A Tale of Grit: Personal Reflections from My PhD Journey

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By Reginald Aziza 

A few days ago, I was chatting with a good friend of mine. In his characteristic way of extolling whatever little accomplishments I have, whilst significantly understating his own (in colloquial Nigerian terms, we refer to this as ‘whining’ or ‘washing’ someone), he said I would probably hold the record for the quickest part-time DPhil in the Oxford Law Faculty. As the socially accepted way of responding to someone ‘whining’ you is to retaliate by further diminishing the significance of your accomplishments and overstating those of your counterpart, I told my friend (whom I knew had a PhD offer from an Ivy League university in the US) that he would probably finish his program in half the time I did.

 But on further reflection, it struck me: I had concluded my part-time DPhil within my full-time schedule. And I had done this in the middle of the most transformative period of my life, in which time I got married, commenced working full time in Nigeria, became a father, lost my father, and lived through the pandemic. Several people have asked me how it was possible to achieve this, whilst maintaining a delicate balance across all aspects of my life. Whilst my normal response has been to gloss over the issues, again, on further reflection, I think this may be a disservice to people who may learn something from my journey.

This is therefore a reflection on my DPhil journey. It is a tale of grit and perseverance. A tale of joy, success and celebration. But also, a tale of sorrow, tears and regrets. The short lesson from this story is this: if you can commit your sweat and tears to it, it is likely achievable.

One clarification before I proceed. A perceptive reader is likely to have noticed that the title of this commentary refers to a ‘PhD’ whilst the contents have been referring to a ‘DPhil’. It is one of the wonderfully confusing things about Oxford, where the general Master of Law program is referred to as the Bachelor of Civil Law (even though the course has nothing to do with a bachelor’s degree and very little to do with civil law). Both ‘PhD’ and ‘DPhil’ simply refer to the Doctor of Philosophy. The reasons for and implications of Oxford retaining the ‘DPhil’ title will have to be sought in another commentary.

The Context  

I always knew I wanted to take a doctorate degree. What I was less clear on was the topic of my research and the institution where I wanted to take the programme. Following my admission to the Nigerian Bar in 2013, I was fortunate to work in Olaniwun Ajayi LP, one of Nigeria’s leading law practices. It was here I was first exposed to corporate law and finance. In the same year, I applied to the flagship Master of Corporate Law (MCL) programme in the University of Cambridge, and I was fortunate to be admitted in 2014. My programme in Cambridge was 50% funded by a generous bursary from Herbert Smith Freehills LLP. One chance event happened in Cambridge which would later have a tremendous influence on my Oxford DPhil: the Director of the MCL programme was away from Cambridge in the 2014/2015 academic session. The MCL programme therefore got a Professor of Corporate Law from Oxford to take the course on Comparative Corporate Governance which the MCL Director would have taught.

Following a relatively successful (but extremely eventful) year in Cambridge, I joined Herbert Smith Freehills in London in September of 2015 and worked there until October of 2016. Upon my return to Nigeria in October, I started thinking long and hard about what my next career steps would be. On the one hand, it was clear to me that I wanted to be a practitioner instead of an academic. On the other hand, strongly influenced by my father, I knew if I was to achieve a doctorate, it was probably better to return to the classroom sooner rather than later. I therefore made three applications between November and December of 2016.

The first was to the International Arbitration group of Shearman and Sterling LLP in Paris. At my interview for the role, the interviewing Partner informed me that the Paris office primarily did investment arbitration work and since I only had commercial (as opposed to investment) arbitration experience, they could only offer me a 6-month internship role with the team, with the opportunity to transition into a full Associate role, subject to on-the-job performance and availability. The prospects of moving to Paris, immersing myself in a new culture and learning a new area of law proved compelling. I accepted the offer.

The second application was to re-join Olaniwun Ajayi LP. This was a natural move: I maintained very good relationships with the leadership of the firm and enjoyed the quality of work I did there. Fortunately, they were happy to have me, so I accepted to join them, starting 2 January, 2017. As my Paris offer was to start on 15 March 2017, my plan was to go to Paris between March and September; if I got retained, I will stay on in Paris, otherwise, I will return to my role in Nigeria.

