I enrolled for a PhD in international relations at the United States International University (USIU-A), Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013. At the time, I had just started my teaching career. Although glad that I took the decision to develop intellectually, it wasn’t always smooth sailing at the beginning. It was a mix of setbacks and successes. I initially had self-doubts about the choice of making research and teaching my career path, however, with constant guidance and support from my supervisors, mentors, and peers alike, I completed my direct PhD in five years. The most intense stage was the writing phase. I am grateful for the professional development opportunities I came across such as workshops and summer schools, which were equally rewarding in my PhD journey.

Upon enrollment in 2013, I began looking for fellowships that would support my PhD studies. I first learnt of the SSRC’s Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa (Next Gen) fellowship program in 2015 through one of my professors, Kennedy Mkutu, as I neared the completion of my two-year PhD course work in 2015. Based on this, I applied for the 2016/17 Next Gen proposal fellowship and then later transitioned into the research and completion fellowships. As a three-time fellow, I truly appreciate the significant impact Next Gen awards had on my PhD journey.

At the point of applying for my first Next Gen SSRC fellowship in 2015, I had been reading and thinking broadly on youth radicalization in Kenya, but I was yet to properly ‘discipline’ my dissertation’s focus and key research questions. In between extended literature readings in order to situate the focus of a PhD dissertation, I felt a strong desire to explore a research theme anchored around youth and violent extremism. The theme was a good fit with the fellowship’s agenda of supporting innovative PhD projects in the fields of peace, security, and development. The conviction to pursue a study on a political violence-related theme came out of my engagement with the literature and certain trends in Kenya’s security situation. I held the view that an empirical understanding of the phenomenon of youth radicalization and not just abstract theorizing would make for a very interesting doctoral dissertation. This was reinforced by every day discourses in the press claiming that youth radicalization to commit acts of violent extremism posed existential threats not only to Kenya, but also neighboring countries and the world. The fellowship award enabled me to experiment with the ideas that I had been exploring. The proposal fellowship supported the process of gaining concrete clarity on my PhD research topic. It was indeed a game changer for my doctoral journey.

Value of the Awards

The first fellowship award helped immensely in shaping my PhD proposal that I successfully defended in the course of the fellowship in 2016. The award facilitated several activities for proposal development. I no longer had to worry about funding considerations for my pilot study. Funding can be a limiting factor in the case of self-funded PhD programs. The Next Gen support enabled me to embark on pilot studies in my two fieldwork locations in Kenya’s Nairobi and Mombasa Counties. The award paid for my travel, accommodation, and research-related expenses in the field. Additionally, I bought books that I relied on to gain clarity on key research questions, and appropriate methodologies. The award also prepared me for my main fieldwork in 2016-2018. I was also able to anticipate the practicalities and sensibilities of conducting sensitive research and navigate some of the challenges around data collection.

Value of the Next Gen Fellows Workshops

The method workshops throughout my three fellowships were equally rewarding. Having subject experts as workshop mentors and facilitators speaking to your research questions, methods, and choice of literature was truly an enriching intellectual exercise. I left each workshop (I attended five in all), challenged and with critical insights that helped to shape the dissertation further in consultation with my PhD supervisors. Each workshop equipped me with more questions, and concepts that I needed to probe further as the research and the writing stage progressed. Equally, the feedback from my peers in the fellowship cohort was instrumental in seeing the larger picture about the unique features as well as commonalities in our individual research projects. We were also able to collectively share some clarity on the ideas and concepts we were working with across disciplines and countries. A key lesson I learnt from the methods workshop was the need to package one’s research puzzle in a way that even a non-subject expert can appreciate and visualize the goal of the study. Meeting with other fellows was and is still very useful in networking and sharing information about career enhancement activities such as workshops, conferences, and other research grants opportunities.

Travel Awards

I was also supported by the Next Gen program with travel grants to attend two international conferences – the African Studies Association (ASA) in Chicago and the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) in Accra – both in 2017. Attending both conferences provided me with great exposure to peers from other parts of Africa and the world. I also had the opportunity to disseminate my preliminary research findings to scholarly audiences. The feedback from my presentations at the two conferences also strengthened my dissertation, and helped me progress in my academic career.

Conclusion and next steps

The Next Gen fellowship awards made a great difference in the trajectory of my PhD journey from inception to completion in September 2018. The fellowships illuminated and rejuvenated my scholarly interests in the sub-field of security studies. As an early career scholar, I am now on a mission to encourage and motivate PhD students in my university and the wider community that an academic profession is a path worth pursuing. I am always keen to review their writing, encouraging them as the next generation of scholars. I also share relevant literature with them and give practical advice on how to navigate the PhD journey. While at it, I am also setting milestones as I progress through the post-doctoral phase of my academic career.