By Yusra Suedi, Ph.D.
I did it! After five long years, I completed my doctorate in international law on December 1st, 2020.
Between 2013 and 2014, when I started thinking about whether to even pursue a doctorate, I asked 20 different PhD holders for their advice. Of the 20, a whopping 18 advised me not to, for many reasons: It is difficult; I was too young; it will make me unemployable; I did not have enough life/professional experience, and so on. Only two — one of whom ended up being my supervisor, argued in favour, citing one reason only—passion.
Despite the two who encouraged me being in the minority, I was sold. After all, I had survived five infernal years of law school, being trained on how to sort out peoples’ taxes and manage their divorces. I had not put much thought into law school before applying (which I do not recommend!), and not a day went by without me thinking that there surely had to be something greater to the law than the law practice I was engaged in. It was upon taking my first international law class that I realised there was “something greater” that I had been struggling to find. A legal field that had bigger implications for peoples’ lives and society, that addressed social injustices, that could even potentially change the world. This is what I wanted; what I believed in. The scant international law courses offered in my Geneva University degree program carried me through to graduation day (that, and my stubbornness!).
Naturally, I wanted to specialise in international law as quickly as I could. During my LL.M, I realized that four international law courses was not enough – I wanted to learn everything there was to know! How do countries regulate the oceans? And refugees? And trade? And most importantly, the rights of human beings? Such questions, and pursuing their answers, brought pulse and purpose back into my studies. It was no wonder that, despite completing two Master’s programmes, I was not quite done learning. I was hungry — passionate, really — for more. Cue the PhD.
It was only after beginning the doctoral programme that I slowly acknowledged another purpose beyond my own passion that would drive me to the finish line— representation. Whenever I mentioned to someone of African descent, and particularly, to a woman of colour that I was pursuing a PhD in international law, often the reaction was something like, “Wow, you must be one of the first around here!”, or, “you are doing something important for representation”, or, “you are doing this for all of us”. At first, I did not quite understand what they meant. But with each comment, I started to look around and realise that there were not many of us around me (not that I knew of, anyway). It was not implausible that I could be one of the first African women in my circle. The implications particularly dawned on me when my older sister told me that her daughters may pursue doctoral studies as a real possibility for their future, thanks to the path that I paved. Understanding this made me acutely aware of my privilege and gave me further motivation to complete my doctoral studies.
Not that it was an entirely smooth journey; it was rife with intellectual and personal challenges. One intellectual challenge was met in year two. At this point, I had written and read a ton, but felt lost as to what my underlying message (thesis) was, or how to structure my conflicting ideas. Although down and demotivated, I had just moved to The Hague to work at the International Court of Justice and was therefore fortunate to be able to discuss my dissertation topic with brilliant minds at the Peace Palace. One day, it hit me. “That’s it! That is what I want to say!” From that point on, the floodgates of thoughts and ideas were open.
I wish I could say that this was the “happily ever after” moment, but it was not so simple. I wish I could promise that life will stop happening around you as you try to complete the herculean undertaking that is your PhD – but, alas, it will keep going. There may be relationship setbacks, family problems, health issues, or loss. Finding the drive to carry on in such moments is difficult. For this very reason, I sat down in a coffee shop with my supervisor at the end of year three and told him that I would not be able to finish the program. He stayed quiet for a bit, and encouragingly said, “We can simplify your thesis and change the objective to make it more doable for you… but you’re not going to quit.” It was that coffee shop discussion that led me back to picking up the broken pieces and slowly soldiering on. And while the journey to completion felt eternal, I learned that it does not matter how fast or slow you run the race; you just have to finish it.
Here is what I wish more of those 20 PhD holders had told me: That pursuing a doctoral program would, without a doubt be one of the most fulfilling and life-changing experiences of my life. Of course, there are the obvious professional perks to that most people will tell you. It equips you with rigorous skills in writing, proofreading, public speaking and communicating. But this is not my real “why”. The experience taught me about patience, willpower, and discipline – some of life’s keys to fulfilment. It also taught me about the importance of self-compassion, taking care of myself and celebrating every little milestone along the way. It gave me different lenses through which I now see the world.
Pursuing doctoral studies taught me how little I know, but also the tools to ask the right questions, to analyse situations differently, and to see a spectrum of viewpoints. Completing a PhD represents so much more to me than a line in my CV, a “Dr” before my name or a diploma on my wall. It has forever changed me and the way I experience the world. Was it hard? Absolutely. But as the saying goes, “it is supposed to be hard, if it were easy, everyone would do it. Hard is what makes it great.” I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to walk this magical journey, and I wish for magic in your life too, however experienced.