I have been thinking a lot about funding for the next year of my PhD. It will be Year Four. Almost universally, it seems that PhD programs only fund you for about ¾ of the time you actually need to complete your studies. Is the idea that you get a job towards the end? Or that you hurry up and finish? If you go online my story is not unique; this is a common experience for many PhD students. This happens in South Africa, the rest of the continent, and even abroad. Discussion forums abound with PhD students offering each other encouragement and tips on how to survive/ where to get funding. It would almost be charming if it wasn’t so serious.
My lack of future funding feels like an individual failure – but it really is part of a larger societal problem. Postgraduate funding in South Africa is quite inadequate for a country that wants to pull up its socks. Not enough people are funded, and the lucky ones are not funded sufficiently. The issue of funding is not just about making life easy for a PhD student, as important as that peace of mind is. For South Africa in particular, there is a “need to bring a fresh outlook to the country’s development hurdles by training up postgraduate students who have been raised in disadvantaged communities and deeply understand the kinds of problems we need to overcome as a nation”. These are some of the thoughts of UCT vice chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng on the issue of postgraduate funding in the country.
To widen our lens a bit, we live on a continent that is 16% of the world population but only produces 1% of its research output. Wait, that’s less than 1%. Lack of political will to invest in research and development (R&D) on the continent is one of the main factors leading to these dire statistics. South Africa is cited as only one of a few countries who have fulfilled the African Union pledge to spend 1% of their budget on R&D.
Where does this leave us? International funding and collaboration. There is nothing wrong with international partnerships. But as Dr Alan Christoffels of the University of the Western Cape writes, “the dependence on international collaboration and investment without any pan-African framework for increasing and sustaining local funding, limits Africa’s ability to drive a scientific agenda that is aligned to its specific needs”.
Long story short is that my problems with funding are the problems of every PhD student in South Africa and on the continent. The option is to accept it as the nature of the beast. Or we can look beyond the surface and examine the root causes, and advocate for better performance by our governments and even the private sector. As a society we need to care about our knowledge economy and home-grown solutions. While we wait, and as we toil through fieldwork and data analysis (on our way to an even more uncertain researcher career), we will nurse in our minds the nagging question whether it was/is all really worth it.