The circumstances surrounding the third application proved interesting. My father kept reiterating that this was probably the best time to take a doctorate. As stated above, although I always wanted to take a doctorate, there were too many uncertainties. I was not sure of the area of law I wanted to research on, the university I wanted to apply to, and speaking frankly, I really, really wanted to make money. I therefore decided to do something interesting: I will make an application that is doomed to fail so I can justify to my father that I was unsuccessful at starting a doctorate. The plan was watertight. I will make only one PhD application. I will commit only two weeks into preparing my research proposal. This singular application will be made to Oxford, where I knew there would be intense competition for spaces. I will also not apply for funding. This created a waterfall of rejection scenarios where it was likely that I will not secure the admission, and even if I did, it was likely I will not secure funding, thus permitting me to continue in law practice. If I somehow got into Oxford after all this, it was certainly going to be the invisible hand of God. Influenced by some work I had previously done in Nigeria and my time in Cambridge, I thought of researching into capital markets development in sub-Saharan Africa. After 10 days of reading, I put together a first draft of my research proposal. I sent this draft to the Oxford Professor who had stepped in to take the course during my Cambridge masters and asked him if he would be willing to supervise my research in the odd chance I secured the admission. He warned me that admissions to the Oxford DPhil were extremely competitive, but graciously accepted to supervise my research if I secured admission. I put in the DPhil application in December 2016. From all accounts, 2017 was going to be an interesting year.

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I had a good time re-connecting with my former job in January and February. On Saturday 11 March 2017, I travelled to Paris. I started work on Wednesday, 15 March 2017. On Friday, 17 March 2017, just two days into my work in Paris, the unexpected happened: I got into Oxford!

I can still remember the scream of excitement and surprise when I opened the offer letter. It seemed God had a trick up his sleeves after all. But securing admission was only the first step. Since I had not applied for any external scholarships, I was completely at the mercy of scholarships administered by the university and colleges. I therefore initially had mixed reactions to the admission. A few weeks later, I got an email from the Law Faculty. The Law Faculty and Wadham College were creating a scholarship for a DPhil student and wanted to know if I would be interested in moving from my originally assigned college to Wadham College to take up the scholarship. The scholarship was to cover about 80% of my tuition, leaving me with only 20% of tuition and my leaving expenses. It seemed like God was throwing me a lifeline. I replied yes before I finished reading the email. A few more weeks later, I got a scholarship from the Federal Government of Nigeria for the balance of my tuition fees and my living expenses. The miracle had been completed! In August 2017, I returned to Nigeria to visit my family and apply for my visa. On 28 September 2017, I was on my way to Oxford.

The Oxford DPhil 

In the Beginning 

I have gone through a detailed context to show I was quite unprepared for my DPhil journey. The start of the DPhil was both the most stressful and the most interesting part of the academic journey. My supervisor (a fantastic, fantastic academic and gentleman) immersed me first into the economics of capital markets before I started any legal research. I shadowed courses on the Master of Law and Finance programme to deepen my fluency in corporate law and financial regulation. My time in Cambridge and the long hours I was accustomed to working in law firms also allowed me to get the ball rolling very quickly. At the time, I put myself on a strict regime: study for 10 hours a day or cover 100 pages of a text (book, journal article etc) whichever came first. This meant I had covered an impressive amount of material very quickly after resumption. I got a lifetime membership of the Oxford Union and thoroughly enjoyed listening to speeches and debates and meeting several world leaders.

Tying the Knot 

In January 2018, I started mulling the idea of getting married to my girlfriend. At the time, we had been dating for about 2 years and we therefore had a good knowledge of each other and our plans. On 9 February 2018, I proposed to my girlfriend in the Wadham College graduate student accommodation, flanked by some of my friends taking their graduate degrees. The plan was simple, even if a tad unrealistic: we would get married in the summer of 2018 and live together in Oxford until the end of the DPhil and thereafter take a view on career options. It did not take us long to see the faults in that line of reasoning. At the time, I was living on a scholarship stipend of £1,200 a month. Asides my personal expenses, I was saving from my scholarship stipend to pay the tuition of two people I was funding to the Nigerian Law School under a scholarship scheme I started in February 2017. The engagement and wedding rings and preparations for a Lagos wedding quickly and severely imperilled my finances. Both me and my girlfriend applied for jobs in London to give a soft landing to the start of married life, but our attempts were unsuccessful. At this time, I saw an opening for a legal role in Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL). I applied. On 25 August 2018, my girlfriend and I got married in Lagos.

