Makerere pilots cohort system for PhD students

For the many years Makerere University has offered PhD training, most learners have always been trained individually for atleast six to 10 years.

That system  takes a heavy toll on both the students and supervisors but that may soon be history, writes CHRISTOPHER TUSIIME.

A German organization, Gerda Henkel Stiftung, has given Shs 6 billion to the college of Humanities and Social Sciences (Chuss) to pilot a cohort system where PhD students are admitted as a group to study under a particular theme and even share classes, but with different areas of specialization.

According to Prof Edward Kirumira, the principal at Chuss, the challenge with the old system has been the “very long time” students spend on training that ranges between six and 10 years.

PhD students under the cohort system attend classes at Makerere University last week

“What we are doing now, with the support of Gerda Henkel Stiftung, is to move single PhD training to cohort PhD training. So, instead of admitting one student, and having that one student have one supervisor for all that time, we are to meet at least 10 PhD students at the same time,” Kirumira said.

This, Kirumira says, is meant to overcome challenges that come with admitting a single student who studies alone compared to group training.

“When admitted as a cohort, we give them provisional admission at the same time, give them supervisors and co-supervisors at the same time and move them together, even when they are in their respective disciplines. Because they are a cohort, they look out for one another, they have colleagues and they will not be alone,” Kirumira adds.

He notes that a special training for supervisors of the cohort system has already been completed and they are good to go.

He says that with a cohort of 10 students, the coordinator alone can ensure the admission is done on time because Makerere used to assume that PhD training was for staff members who were aware of the the admission process.

However, he explains that the trend is changing as students admitted nowadays are not part of their staff and are oblivious of the system, a reason some take four years to get full registration.

But with the cohort system, Prof Kirumira is hopeful that all lazy supervisors will be compelled to work hard as a group, something that calls for fulfillment of an obligation for everyone.

Currently, 10 students have already been admitted on a cohort system and are expected to graduate in three years or at least submit their dissertations during this time.

These lucky 10 are Charles Kinyera Okeny, Abudul Mahajubu, Betty Nangira, Igns Fedeo, Perpetua Arinaitwe, Deogratius K. Kannamwangi, Patrick Lugwiri Okombo, Robinah Seruga Nakabo, May Namuddu and Zaid Ssekitto.

Kirumira says these students are all benefiting from the funding to participate in the pilot study. The positions were advertised and successful students chosen.

“This particular funding insists that we also get students from the region like from Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda, among others. Last time, we got 64 applications for 10 slots. That’s how competitive it was. But we also proved to the donor that there is serious need for PhD training,” he says.

Meanwhile, Prof David Owiny, one of the trainers of PhD supervisors for the cohort system, says despite the various challenges in PhD supervision, such as underfunding, there should be professionalism.

“As a supervisor, you are supposed to detect plagiarism, urge students to attend conferences and avoid unethical conduct,” Owiny says.

He observes that supervisors must also have the ability to guide students on non-academic issues that would affect their studies. He cited a student who left for Canada because her husband had also shifted there, and has since never returned. Owiny says such students need prompt guidance.

According to the Makerere University Vice Chancellor, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, since the university started offering PhD training in the early 1990s, the number of intakes has been steadily growing. He says the number has jumped from less than 10 students in the 1990s to over 100 students to date.

According to statistics, the college of Health Sciences (CHS) currently produces the biggest number of PhD graduates while law school sits at the bottom.

For instance, during this year’s graduation, CHS had 19 PhD graduands followed by Chuss with 10 while law school had one.

Kirumira notes that even though a cohort system seems to be the best, many may be hindered by funding challenges. He, however, says that the university will keep lobbying for scholarships and grants to admit more students for this system.


For Zaid Ssekitto, one of the beneficiaries, since they started their studies on September 22, 2017, he has experienced teamwork that he never expected.

“We are having a shared problem-solving approach. For example, if I come up with my proposal, problem statement, or anything, I can give it to my colleagues to read through, we panel beat it and at least we get direction,” Ssekitto says.

He adds that the beauty with this system is that they get extensive ideas and are not limited to a few as the case would be if it was an individual student.

Robinah Nakabo previously went through a system where you study alone when she was pursuing her master’s degree and she understands the challenges therein.

“You find challenges like in selecting a topic, objective, and several other problems,” Nakabo says. “But when you know that you are not alone in the journey, it relieves you of the burden. We have means of communicating with one another, we share information, we guide one another and we comfort one another; it is like a family.”

For now, Prof Kirumira says this is just a pilot study; but if it works, it would be recommended for adoption at Makerere University.


© 2016 Observer Media Ltd