Ethiopian Youngest Professor
Prof. Woldeamlak Bewket is a Dean of the College of Social Sciences at Addis Ababa University. He has published a number of articles, highly regarded journals, scores of chapters in books and proceedings in addition to publishing and editing a range of monographs and policy briefs. The focus of his research works revolves around environmental change, natural resources management, rural livelihoods and so forth.
Prof. Woldeamlak has made exceptional contributions to the discipline of Geography and Environmental Studies. He has played a great role in the understanding of environmental and natural resource management issues in our country. Most of his works are extensively quoted in international literature signaling the high level of contribution he has made to scientific knowledge generation. The Ethiopian Herald had a short stay with the youngest professor, Woldeamlak Bewket to share his success journey made at age with our esteemed readers. More to the point, the professor has touched upon quite a lot of fascinating issues revolving around his professional and personal life. Excerpts;
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
To begin with, my name is Prof. Woldeamlak Bewket. I was born in the former Gojam province, Agew Midr Awraja, in a small village called Quancha Michael. My parents are farmers. They have got three sons and four daughters. Most of my brothers and sisters are working for different organizations in different fields. The last one is an undergraduate student. He is studying at Addis Ababa University. I completed primary and secondary education in Chara Elementary and Dangila Senior Secondary schools respectively.
I was quiet a very good student. I had all the capacity but I would prefer spend much of my time playing with my peers. I was not a typical student who studied daylong and nightlong and remembered and memorized everything and scored hundred out of hundred. To be honest, whenever I wanted to score high, I would make it happen with no trouble. It was not that difficult for me. I scored high results in Grades six and eight Ministry Exams. While I was in high school, my results also depended on my personal decision. Whenever I sat and read, I made it happen as usual. As a child, I was crazy about playing.
What result did you score in the school leaving certificate exam?
Actually, I did not score good grades. My score in the school leaving certificate exam were only 3.2. It was 1982 Ethiopian calendar. That was not a high result at that specific point. Everything was very difficult in view of the fact that there was a big fighting around the area. Education was interrupted several times. We were not sure that we would sit for the school leaving certificate exam for the reason that part of the country was not entirely safe. For this reason, most of us were forced to interrupt our studies. Despite the fact that our school was a good one, only few students were able to join Addis Ababa University.
Which department did you join at Addis Ababa University?
I joined the Geography Department as I feel affection for the field with all my heart. It was my first choice. At that point, our choice depended on our grades in the freshman programme. In the freshman programme, I had a very high GPA. I was an outstanding student. After four years study, I was able to earn my first degree. When I graduated, I was the recipient of the gold medal of the College of Social Sciences for being outstanding student of the year. I had the highest result in the college. I started working as a graduate assistant by the Department of Geography in next to no time. I worked successfully in this position for a year.
Subsequently, I joined the master’s programme of the department. In the second year of my master’s study, I went to Germany for a short stay research visit which took six months. Actually, my master’s study was financed by the German Academic Exchange Service. I was one of their awardees who got the chance of going to German as a researcher student. I stayed there only for six months. I came back here to get my master’s degree and defence the thesis. In fact, before defending my thesis, I got a scholarship for my doctoral degree in Holland. When I was at a loss what to do, I asked them to wait for me until I got my master’s degree.
After defending my master’s thesis, I headed straight to the Netherlands for my doctoral degree. It was a four year programme. But I did not stay the whole four years there for my research site was here in Ethiopia. I was quiet often here. I was nearly two years in Ethiopia and two years in Holland. It was a good scholarship programme. I had good funding to travel frequently. I finished my Ph.D. in 2003. Since then, I have been here. I have been here almost for fifteen years.
As a freshman student, what was university life like?
When I was in the freshman programme, most of the students were from rural and urban areas of the country. Some of them were from Dangila. There was no problem of getting myself acquainted with them. We shared dormitories and did everything together no matter what the cost may be. We loved and helped each other. There were no challenges. We did not go out often to town for we had no reason to go. We never go to drinking places or clubs. More to the point, we did not meet people whom we would call very urban.
How many journal articles have you produced to this point as a researcher?
I own 52 journal articles to this point. I have other outputs like policy briefs, conference proceedings, many chapters in books, and many consultancy reports that took so much of my time. I have also produced many consultancy outputs for different organizations. Honestly speaking, this directly or indirectly reduces the possible number of journal articles I produce since I am sharing my time.
