My PhD Journey: “What Will You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”

By Dr. Juliet Ohemeng-Ntiamoah
Posted 25th May, 2020

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 and your well wishes. 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 Dr. Jojo 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 the 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 masters first, family, additional 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 GRE requirement. I was also sore afraid of the direct PhD in an Engineering program when I had no background in Engineering. 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 focused on bioenergy. However, I was still quite undecided so I asked for postponement of a 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 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 the 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 a simple 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 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 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.

I was doing it all while afraid but I stayed 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 family and the good friends who have always had my back.

Few lessons learned here:

1.Definitely have plans as I did, but be flexible in your plans because we don’t always move from A to B. Be ready to positively disrupt your own plans by rearranging some items.
2.Sharpen your ability to see and seize opportunities that come your way.
3. Don’t settle in your comfort zone. I had planned with a PhD in Environmental and Energy Policy because it was familiar.
4.Dear ladies, don’t ignore a good career opportunity in hopes of establishing a family soon when you don’t even have a significant other. (I’ll throw more light on this later)
5. You need a hype man/woman. Just one person is enough to create an opportunity for you.
6.“What will you do if you weren’t afraid?”. Just DO it! You’ll be shocked to know that you have the ability to excel in that very space you are afraid of exploring. You only need to stay resilient and focused. It’s also very OK doing it while afraid.

This article is published with the kind courtesy of the author – Dr. Juliet Ohemeng-Ntiamoah. She recently completed her PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tennessee Tech University (TTU), USA.