To be or not to be an academic?
Ziglar said ‘Making a big life change is pretty scary. But, know what’s even scarier? Regret’. I had chased goals my whole life. A perfectionist. I was the youngest of everything – deployed diplomat, project manage a multi-million US$ initiative on behalf of the South African government abroad, a participant in a USA – South Africa exchange programme for earmarked future leaders and government senior manager at the time.
Being an over-achiever became who I was. Being a workaholic was simply part of my personality. The fact that I survived an attack in my workplace and an attempted coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo – with a failed rocket in our complex pool (thank goodness for outdated Russian military rejects sold equally to African governments and rebels), reinforced this idea that I was a brave, young, warrior. A political activist since fourteen, I thought I knew who I was, what I wanted and exactly how to get there.
Fast forward to 2017. Our eldest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD. She needed therapy and hands-on support to ensure that she didn’t think of herself as a failure, but as a shining star whose mind worked differently. It was our job to understand her, instead of her attempting to conform to us. I can’t explain the shock and guilt I felt. I should have known, but of course, I didn’t since I was working 14 to 18 hour days, travelling extensively whilst nannies and my mother did parental duties. I had failed our child and being me, failure was not an option. I quit my job immediately with my colleagues thinking I had a mental breakdown (later I would come to see it as a mental watershed moment). I home-schooled and supported all three girls in their individual needs and interests; even had a fourth child. By the end of 2018, the kids were ready to return/start school and our family was in a good place. Failure averted.
I always planned to enter academia. My husband suggested I do my Masters in Security Studies in 2019 to take time to re-evaluate and still be a hands-on mom. He forgot who I was. I had to be the top student in the Masters in Security Studies and when I was done in March with my mini-dissertation proposal, I couldn’t refuse the DST-NRF bursary to work on a full-time dissertation to be followed by a PhD in food safety governance as part of a broader Centre of Excellence in Food Security project. I thought it would be a breeze. It isn’t. Nothing prepared me for the intense work, emotional highs and lows and even challenges with my supervisors.
Being in my late thirties, I’m surrounded by youth who have achieved far more in academia, and elder academics who don’t appreciate my work experience as their rigid outlook does not fit with my views to transform academia by breaking down toxic patriarchal cultures, stop being a journal producing machine, aligning research outputs to what is relevant and required by society and avoid academic language as an exclusionary barrier. I advocate instead to co-produce knowledge with government and civil society that is understandable and practically geared, without removing rigorous evidence-based research – https://www.up.ac.za/alumni/news/post_2745225-meet-our-new-vice-chancellor-and-principal.
Over the last two years I learned that instead of seeing my choices as a failure, I could use them as learning opportunities. My move to the Centre of Excellence could either be my best or worst decision over the coming year, but it did remind me of what my passions were – Africa, immigration, security and decolonization. I realized that it’s okay to change course as only you impose your limits. I might not currently be writing on a topic of my choice but it pushes me to my limits and reignited my passion for writing, reading diversely, sharing knowledge, continuous learning and listening to different perspectives to best iteratively engage.
It’s not easy to start from scratch, but I’m going to be scared enough to not want to regret that I didn’t try. My plans are to complete my dissertation by July and immediately continue with my PhD. I hope to research, to write and importantly to learn more from others, perhaps even lecture the next generation of political scientists if given the opportunity. I learned the hard way that my family is my first passion and priority. I might no longer need to over-achieve, the balance might be more important now, but doing my best within the circumstances remains. As Gandalf said ‘We cannot choose what time is given to us, all we can decide is what to do with it’. And I’ve made my decision, for 2020 at least.