Whatever you put around yourself, you will be the mirror of it. Surround yourself with things you love. Marcel Wanders

One of the most important things to do is to make friends who help you grow and who can be your support system in academia. This is particularly important to me because of how far I have come as a postgraduate student. Let us start from the beginning when I first came to know of the prospects of postgraduate study. Those of you who have been following my posts this year may recall that I told you about how I found out about postgraduate study. I was at home in Lesotho working at a call centre when one of my friends asked me if I would like to do my honours degree in UFS, Bloemfontein. At this stage I did not know what an Honours degree was or what it entailed, but I took a leap of faith because of how persistent he was. He even offered to take my application letters to the university, which he did, and I got the acceptance letter. This has shaped how I wanted to treat people, especially undergraduates. I treat them with kindness and help where I can.

Fast forward to my Masters. I had an interesting journey, where my supervisors let me be what I wanted to be… with their guidance, of course. To some people maybe it would seem like this was neglect, but I saw it as affording me the space to grow. It is through this space and freedom that I started thinking very deeply about the work I did, and made friends in a range of different departments where I knew I would need help. I made friends with people in computational chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology and other departments. My strategy was to network with people who could help where their knowledge intersected with mine.  

I succeeded in making friends, and one significant memory I have is of a post-doctoral fellow who assisted me in my application for my drugs in vitro. I was sitting in the lab one day, thinking that I had to get a distinction for my Master’s degree but I did not know how. I asked my chemistry friends and they advised me that the story I tell through my dissertation is the one that matters, combined with an excellent interpretation of my results. I then thought that this could be easy to do so I wanted more, and then someone told me to take my research further by making an application for it.

I then thought maybe my supervisors would advise me on how to do that but, as I’ve explained, we had an interesting relationship. The second hindrance was that application would be through the biochemistry lab which would need a lot of paperwork and evidence of collaborations. I was excited about the challenge and luckily the postdoctoral fellow I had befriended took me through the right procedure for the antibacterial in vitro studies and we executed them, of course with a go-ahead of my supervisors, which resulted in good results and paper from the work. Making friends in academia starts with putting ego aside and letting oneself be teachable. That is how our brains expand and how we make friends for life.

I learned from this and continually learn that being around the right people at the right time in research is very important. It should not only be about taking, but also lending a hand where you can. I have had so many referrals of job opportunities, conferences, bursaries and support from people with who we were strangers but became friends through research. I have learned many things through my graduate years and one of them is the balance of the soft skills which include relationships and the hard skills. Nothing can be done by one person, and we should continually be open-minded to meet people who will help us grow. Make friends that matter…

“Your network is your net worth.” — Porter Gale

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