Unlike many people who know their future careers by the time they complete their matric year (or even before), I was unfortunately not one of those people. There are many of us out there who apply to go to varsity but are not quite sure about what career path we want to follow. I am Joyful Elma Mdhluli, an aspiring Nuclear Solid-Sate Physicist and academic with a Master’s degree in Nuclear Solid-State Physics. This is my story of how I found myself enrolled as a PhD student in Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand today, although if you asked me a few years ago, I had a completely different destination in mind.
When I was in high school, I was certain that I wanted to become an engineer but that dream was short-lived when I had to apply for University. The reality of my marks did not entertain that aspiration. I found myself applying for a double degree in Nuclear Physics with Mechanical engineering, where I would first need to complete a BSc in Nuclear Physics before moving to engineering studies. At that time, this seemed like the best option to get me to my engineering dream. To cut the long story short, I matriculated with a few distinctions and got accepted to Wits.
I still remember the day I enrolled for a general BSc like it was yesterday. I found myself sitting at the Head of School of Physics office trying to enrol for the Nuclear Physics course when he convinced me that a general BSc majoring in Physics would be a better option for me. Being the scared (and definitely not as well informed) little girl, all I wanted was to register in the university and start my academic journey. I followed his advice and enrolled for a general BSc. Now I will not lie and say that the undergraduate programme was a walk in the park; I went from getting straight A’s in Maths in high school to barely passing the monster course called Maths Major. However, not everything in my life was like a scene from a horror movie, Physics Major seemed to be like a Romantic comedy. Like all romantic movies, in the beginning, I loathed Physics but over the undergraduate years, I came to fall in love with it completely.
After completing my undergraduate degree in record time (still not quite sure how that happened), I enrolled for an Honours course majoring in Physics. I thought that the three years of undergrad was hell until I started with Honours, the three years of undergrad does not prepare you for the flames that you will encounter in Honours. After surviving that one year of hell on earth, I enrolled for a Master’s degree in Physics after one of the professors in the School of Physics asked me to join their team. After four years of torture, I had finally made it to heaven. I didn’t have to attend lectures, wake up early in the morning and study for tests and exams.
My first eight months of Masters were the best months of my life since I started school but the highlight of my first year had to be my first time in an aeroplane, and not only that but all the way to Europe. My Master’s degree involved collaborating with colleagues from the University of Madrid.
My supervisor had previously collaborated with them on a similar project as mine and since I was continuing on the project, I had the opportunity to go work in their facilities too. Spain was amazing, I did physics and tourist things what more could I ask for? This was the greatest thing anyone had ever done for me and I could not be more grateful to my supervisor.
Just when I thought it could not get any better, I found myself travelling all over Europe for the next year and a half of my Master’s degree attending conferences and visiting other institutions for experiments. I found myself flying to Russia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Portugal. I even had the pleasure of meeting the Swiss ambassador H.E. Mrs Helene Budliger Artieda; I should say, she is a very wonderful woman.
This had to be best thing that could have happened to me, right? But no, it did not stop there. I completed my MSc in 2017 and I was beyond ecstatic to find out that I passed with distinction. I mean can you believe it? A whole distinction, I once upon a time hated physics in high school and now here I am getting a distinction for my Master’s degree. After getting my results, I immediately knew that this was my dream. Physics was where I belonged and so I enrolled to do my PhD with the same supervisor from my MSc.
Certainly, the journey to where I am right now was not easy but now that I am here now, I choose to focus on the good than the bad experiences. Here I am now into my second year of PhD; it is not a walk in the park but it is a walk that I am definitely willing and excited to take.
My University years thus far has taught me a lot.
I have learnt that not everything will go according to how I plan it.
I have learned that failing is part of the process of learning, the lesson is to get back up and put more effort than the first time.
I have learned that without friends and family nothing can be done (for me, especially my mother for all the support sacrifices she made to get me the best education).
It is ok to not know what you want to become. Keep an open mind to new opportunities, if we all knew what our destinies were then there would be no point to life. Life is a journey we need to explore, we discover something new about ourselves daily. If you already know what you want to be but struggling to get there, do not give up just yet. Everything takes times and moves at its own pace. Do not compare yourself to everyone else, you are a limited edition and your journey is yours alone.