My Job and Return to Nigeria 

It was still about a week after the wedding. My wife and I had set aside some funds for a honeymoon in Bali. On or around 2 September, I got a mail from CNL inviting me to an interview on 11 September. I had the interview and we returned to London. At this time, I was seriously behind on my schoolwork. I therefore went back into overdrive to catch up and had to plead with my wife for us to postpone our honeymoon. Towards the end of October, I was more comfortable with where I was, and we started mulling over honeymoon plans again. These discussions were cut short when CNL offered me a job on 21 October 2018. I was to commence on 1 November 2018, giving me only ten days to return to Nigeria. Three factors influenced this key decision. First, if the plan was to return to law practice after the DPhil, it was becoming increasingly clear that I will pay an ‘education tax’ (i.e. my years of experience may be discounted to account for the time spent on the DPhil). I was very agitated about this. Second, my research confirmed that CNL had a very cohesive team of high performing lawyers in its legal department. This meant a lot to me. Third, it was crucial to me for my family to get up to a good financial start after marriage, and CNL offered me a solid opportunity to achieve this.

I quickly accepted the offer and applied to convert my mode of study from full-time to part-time. Fortunately, my university scholarship was not revoked but was restructured to take account of my new mode of study. I also informed the Nigerian government of my job and requested the revocation of my scholarship since I would be able to pay the balance of my tuition and my living expenses from my salary. Within a few days, I was on my way back to Nigeria. Fortunately, my wife also got a job in Nigeria, and she joined me a few weeks later. We were now reunited in Nigeria whilst I continued working and studying.

This stretch was one of the most gruelling roads on the journey (but 2020 made me realise things could get even tougher). Taking an Oxford DPhil is tough; merging it with a full-time job is even tougher; but taking a DPhil in securities law, merging it with a full-time job in oil and gas law, whilst settling to life as a new couple is something I simply could not be prepared for. It required me to wear different hats at different times and start another overdrive, which needed me to work both hard and smart.

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During the week, I tried to give about 3 hours a day to my studies. To achieve this, I will either continue working at home on my return from work or remain in the office for a few more hours at the end of the workday. Saturdays were entirely devoted to my studies (I recall a few 15-hour study marathons I did on Saturdays). I gave myself Sunday morning to rest after mass. The rest of Sunday was shared between work and studies, with about 3 hours for family and friends. The routine started again on Monday. My vacations and public holidays were also exclusively devoted to studies and trips to Oxford. We only found time for honeymoon in December 2019 – a year and four months after getting married.

A few things helped me through this phase. First, my wife was a neck and shoulder beyond excellent and without her support and patience in my manic schedules, I would almost certainly have given up. Second, I invested heavily in and leveraged on technology. I got a second personal laptop and had my entire DPhil folder (containing all my reference material and draft work) saved to OneDrive and could therefore work from anywhere and any device. I sharpened my ability to work at any time of the day and in the most distracting circumstances. I wrote parts of my thesis in church, airports, restrooms, taxis; literally anywhere the idea came. Third, my job was teaching me to have a proper approach to receiving feedback. Therefore, even after receiving tough comments to draft work I submitted to my supervisor, I learned to take this feedback as akin to the purification of gold in fire: the output will always be better. Finally, I learned the benefit of setting clear (even if ambitious) goals. As time went on, I got better at giving clear indications of timelines and got more strategic on what my key focus areas were and what I will need to do to achieve them. The key downside was that the harder I drove myself, the less time I had for many other things including family. I increasingly grew distant, missed appointments and was often unable to repay the time and effort other people sacrificed in nurturing their relationships with me. This is one of my big regrets, even though, in hindsight, I wonder if I could have done any better.

2020 and the 3Ps 

If I thought I was dealing with a lot at the end of 2019, 2020 showed me things could get a lot more challenging. 2020 added what I refer to as the 3Ps to an already complex life.

