My CV of failures – Highlights of my journey to attaining a PhD Scholarship at the University of Oxford

It’s one thing to plan to do something and actually do it. This was precisely me in the last year of my masters in 2017. While some of my colleagues showed enthusiasm in joining the industry and looking for jobs, at that moment I felt I had a bigger brick to contribute through research about innovation in the energy industry in the developing world – mainly Sub-Saharan Africa.
Armed with this motivation, I reviewed different materials online about PhD scholarships, opportunities, and how to approach and write to professors and academicians in general. I read about professors’ expectations from prospective students, writing short and precise emails while cementing the idea of “I am the best” in a stranger’s head. How to not be entitled. I read all of it.  To be honest prior to starting my journey as a graduate student, I hadn’t been privy to this entire process of writing to strangers with unsolicited proposals, an idea I was introduced to earlier in primary school through writing small pieces of paper in class, pushing them around to new pupils. Later on, this notion was re-enforced by Vivian, a friend I met during the first year of my masters in Algeria.  We revisited it while applying for internships and hosts for Masters’ thesis research.
So, I had a slight idea of what was lying ahead of me. Boy, regardless of how much you know, nothing prepares you for 200 unfruitful emails! Two hundred emails and all you do is nothing – but fail at achieving what you want. A lot really happened that I never expected. I got all sorts of feelings, self-doubt being the headliner. The process of securing a graduate position can be quite daunting; your self-esteem might take a significant blow from time to time, mine sure did.   To summarize with a few statistics, between 17th September 2017 to 7th September 2018, I wrote 37 emails; 8th September 2018 to 9th September 2019, I wrote 18 emails; 10th September 2019 to 10th July 2020, I wrote 110 emails. The majority of emails were written during the pandemic period; roughly, I wrote a total of 165 emails.
During my vision boarding session for 2021, I reflected on the past year and how I managed to achieve a goal I’ve had for three years. I decided to take a look at the process that got me there and share a few things in this blog. I am hoping it would inspire someone out there to push on in whatever they’re going through. I also share a few lessons I learnt and reflections.  Ultimately, the world is full of opportunities, and there’s one for everyone. You just need to focus on honing your skills and improving yourself.  

The positive but not so positive responses…

I received a bunch of these emails, not the exact same wording but similar. Mind you; this could come after a series of reminders. You should expect a lot of these, maybe not.

The lesson here is regardless of how positive the message is, if there’s nothing concrete, don’t stop. Keep on chasing other opportunities while waiting patiently for the sign. By the way, I still haven’t heard from this one. Maybe no one was interested, or perhaps I am waiting for a ship at a bus station!

The Reminders…

I had to remind people that I wrote to them. Perhaps they were busy or they had forgotten. I mean, it could be anything, but I never wanted to leave any room for maybe(s). Don’t leave any room for assumptions, if there’s anything you can do about it, like NIKE, just do it. As a rule of thumb, I wrote at least three reminders to places I was really interested in, 1 or 2 weeks apart.

Outright No…

These I appreciated a lot because as the saying goes, rejection is redirection, and you instantly do not waste any time waiting for feedback. It is a win because you lose 100% of the shots you never fire. Look elsewhere. Fire that shot—Chase that goal.

No funding …

You will receive many of these. funding is very critical for graduate school especially a PhD, if you are from a humble background like mine you know that even if you are turned upside down and inside out there’s no way you can afford to pay fees and take care of yourself for the 3 – 4 years of your program. It’s good to be very clear and explicitly state that you don’t have funding at the moment(if you don’t), but you are optimistic about chasing and finding scholarships. What I learnt is that if you have a supportive supervisor, it’s relatively easier to get funding than when you don’t have one.

Lack of capacity…

Every PhD student knows it is the supervisor who makes or “breaks” you, so, no supervisor no position. However, when I received emails of this kind, they always made me smile. I understood that people might not help, but it helps to appreciate you or your excellent work. This always rejuvenated my spirits to probably write five more emails.

Just a little bit more…

More rejections, yes! I got quite a number; the majority of emails were of this kind. At one point it felt like guys had a template and they were responding by adding my name.

Then official rejections…

Man! For this email, I remember what everything felt like. It broke my heart and lungs combined!

Some good news came through. Notice how the email -2 frames – back highlights the number of candidates as 70, but I was never considered. See, when you get that rejection email, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not good. It could mean that they have not seen in you the set of skills they are looking for. There’s also a possibility that they haven’t understood how good you are. Don’t dwell too much on that rejection, soldier on; the right opportunity is on its way.

Unfortunately, I was never considered for this position either. To put things into perspective, I made it from 110 candidates to 22, to 8 and to the last 3. They needed one, and clearly, from the result, it wasn’t me. I was better, and he/she was the best.

I learnt to be a graceful loser.

Success at Last from the number 1…

And then, Boom!! This happened. While I was still celebrating, 👇🏽 👇🏽 👇🏽this too happened!

Then I was spoilt for choice. I knew everything had eventually worked out. Not just worked out but I was going to arguably one of the best schools in the world. The most exciting thing though was that I would work with one of the most amazing and resourceful academicians I have ever met. Over time, I have learned that the latter should be more paramount in this entire graduate school application process.

I understand that the number of emails I wrote might seem daunting at first, but you need to understand one thing, I never set out to write these many emails. I just sought until I found, now that I did, I am not sending any more emails. At least not for the same cause. Another thing, all these emails were not sent in one day.  It was over a period of time. It is until I got what I was looking for that I stopped. The lesson here is never to give up, and always remind yourself why you started. Lastly, about the choice of universities, my preference was to places closer to home; hence European universities were my first choice. Not that it’s a walkable distance but, a travel time of 10 hours is doable. Along the way, I got really stubborn and got my university filter a little stricter. This was after I had sent an email to one of the professors, and he rubbished my research work as sloppy and expressed his unwillingness to support such work. He was from a somewhat low-ranking school, I felt like one can’t be both impolite and from a university of that calibre. I could be wrong, that’s why I said, “I got stubborn” and, people are people. After receiving his email, I rushed to the Times Higher University rankings. I adopted this as my guide for selecting which universities to go to. I set a rule that I am not sending an email to any professor whose research doesn’t score highly on the H-Index. Or whose university is below the first 100 universities worldwide.  I realized I couldn’t compromise excellence for anything. At least not from a random guy who had never met me beyond the email he received.

Even though this in no way paints the real picture of what I went through, it approximates the experience somehow. This being a blog article about my PhD scholarship struggles, my hope is that it is seen as a story of resilience and, therefore, could inspire anyone out there trying to improve themselves or look for the next big opportunity.