The focus of my research has been on environmental change, natural resources management, rural livelihoods and the rest. Furthermore, I have published seminal works on land cover and land use changes, land degradation, runoff production and soil erosion, climate change, rainwater harvesting, and community-based watershed management.
Correspondingly, most of my works make comprehensible and policy-pertinent recommendations in the area of environmental and natural resources management in the country. My publications also disclose a remarkable contribution to the understanding of environment, livelihood and development interest in our country.
What contributions have you made so far in the discipline of geography and environmental studies?
Contributions can be made in different ways. As I work for an academic institution, my primary task is knowledge production. If you publish a journal article and get your work cited by others, it is good enough as a researcher. As a researcher your contribution is measured in terms of number of papers that you publish and the number of times your works get cited by other international audiences. The place where you get them published also matters. The just-mentioned facts are indices of a researcher contribution. I have made a contribution which I can be proud about as far as this. I know I still have to contribute much more.
In the same way, if people and other organizations use your work or cite as a background material for their programme design or development planning, it is considered as contribution. I sometimes see my works cited in such important documents and thus I feel that is the contribution as well. The same is true if you get yourself involved in actual problem solving project development. I have been involved in this kind of activity mainly through different consultancy works I do for international organizations.
What is the secret behind your success?
The secret behind my success is effective use of time, planning and having a clear roadmap for myself. If people set target regarding where they would like to see themselves after five or ten years, they can make their dream become a reality. After setting a target, everyone should be able to plan what to do every day, every year and every week as it helps them see whether they are moving in the direction to their target or not. Besides, one need plan and strength of mind to make it happen. To the best of my knowledge, the definition of success varies from individual to individual.
What was the reaction of most people when you got the rank of full professor?
As I have tried to explain so far, you set a target and move along that direction. Hence, you will see your progress towards your target every time. If you are making good step forward you know in advance that you will make it happen without difficulty. If you take my case as an example, I wanted to become a professor and worked very hard to achieve the desired goal. As an academician, I considered what my colleagues in Kenya, South Africa, America, German, Holland, England and other countries do. I do my full time job for which I am paid. In the meantime, I longed to get the rank of full professor. I knew I was going towards that for I saw my progress over and over again. When I got a certain paper published, I knew it was a step towards being a professor.
By the time I achieved what was required; I knew that I was going to be given the rank of full professor. Honesty speaking, I was not surprised for I knew everything in advance. But when I was given the rank more formally, the reaction from my friends and from people who know me in and out of Ethiopia was completely unexpected. I had never thought that people who did not know me would email me with different encouraging and exciting statements. After the announcement of my professorship, I was unable to do my regular work for nearly two months on account of the continuous flow of emails from around the world. That was incredible.
How does it feel to be a full professor at a young age?
Not really different feeling. You will get more invitations to partake in conferences. The new change I have noticed now is I am often invited as a keynote speaker. Previously, I was invited to present papers, to be session chair and other things. From the time on, I turned out to be a full professor; I have been invited mostly to give a keynote speech and chair very important meetings. Whenever people see me in different meetings or conferences, they do not believe their eyes for they think that professor is somebody with grey hair, older and wisdom from life.
While we are on the subject, I am not the only person who got full professor at a young age. Professor Afework also got full rank at a young age. He was senior to me. It was not formally announced. We also have someone who will be full professor soon from Addis Ababa University. I think, he is one or two years senior to me in the undergraduate programme. He is quiet young compared to many of our colleagues. Everything has been approved. So he will soon be a full professor from a certain faculty. Currently, people are coming. This reality on the ground has to do with education opportunities. I did all my degrees at one go while many would interrupt in between. But I do not want to sound arrogant about it.
What are the different phases to promote to the rank of full professor?
To be honest, there is only one phase. There are no multiple phases to be a full professor. That is also not very difficult. If you would like to be a professor you can easily make it happen as the requirements are not as such difficult. The most important thing to be taken into consideration is commitment and discipline. If you do your regular job which is reading, writing, publishing, researching and teaching, you will reach without intentionally targeting to become a professor.
When you get employed for the first time with a doctoral degree, you will be promoted as an assistant professor which is an entry level rank. In fact, in many universities in the West, you cannot go teach as full time teacher without having a Ph.D. in a university. But, here, due to shortage of staffers, we have masters and first degrees teaching classes. If not, you will not be allowed to teach independently without a doctoral degree. In some places with doctoral degree there will be even some transition to takeover full responsibility of teaching.