First, my wife’s pregnancy. On a bright morning in the first week of March, I was attending meetings in London, when my wife who was in Nigeria broke news of her pregnancy to me. On WhatsApp. Of course, WhatsApp is a curious medium to break the news of your pregnancy to your husband, but I digress. The pregnancy added a further layer of complexity to the balance: increased domestic responsibilities and frequent hospital visits to mention two. Brave as a lion, my wife carried the pregnancy with remarkable grace and strength.

Second, the pandemic. Shortly after my return from London in March 2020, the pandemic took a different turn in Nigeria. A lockdown was imposed, and work from home orders were issued. At the time, I was getting to a good place with my research and I had already gotten used to continuing my DPhil remotely. Thus, the lockdown did not affect my work too much. However, it severely affected my mental state. I longed to see people, to go out and take in some fresh air before returning to the blurry lines between weekend and weekday, day and night, and work and research. In addition to the other coping mechanisms I already identified, I started exercising. Each 10km run or 20km walk came with a promise that if you only pushed yourself further, you can achieve the next milestone.

Third, parenthood. On 23 October 2020, we welcomed our son into the world. As I quickly came to realise, no books or manuals can adequately prepare you for parenthood. Fortunately, as is customary in Nigeria, my wife and I got incredible support from both of our parents, both of whom spent weeks with us at different times in the first few months of our son’s birth. Given this support and terrified by how little work I was able to do towards the end of the pregnancy, I took this time to immerse myself again in my work. Fortunately, at this time, all the substantive chapters of my thesis had been completed, and I only had to write the introductory and concluding chapters. By the end of 2020, the thesis was looking in good enough shape. Then tragedy struck.

My Right Arm is Broken 

If you have made it this far, you may recall the pivotal role my Dad played in my decision to take the DPhil. Throughout my educational journey, he had been my hero. He knew every exam I ever wrote, every grade I ever received and was certainly more concerned about my DPhil progress than I was. My Dad was also the strongest man I knew. In the early 2000s, he had been wrongly diagnosed of cancer and therefore subjected to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I was in JSS3 at the time. The doctors treating him had told him to ‘get his house in order’. He made two prayers in what he thought could be his death bed: he wanted to see his wife, my mom, become a Professor; and he wanted to see his last child, me, enter into the university. God granted him more than he asked for: he saw my mom become a Professor and rise to senior leadership roles in her university; and he also saw me enter into and finish from the university, the Nigerian Law School and Cambridge. When he returned from my graduation in Cambridge, he told me he was not sure he wanted to make any more foreign travels. Upon entering Oxford, I told him to permit me one last foreign trip for him to witness my graduation.

Thus, when in mid-December 2020, he told me he was ill, I initially did not think too much on it. I asked him to take care of himself, get whatever medication he needed and get enough rest. But the reports got increasingly worse. The reality of his rapidly deteriorating health situation only dawned on me when he was admitted in the hospital after a few days. I made several entreaties to travel home to see him but he consistently turned them down. He was more concerned for my safety.

Sometime in mid-afternoon on Thursday 24 December, I got a call from one of my brothers. He told me it seemed my Dad was saying final goodbyes and he asked me to call him. Apparently, he had told my elder brother that he would be going soon. But when I called him, I remember he was in his normal jovial spirits with me, so I did not pay close attention to what he told me. I should have. This was my last conversation with him.

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On Sunday, 27 December, his situation had deteriorated so severely that my brothers and I had a conference call to determine whether to discontinue his life support. I have never cried so hard. I told them I will make an emergency trip home the following day to see him. My only ask was to see him alive one more time. On Monday, 28 December, I arrived home with one of my brothers. Nothing could beat the emotions I felt seeing my Dad on his deathbed. I cried freely but soon put myself together. He tried talking to me, but his voice was muffled. And although his body was weak, I felt the strength of his spirit. He responded very weakly to the jokes I could barely speak to liven his spirit. I promised to take care of him if he would but return home. Upon returning home that day, I begged God, if he could hear me: I only wanted to take care of my Dad, even if for one more year.

