The PHD Journey (2)1

The PhD Journey: What Will You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

On May 9th, 2020, I officially bagged my PhD in Engineering. This achievement means a lot to me, my family, my village and anyone who has been directly or indirectly part of my life. I’ve been overjoyed and extremely humbled by this feat. Attaining a PhD in any field is by no means a joke. However, setting out to pursue a direct PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science was definitely ambitious. I have had many reflections and I have decided to share some bits of the journey to inspire and encourage anyone who needs it at this time.

Sometime in 2013, my friend Jojo (now Dr. France-Mensah) sent me a fully-funded PhD opportunity in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tennessee Tech University (TTU). He had been an excellent student at TTU and a professor asked him to recommend someone for the opportunity. I did not immediately decide on the PhD opportunity for two reasons: 1) although I had plans for a PhD, it was a mid to long-term goal. 2) My planned trajectory included a master’s first, family, some more work experience in the oil and gas industry and a PhD in Environmental and Energy Policy. A direct PhD in Engineering seemed outside my horizon. As a result, I decided to talk to some course-mates (females) whom I felt were also well-suited for the PhD opportunity. Well, it turned out my friends also preferred to pursue masters and family first.

I decided to think about the opportunity more carefully and I realized that at the core of things, I was uncomfortable with the idea of the graduate record exam (GRE) requirement. I was also sore afraid of the direct PhD in an Engineering program when I had no background in Engineering. Despite the fear, what kept me thinking about the opportunity was a strong conviction the Lord placed in my heart. I told Jojo I was considering the opportunity and he just went to hype me to Dr. Datta, the professor. After some email exchanges with transcripts and phone interview, Dr. Datta became very interested in having me in her lab. I was also hooked on the research area which was on bioenergy. However, I was still quite undecided so I asked for a postponement of the start date, which she agreed. Professors like Dr. Datta get a ton of emails from prospective students, but in my case, she was willing to keep her funding just for me. It was a rare opportunity. I did a self-study for the GRE and got good scores on a second try. In July 2014, I took one of the toughest decisions and the risk to resign from my comfortable role at Tullow Oil to pursue an unfamiliar PhD.

I got into the doctoral program and realized that American graduate education requires lots of coursework. One of the course requirements in my program was Open Channel Hydraulics and I didn’t have the prerequisite courses (i.e. Fluid mechanics and Hydraulics). I was so terrified by that course and I went to meet the professor if I could even take it without the prerequisites. He asked me if I knew “Momentum equation, Continuity equation, Manning’s’ equation, etc.” My response was simply, “No.” It became apparent that I had to join the undergraduate Hydraulics class for my first semester to prepare me to take the graduate course the following year. I did. Another challenge I had with the coursework was the unfamiliar US measurement units! I could go blank just by hearing “cubic feet.” For my assignments, I remember I will convert all the units to metric before solving the questions and later convert back to US units just to help me understand better. I finished coursework in about 2.5 years and did some preliminary research work during that period. My actual research focused on using a bio-engineered process called anaerobic co-digestion to improve renewable energy (biogas) recovery from organic waste. The research took off in my third year. The research was TOUGH and frustrating with exciting highs and many deep lows which I’ll not address in this particular post. I honestly came very close to quitting in May 2019 but I decided to take it slow and just kept going.

In the middle of the difficulties and uncertainties with the journey, I always remembered that the Lord had directed me to take this path and He was going to be faithful, so I hang on to Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the thoughts that I have towards you, saith the Lord. Thoughts of peace and not of evil but to give you an expected end.” I also knew that He who had begun a good work in me was going to perform it (Phil 1:6).

I was doing it all while afraid but confident, resilient and extremely focused. Fast forward to May 9th 2020, I successfully attained my PhD in Engineering with 16 accumulated awards and scholarships including the prestigious American Association of University Women (AAUW) 2015/2016 International Doctoral Fellowship and the College of Engineering’s 2019 Eminence Award for Doctor of Philosophy Best Paper for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. I have three first-authored journal and conference publications (with additional three journal papers in preparation). I presented my research at several highly-regarded conferences across the United States, including WEFTEC-the largest conference in my field with over 20,000 attendees.

My journey will not have seen these great successes without the help of many people. I’m eternally grateful to God for the strength and wisdom he gave me for the journey. I’m indebted to my friend Dr. Jojo France-Mensah for believing in me and initiating this journey. And to my advisor, Dr. Datta, I cannot thank her enough for pushing me beyond my familiar limits to achieve this feat with all the accompanying successes. Today, I stand here full of gratitude to many others who also held my hand at various stages of my education and I’ll highlight them in due time. I couldn’t have achieved this without my family, especially the immeasurable support of my dear husband Deacon Gideon Danso Eduah, and the good friends who have always had my back.

My journey brings to mind the people like Moses, Gideon, Sarah and Mary who either doubted themselves or the process God was using to realise a mission because they seemed inexperienced or the process seemed impossible. I’m happy that my story tells of the faithfulness and the abundant grace of God and the power in staying focused to achieve a set goal.

By Dr. Juliet Ohemeng-Ntiamoah (PhD Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Member, The Church of Pentecost, Tennessee District, USA.

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