As a matter of fact, doctoral degree is an entry level rank. You will be an assistant professor almost immediately. If you work for four years and publish some papers, you will be promoted to associate professor level. To be promoted from associate professor to full professor, you need four years of service and different publications. The publication is one thing but the university measures your impact and contributions in many ways. You need to have good papers and good journals in addition to serving the university in administrative position as department head, dean, committee, coordinator and so forth. You should also have some professional service outside the university like being editor to journals, and serving as a consultant. What is more, your involvement in your community considered. For instance, giving media briefing is considered as community service because you are reaching out the community. We have community service, professional service, university service and the likes apart from our research works.
What should research works look like?
In spite of the fact that your research outputs are published, they should still be reviewed by four full professors: two internal and two external. Normally, since we do not have many, we often send them outside of Ethiopia. It could be to America, Europe or Africa. The four professors should be able to recommend. They look at your papers, entire curriculum vitae, academic contributions and all that and recommend you to the rank. By the way, these reviewers should be in the field of your studies. This means, they already know you from your publications. If someone is an active researcher found in Tanzania, Dar es Salaam University, I will know his name very well.
Surprisingly, the number of people working on the same field of study is not that many globally. You have either read their papers or met them in international conferences. Moreover, they write reviews on your contributions and on your papers. The other thing is, the very minimum requirement if you want to go by base level is not that difficult. But normally we see our parallels in other universities before applying to become a full professor. Most people do not see a full profile of a professor in other countries to figure out where they fall. To be very comfortable, it is good to check the requirements of other universities and profiles of professors in other higher learning institutions.
How do you see the requirements at Addis Ababa University compared to other countries?
In reality, the requirements at Addis Ababa University are still strong compared to other universities which have good names like Dar es Salaam University, Nairobi University and the likes. They are usually in front of Addis Ababa University in terms of rankings of university. But the requirements to become full professor are stronger here at Addis Ababa University. To be frank, the minimum requirement to get full professor is still difficult at Addis Ababa University compared to other African countries. It is not that simple.
How do you describe the contribution of your parents towards your success?
My parents are my base. They wanted all their children to be successful in education. My father is the one who firmly believes in the value of hard work. Actually, my dad and mom value education very much. Honestly speaking, my father is quiet wise in so many ways. He has shaped me in different ways. When I was a small boy, I was in the habit of asking him repeatedly who the father of all of us was for the reason that I saw many people during market days. I always wondered who the father of all these people was. So my father would explain the father is Adam and the mother is Eve. I again asked him who the father of Adam and Eve themselves was. He said, “The heavenly Father. He is the creator of everything and the father of everyone and the whole thing.”
“What would happen to all creatures at the end of the day?
I asked him. All of us go to meet our maker.” he answered. I insisted again what would happen afterwards. “People who do good things on earth go directly to heaven and people who do bad things go directly to hell. I asked him to explain clearly what the requirements for hell and heaven were.
Then my father told me about the Ten Commandments. They were quiet many for a small kid like me. Every evening, I keep on asking him to remind me the Ten Commandments. In fact, they were very difficult to understand. When my dad was at a loss what to do, he collapsed The Ten Commandments into three with a view to making them as easy as ABC. He told me to respect myself, what I do and everybody. He also warned me not to lie, cheat and steal by mistake, even. What is more, he advised me not to harm or hurt others and concentrate fully on my education.
At some point my dad said, “If you are a farmer be a good farmer. If you are a student be a good student. If you are a runner be a best runner. If you are a journalist excel in what you do. If you apply the three commandments, you will be successful in everything you do without doubt.” I will never forget his pieces of advise. He always encouraged us to succeed in life at any price. He is the best father. My mentality is shaped by my father's life principle. His advice has helped me reach where I am at this point time.
What is your marital life like?
I am married. I have got three children- two boys and a girl. The eldest is fourteen, the middle one is six and the little one is three and a half year old. We are a happy family. My wife was in the habit of working for NGOs. At the moment, she is a full time mom. She took maternity leave when the little one was born. She decided to stay at home until the little girl starts going to school. By the way, she has a master’s degree in development studies. She sometimes works as a consultant for different NGOs as she is very busy with the three kids.
WRITTEN BY ADDISALEM MULAT