And it seemed my prayer was answered. Early in the morning of Tuesday, 29 December, we got positive news from the hospital. My brother and I resolved to go to the hospital early that morning so could spend more time with him. We started putting together a list of songs we would play for him on our arrival in the hospital. My Dad was an avid lover of country music and high life. We thought Jim Reeves would be too solemn and may hasten his return to his creator. Like amateur DJs, we started putting together a fine collection of Don Williams, Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray. At 9:30am, as we were preparing to leave home, my mom received a call: Dad had passed on; the great iroko had fallen; my right arm was broken!

Putting the Pieces Together and Finishing the DPhil 

My Dad’s passing was a heavy blow. For the first two days, I lost the will to do anything. My colleagues in the office were extremely kind: they gave me the time I needed to grieve. And perhaps I should have grieved. But I knew the more I grieved, the more time I would need to recover. I recalled my favourite lines from my favourite poem, titled ‘The Wanderer’:

I have learned truly, the mark of a man is keeping his counsel and locking his lips

Let him think what he will

For woe of heart withstandeth not fate

A failing spirit earneth no help

Men eager for honour bury their sorrow deep in the breast

I asked myself what my Dad would have wanted from me. He died at 81 and was extremely content with the life he led. He would have wanted me to soldier on. And so did I. Amid the pain and sorrow, I put all the finishing touches to my thesis and within a week of my Dad’s passing, I had my thesis ready for submission. I submitted it for examination on 6 January. It was the only tribute I could give to my hero. Given my mental state at the time, I was quite sure the completed thesis was not the best I could give. But I was physically, mentally and emotionally drained. My honest assessment was that my thesis would be passed with corrections.

Preparing for the viva gave me another escape from dealing with the pain of my Dad’s demise. And for good measure: over 3 years of DPhil work came down to a 2-hour defence. I considered my examiners absolute gods in the field of corporate law and finance: my internal examiner was the Director of the Oxford Law and Finance programme, and my external examiner was the Director of the MCL in Cambridge, the same Professor whose absence from Cambridge led to me meeting my supervisor. I spent the next few weeks immersing myself in their writings, trying to understand how their minds worked, the methodological approaches they favoured in their research, and the angles from which they viewed issues. I spoke to my friends about them. The prevailing view seemed to be that they were tough but fair examiners and their feedback would be extremely helpful for the thesis itself and for what I do with it thereafter.

The viva proved to be a challenging, but overall pleasant experience. I was particularly delighted and surprised with how familiar they seemed to be with my 390-paged thesis, clear evidence that they had read the thesis carefully before the viva. As I thought going in, I passed the viva with minor corrections to my thesis. With all I had been through, I considered this to be a fair outcome.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I made the final corrections to the thesis and submitted to my examiners. In the evening of 27 April 2021, I received the confirmation that the revised thesis addressed all the corrections suggested by the examiners. The pain, sweat and tears were over. I broke the news to my mom and desperately wanted to speak with my Dad. He always had a bottle of beer in the refrigerator to celebrate this type of news and I wanted to tell him to have a drink. I played my recording of the Responsorial Psalm from his Requiem Mass and broke down again in tears. I regretted not concluding my research quicker.

But that night something happened: I dreamt of my Dad for the first time since he passed. Unlike the 81-year-old man struggling for life, he was full of life and looking like a young man in his mid-thirties. He smiled broadly as if happy with the journey his son had undertaken. At that moment, the words of one of my mentors from Olaniwun Ajayi LP rang in my head. Encouraging me after I told him of my Dad’s passing on 9 January 2021, he had said: ‘the wish of every parent is to be able to lead their child to a point where they will no longer be afraid’. In that moment, I recognised he had fulfilled his wish. I smiled back and woke up with renewed confidence to trudge along in the wilderness of life.

‘Am I happy with the journey’? Yes, I am. ‘Will I do anything different, if given the opportunity’? Yes, I will. I will spend more time with my family and appreciate and nurture my relationships more. ‘Will I recommend this journey to you’? Now that you have a flavour of what was involved, I leave it to you to determine for yourself.

Reginald is an Attorney at Chevron Nigeria Limited

Other interesting publications by Reginald”:

Towards Better Remuneration for Nigerian Legal Practitioners: A Market-Based Solution – Reginald Aziza

Analogue Regulation in a Digital Age: My Thesis Against the Daily Use of The Wig and Gown in Nigerian Courts – Reginald Aziza

 

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