The ongoing tale of finishing up my PhD

I am not quite sure where to start this post, this tale of mine I want to tell you about. Thinking about it still tightens my stomach and produces mixed feelings. Especially now that I have finally re-submitted my thesis.

Backing up: in May 2020 I was getting ready to submit my thesis the first time around. I had been spending the strict level 5 lockdown finalising it and was pretty proud of myself. Now that it had been proofread (in exchange for a fortune and a half), and my supervisor had given his okay, I uploaded the thesis and its trail of paperwork. With a feeling of great relief, I popped the bubbly. Then, the waiting game started. I kept busy with some online jobs and started applying for work in my field (see my last post).

Three months had come and gone. Like a fast-growing fungus, concern started growing, covering over the feeling of lightness that had first accompanied the upload of my thesis. Did something go wrong in the examination process? Was my work being torn apart? Was it, perhaps, much worse than I remembered it? Thus far, I had locked all disquieting questions into the back of my head – safe from any excruciating self-doubts (I assume most of us are familiar with those…).

Some more months passed. I had moved flats in the meantime and sent out more applications. Other than that, I remained in a waiting position. Come the 5th month, I was convinced something was not right. Enquiring about it at the university, I was informed that one examiner had asked for an extension. A touch of relaxation started shining through the, by now thicker, layer of worries. This meant the delay was not necessarily linked to my dissertation – or my skills as a researcher. Without any PhD coursework as commonly the case in South Africa, everything was hinging on the 244-page-document I had submitted. Whether it was good or even sufficient became an increasingly nauseating question, despite the confidence I had initially feigned and convinced myself to be solid.

In month 6, I got mail! Seeing the response from the university’s doctoral board in my inbox, my heart started beating wildly in my chest. The content was sobering: one examiner wanted me to re-submit. I was given three documents, one from each examiner with a length of 2-3 pages. These were full of comments on my work. After addressing them, I was meant to have my work examined again by the same person who had not been fully convinced by it the first time around.

It took me a conversation with all the support-people in my life to start digesting and another few days to dare open my original thesis.

Some of the examiners’ comments were immediately understandable to me and only required making relatively small changes. Others, I did not agree with. For instance, it was put to question whether I overdid it integrating my own experiences into the thesis. I added a section on the importance of ‘autoethnography’ (which is essentially just that, considering yourself part of the research process). Everything I changed was documented in excel sheet format: comment — response. Then there were those comments that made a lot of sense to me, but that were more difficult to approach. Among them was a criticism of how I had integrated literature into my qualitative findings, collected in 2 years of fieldwork. Looking at my thesis with a more distant view after all those months, I could very clearly see the examiner had a point. There were just too many references to too many things while the main theory was reduced to background noise!

After the first small edits, I came into a rhythm and stoically went through each of the three examiners’ suggestions with increasing motivation to improve my work. I stopped thinking about the weight of my disappointment. Indeed, with each point crossed off my list, I started feeling a little lighter again. At least I could do something now. I made a proper start by looking up and reading through a whole lot of literature that I thought could be useful in addressing the comments. With every change, I slowly gained a better idea of what an improved thesis will look like.

And then, last week, I pressed the ‘upload’ button once again. This time, I am not feeling light. I am also not riddled with worry. It simply feels like an unfinished story, but one that I think has been enriched in the revision process. Its concluding remarks shall remain unwritten for the time being.

In 2021 I would like to travel… around South Africa.

In any other year, the title of this blog would be ‘in 2017/2018/2019 I would like to travel the world’. Travelling makes me happy, from the moment I start planning my trip to the day I return home and many years later. Travelling has always given me a sense of freedom and independence, and has provided long lasting memories and friendships. Some of the absolute best memories of my life are from my experiences travelling overseas. I often share these memories and stories to friends and family whenever I reminisce about my experiences. I have been fortunate to visit Portugal, Brazil, Australia, America, and Indonesia.

My personal travel plans have revolved around overseas trips. Regrettably, I have not made similar plans to travel around my home country, South Africa. South Africa is an incredibly attractive destination for overseas tourists, and I have not taken advantage of enjoying what my country has to offer.

South Africa is an amazingly diverse nation. The diversity of this beautiful country is not limited to its people, cultures, and languages. The rainbow nation is also home to a wide range of travel destinations. We have deserts, forests, snow-capped mountains, warm and cold oceans, vineyards, and sandy beaches. It saddens me that with all these attractions, I have somehow always looked to travel overseas, and I have not fully explored my country. With the global pandemic, this is the perfect opportunity for me to travel local.    

Images from South Africa’s nine provinces. Click here for more info.

As South Africa is currently on national lockdown level one, locals have been encouraged by SA tourism to travel locally whilst adhering to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) Covid-19 guidelines. Local support of the tourism industry is especially important as many countries have placed continued and far stricter restrictions on travel to South Africa due to the new coronavirus variant which was identified in December 2020.

The tourism sector is extremely important component of the South African economy, directly contributing 2.9% to the gross domestic product in 2016. An estimated R68 billion has been lost to the tourism industry, including 300,000 job losses during the pandemic due to national lockdowns and restricted international travel to South Africa. 

The advantages of travel and tourism in this country are now extremely enticing to me. This is even more so now during the pandemic, when South Africans have limited international travel options. Upon arrival to a new country, South Africans are likely to be denied entry or have to undergo a period of quarantine, not much of a holiday.

Many local activities can be enjoyed outside and in open-air spaces under the warm South African sun. Travel destinations are not limited to specific provinces and are country wide, meaning that I can enjoy these areas without having to travel too far or book an overnight stay. So far, I have enjoyed day event activities including hiking/trail walking, mountain bike riding and an Acrobranch adventure course from areas in Gauteng. Of course, these activities were much cheaper than travelling to another country, are relatively Covid-19 friendly, and I get to share experiences with friends that usually would not be able to accompany me on an overseas trip.

Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden, Roodepoort

My plan is to visit each of Gauteng’s nature reserves, once per week, for the foreseeable future – I have counted at least ten great destinations that I have not been to, yet. Small plans can turn into bigger plans and I am hoping to explore other provinces this year.

In recent months, I have noticed that social media is filled with South Africans enjoying the outdoors. Posts that used to show people in crowded clubs before the pandemic are now showing people posing in front of waterfalls with their masks on. These posts have had a great knock-on effect as many people are keen to spend more time in outdoor spaces, where perhaps they would never have even thought about venturing outside before the pandemic.

Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve, Heidelberg

I have always been an outdoorsy person, I am sure that many more South Africans have caught the adventure bug and would most probably look to travel local, not only during the pandemic, but far into the future. Clearly South Africa is extremely attractive to overseas tourists, so I thought to myself, why not enjoy what your country has to offer? I am planning to put that thought into action this year.