After the rigor in the class Research Philosophy and Methods in International Relations, students’ knowledge is not tested in the final examination but at the proposal stage of thesis writing. Our class used Earl Babbie (2013) and Alan Bryman (2012) textbooks which were all very detailed and analytical in their approach to social research methods. The last Chapter in both books look at the aspect of reading and writing social research. This is the practical aspect of the writing, having discussed comprehensively topics in the nature and process of social research, social research strategies, research design which includes jargons such as reliability, replication, validity etc. Other areas covered include quantitative and qualitative research designs, the logic of sampling, observation techniques among other interesting topics. 

Part of our assignment was coming up with a draft title for our thesis, writing a background of the study, research objectives, questions, statement of research problem, justification of the study, the methodology and ultimately a mini literature review. I did well in my assignment. I used the draft to apply for a proposal fellowship program – the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa: Doctoral Dissertation Proposal Fellowship. I am glad that I won and now waiting for a validation of my documents. 

Sitting in my first Doctoral Thesis Defense on Wednesday 22 March 2017, I took a number of lessons. There were four students (two women and two men) who were defending their proposals on this day. I walked in five minutes after the first presenter had began her defense. The first presenter’s research was on truth, justice and reconciliation in Kenya and her emphasis was on the post-election violence. My Professor Macharia Munene doesn’t like the phrase “Post-election violence” – he says the term is being used to “hide the fact that there was violence before, during and after the 2007 election.” I think he is right in his assessment. The second presenter, was looking at China’s soft power and its influence of Kenya’s foreign policy. The third presenter, was looking at the conflict among the Pokot-Turkana, Marakwet and other surrounding communities. He was very passionate of the topic. We were advised that in spite of the passion that we have on a topic, we should avoid been so sentimental to it for purposes of objectivity.  The last presenter was looking at the conflict in South Sudan, and specifically looking at the negation of peace agreements.

After their presentations, the USIU-Africa School of Humanities and Social Sciences Thesis Panel gave their feedback on the proposals. I took important lessons from the inputs from the panel of four professors.

Central thesis of a thesis

Professor Korwa Adar, one of the panelists, who has taken me in previous classes, and who supervised my MA thesis, likes to get a central thesis to any research undertaking. According to him, you cannot have a thesis if you don’t have a central thesis (the main argument). In book critic assignments, he always stresses that one points out the central thesis of the book before giving a critical assessment. He pointed out to the presenters that it is important for thesis (dissertation) to bring out “explicitly” the central thesis, failure to which, he says there is no research. This comes out clearly in the statement of the research problem which must show the gap that one’s research seeks to fill.

Every International Relations Research should have an International angle

Professor Munene asked the lady who was presenting on PEV in Kenya, what was international about her selection of Molo town as the site of the study. His argument was that since the school will award the candidates a PhD degree in International Relations it is important that one’s research has an international relations angle to it.

Being explicit in the Methodology

The methodology of one’s study explains the method of data collection, analysis as well as the technique and approach to data collection and the site of the research. The panel stressed the need to have a clear and thorough methodology in the proposal stage. Oftentimes, students only write a brief methodology without taking into consideration that it should be thorough.

Background to the Study

Oftentimes students make the assumption that either the reader knows everything or nothing regarding the topic. With that assumption many students either write very long or very short backgrounds to the study. The background to the study should be guided by the topic being researched. However, the background should cover a historical overview of the subjects being studied.

Up-to-date literature

Literature being reviewed and referred to should be recent. This shows that the candidate is up-to-date with what is being said about the study. Appreciating what has been written on your particular research is important for one to build up a strong argument.

Where are the African scholars?

I was just reading one essay written by our VC Professor Paul Zeleza in his collection of essays titled “The Whiteness of Airports”. This essay found in the volume “Barack Obama and African Diasporas: Dialogues and Dissensions.” In that essay, he is astonished by the whiteness in North American airports and the white travelers into Africa. He is perplexed also by African Americans and African Canadians who opt to visit the sandy beaches and luxurious hotels of Europe and not to Africa. This is again the tragedy of African scholarship. We tend to focus so much on the white scholars and ignore the black scholars even in topics that are African. The panel reminded the candidates that it is important to engage black scholars in their research.

Observing Protocol

Before a candidate starts thesis proposal, it is important that he or she acknowledges the presence of the panel and greets them. A candidate should also thank the panel for convening the defense before and after the presentation.

It is doable just be prepared

We are often told that the defense is a hard and tasking. Yes, it it hard and tasking. However, one should be well prepared. Be grounded in what you really want to research. The thesis defense sets a stage for one to get feedback and polish the proposal before delving into the writing.