By Aliza le Roux

30 April 2015
If want to work with animals, do you have to become a vet? If you have a passion for education but would rather subject yourself to a thousand paper cuts than deal with children all day, what do you do? Do you want alternatives to lawyer, businessman, teacher, and medical doctor?

I have found that the common thread binding most people with PhD degrees is that they have unorthodox careers, jobs that few people understand or even know about. These people walk down a path that nobody charted for them when they were kids. We think we know what a medical doctor does each day, but what about a Doctor of Philosophy (the infamous PhD)? With TV as our primary source of information, who knows what an ecologist does between sunrise and sunset – are we all crocodile hunters? Is Sheldon Cooper an accurate portrayal of your average physicist? I come from an educated family, but I think my parents still don’t quite know how I manage to make money from chasing wild monkeys and foxes around…

This new blogging series chronicles the experiences of four young PhD students in South Africa. The PhD experience is exciting, exhausting, and mysterious; embark on it, and the journey will change you. In America and Europe, students blog to remain sane, and the PhD process has inspired comic strips, help-lines, and despair. You can find information on PhD career prospects (or lack of it), and a hundred bloggers for every discipline. But what about South Africa?

How does the PhD differ here, and what motivates our students to continue their studies when everyone pushes them to “Get a job”? How do South African students cope with this degree, when our young people are often first-generation students without the guidance of professorial parents? What are the career prospects if you have a PhD? Do we even need PhDs in this developing rainbow nation?

Follow this series of blogs to find out what it takes to do a PhD. We have a wonderful mix of students and career paths – Yonela, a meat scientist who plays with bulls in a small corner of the Eastern Cape; Davide, hoping to save the oceans by researching swift terns; Ruenda, who spends far too long with a pipette in hand; and Keafon, whose workday only starts when the sun sets. Every month these students will write about the highlights and obstacles that they encounter as PhD students at the southern tip of Africa. And every month a SAYAS member will write something about the real lives of researchers, whether it is at the Medical Research Council, or the middle of nowhere, Qwaqwa. Come join in their passion, learn about the weird and wonderful doors that a PhD can open for you, and join in the conversation.

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