When I applied to an advert for a studentship for HIV-related work in Zimbabwe and was successful, I was incredibly excited. I knew the next step on my career path was completing a PhD. The focus of the PhD was to develop a new measure assessing barriers of adherence to Antiretroviral Therapy (ART; combining antiretroviral drugs to slow the progression of HIV and suppress the HIV virus) for adults living with HIV in Zimbabwe. I was working as a research assistant examining HIV in South Africa (although I was based in London) so it was a perfect fit. At the time, the advert mentioned travelling and spending time in Zimbabwe, but strangely I did not think in depth about that part. I was just happy to be moving on in my career. After it had sunk in, I realised that this was going to be more of challenge than I had expected. Undergoing a PhD is a daunting task, but this included living in a country I had never been to before, for an indefinite amount of time. I realised this would not only challenge me academically, but also personally.
I lived in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, for around six months. Prior to embarking on my PhD, I knew very little about the country. There were definitely moments when I wished I had chosen to complete a PhD locally, particularly when applying for ethical approval. However, I am really happy I took on this challenge. It has given me experiences I may never get a chance to encounter again- the chance to live and research for months in another country.
The first major hurdle of recruiting participants abroad, was achieving ethical approval. I was going to administer a survey to approximately 300 participants in an HIV clinic in Harare. The ethics process in the UK was very simple and only required approval from King’s College London. In Zimbabwe, I had to obtain approval from the HIV clinic, then the Hospital the clinic was attached to, then the main ethics board in Zimbabwe, and then another ethical board because I am a foreign researcher. To achieve the last one, I also had to be accepted as an affiliate of an establishment in the country (in this case the University of Zimbabwe). Each one had to be completed in order and I had to receive the ethical approval from King’s prior to starting the process in Zimbabwe. I was not allowed to enter the country until I received the final approval. To make matters more interesting, everything is paper-based. I had to complete the forms and then send it to someone in Zimbabwe to prepare everything and submit. It was an incredibly frustrating process, but I am extremely grateful for everyone who helped me. It was during this time that an issue occurred with the ethical process in which I thought I would never get a chance to complete my PhD. It was a roller-coaster ride and I had to try and think of multiple plan B’s. It was the lowest point of my PhD; however, everything did work out and the feeling of relief was unbelievable.
Due to the delays, I ended up re-scheduling flights to Harare for data collection four more times. Eventually I flew to Harare, two days after receiving the final approval. I was a bundle of nerves. Prior to this flight I had completed a small trip to Harare the year before (early on in my PhD) to meet potential collaborators, look around the clinic and explore places I could stay while I was there. I was so happy I did, because it helped me to find out where I was going, what I needed to take with me, and the visa required for me to stay when I eventually moved over.
Zimbabwe was (and still is) having a cash crisis. Previously, I had tried to send money to the country via bank transfer and it had been cancelled. King’s was sending money to the University of Zimbabwe for my research; however, by the time I flew I did not know if the money had gone through, so I had to carry bundles of cash (US dollars) just in case. Luckily the transfer did go through so I could use that money on my research; however, it was not easy to take money out from any bank so I could only request small amounts at a time.
Living in Harare for months was a fantastic experience. I really loved the people and the culture. Everyone was so warm and friendly. I would definitely recommend Zimbabwe as a holiday destination. There was a language barrier, but many people speak English so it was not as difficult as expected. I had a wonderful research assistant who was fluent in English and Shona (the main indigenous language) who helped me while recruiting participants. Even though there were power cuts I was still able to contact home regularly via Skype. There were some interesting experiences I had while I was there- one of which was crossing the road! I could walk to the HIV clinic from where I was staying; however, I had to cross two main roads getting there. There were no pedestrian crossings so I had to wait each day to ensure I crossed with groups of locals. The locals seemed to have no problem, but I felt much safer crossing the road in numbers!
I would definitely recommend embarking on a global PhD or postdoc; however, it’s important to plan prior to starting. I would suggest to:
1) Find out as early as possible about the process of ethical approval;
2) Know the process for visa applications. This could take much longer than expected;
3) Take a short trip out, prior to moving over, to get a good idea of the country, i.e. cost of living and the best places to stay;
4) Start building up your network. Contact other researchers and find out about conferences in that area. I was lucky enough to travel to a local conference near Victoria Falls to present my work. It was such a fabulous trip and completely unexpected. Knowing the surrounding area as well as your local area is important too– Harare does not require malaria tablets, but Victoria Falls does (which I only remembered at the very last minute!).
Overall, I feel more confident in my abilities to cope with stressful and difficult situations. I imagine no PhD runs smoothly, but this definitely had its ups and downs. It was an adventure and it was so worthwhile.
This blog post was written by Natasha Croome who recently completed a PhD at King’s College London (KCL), Centre for Global Mental Health, supervised by Dr Lyndsay Hughes (Health Psychology Section, KCL). You can find out more about Natasha’s research here. The post was edited by Elaina Taylor. Hoping to leave you healthily psyched until next time!