University of Alberta and Tokyo Tech. Prof. Pedrycz helped me to apply for the Alberta Ingenuity Fellowship, which was to serve as financial support for my studies there. Eventually, I missed out on the Fellowship and on account of that my admission to the University of Alberta was put on hold.

On the other hand, Prof Hirota advised me to apply for the Embassy-recommended Japanese government scholarship in order to study at Tokyo Tech under his supervision. I also had a chat with Dr Chomora Mikeka, who was by then a research student at Yokohama National University, courtesy of the Japanese government scholarship. He encouraged me to move to Japan for my PhD studies. He told me that there were many postgraduate students in Japan who were staying with their families. He further pointed out that married foreign students had access to subsidized government housing and child allowance.

I submitted my application for the Japanese government scholarship to the Japanese embassy in Lusaka, which was then responsible for Japanese interests in both Malawi and Zambia. I was eventually short-listed for interviews along with three other applicants. At that time, the Japanese government used to pick only one recipient from Malawi. All my fellow applicants were looking forward to studying for their Masters degrees in Japan. They had not even made any contact with Japanese professors. I was the only one in the group with a Masters degree, some research experience, and evidence of contact with a Japanese professor. So I could see that I stood the highest chance for that scholarship. In the interview itself, there were seven questions, but I was asked three questions only, mainly to do with why I opted for Japan instead of remaining in South Africa.

The next day, when the news came through that I was successful, it was not much of a surprise. At this point, I informed CSIR in South Africa that I was not going to take up their PhD studentship. I will, however, always be very grateful to them for believing in me and giving me a PhD studentship.

I went to Japan in March 2008. I studied the Japanese language for six months. I studied for a PhD in Computational Intelligence and Systems Science at Tokyo Institute of Technology for three years and I graduated in September 2011. I will always be grateful to the Japanese government and the Japanese people for the financial support toward my PhD research, the subsidized accommodation, the child allowance, cheap health insurance, access to advanced medical services, and all the nice things that I enjoyed in their country.

Some of the major things that one may pick from my scholarship experiences are as follows:

  1. If you are still in school, work hard and get good grades. If your academic record is outstanding, it is easier to get scholarships.
  2. If you are out of school, it is impossible to change your academic records, but there are things that you can do out there to increase your chances. Some of them include community work, taking up some leadership roles, and membership of professional organizations.
  3. Have a clear understanding of the reasons why you need to go for further studies. These points must come out clearly in your motivation statement for a scholarship application.
  4. Build and maintain networks with peers and even superiors. From my experience, you will see the impact of peers such as Dr Chimwemwe Gawasiri Banda, Dr Patsani Kumambala, Dr Ngatched, Dr Chomora Mikeka, and superiors such as Prof Hirota and Prof Pedrycz.
  5. Build your research profile by discovering your research interest areas and nurturing them. Try to connect with established and active researchers in your area. Most professors are excited about research to a point that they even use their own research funding to sponsor good students who are keen on pursuing research in their area of endeavour.
  6. When applying for scholarships, you should make sure that you understand the eligibility requirements and the scholarship’s objectives thoroughly. Once you do that, it will be easy to align your motivation with the objectives of the that particular scholarship.
  7. When applying for a scholarship, please make sure that you ask one or two people, preferably previous recipients of that particular scholarship, to go through your documents and make some corrections, if any.
  8. When asking your former lecturers and supervisors for reference letters, sometimes you will need to send them your CV in order to guide them. These people are usually busy. They may even have forgotten about you.
  9. You should be willing to sacrifice some things, e.g. money for shipping application documents, family time (sometimes you need to read some papers to beef up your research motivation).
  10. Don’t give up! Keep on fighting! I was almost giving up when I eventually got my MSc scholarship.

For those who are interested in the scholarships that I have mentioned in this presentation, please visit these links:

  1. African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions (ANSTI) – The application window is open now. It will close on 31 May, 2015.
  2. The Japanese Government Scholarship – There are several routes to this scholarship. In my case, I was a embassy recommended scholar. You may wish to contact the Japanese embassy in Malawi to find out the deadlines.

Last but not least, over the years, I have come to understand that scholarships aside, if you are really passionate about furthering your studies, you can still make it! There are so many Nigerian students in South African universities, who are primarily not on any scholarship. All they do is to get admission into the university, save some money for air fare, and upkeep for the first months, and fly to South Africa.

Once in South Africa, they do part-time jobs (private tutoring, teaching at some technical colleges, assisting in labs etc.) to beef up their finances. Furthermore, most of them qualify for tuition fee rebates, assist their professors in their research work, and even get scholarships while there. There are so many opportunities out there. Sometimes, you just have to be adventurous. For us Malawians, we can even travel by bus to RSA. Even within Malawi, there are many Masters programs that are springing up. You can start from there. If you do some exciting research work, that might be a foundation for a PhD scholarship at some high ranking university out there.

Wishing you all the best!!!