So, you are doing a Ph.D in biology?

If you’re a life science Ph.D student, you’ve had this question before. Usually followed by raised eyebrows and confused looks, which signal the second question – What will you do with that? The reasons and motivations for pursuing a Ph.D depend on the individual, but let me just try to explain what a Ph.D in biology means to me.

Firstly, it would be remiss of me to not mention that currently there is no Nobel Prize in Biology! But, as an aspiring Nobel laureate, you can take solace in the fact that in recent years the Noble Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to biologist. Studying biology today has changed drastically since the days of Darwin and Mendel. The multi-disciplinary nature of modern biology is the reason why three biologists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2015 for their work on “Mechanistic studies of DNA repair”. Naturally, this caused some uproar from the Chemistry community, but the argument was laid to rest here. Now – to you, the aspiring Ph.D biology student – I say do NOT be deterred by the “haters”  🙂 . The path you have chosen has many twists and turns, but the rewards far outweigh the immediate costs.

Now, if knowing that there is a (veeeery slim) chance that a biologist could win a Nobel Prize is not motivation enough, a recent publication by by American Society of Cell Biology highlighted where recent Biology graduates are now: not even 10% of those starting their PhD end up in tenure-track faculty positions…

Despite all the challenges and frustrations experienced by Biology PhD students, I could not see myself doing something else. I have ALWAYS loved biology, and  it was the only subject that made sense to me in school. I grew up with a medical background (with my mum being a healthcare professional) and being exposed to it made me love it.  I must admit at that point I wasn’t sure what “IT” was, and I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor. . . Please reader, do not judge me too harshly for what I am about to tell you –  Upon completion of high school, I promptly began studying for my medical degree at UCT’s medical school. Those were the WORST two weeks of my life! I simply could not see myself playing the role of Dr. . . Even when my friends and I played Dr-Patient, I always preferred being the patient (I may have been influenced by the rule that patients ALWAYS got a piece a candy after the Dr’s ‘exam’). So, you see, although Biology was in my blood, medicine was not my calling. It seems that life is not without a sense of irony: although I cannot see myself being a human doctor, I see myself being a Dr of Biology 🙂

To go back to the core of this blog – Yes, I am doing a PhD in biology and unlike my friends in other fields or accounting (a career choice I can’t understand!) I’ve NEVER have a ‘bad’ day at work. Sure, my experiments have some ‘kinks’, but I don’t have a 9-5 work schedule, and I have the freedom to answer the questions that matter most to me. My work (where, remember, you spend most of your waking hours) is VERY rewarding! I ask this of my fellow PhDs: reclaim your pride and shatter the glass ceilings. That Nobel Prize in Chemistry is now attainable! There is no reason to be riddled with anxiety when asked if you do a PhD in biology. Be proud! There are bigger question to ask yourself: what legacy will you leave? What kind of mentor do you want to be? What contributions is your work making to the field of biology?

[1] American society of cell biology infograph of status of PhD (biology) holders

Return of an expat: concerns and opportunities


There are many blogs and YouTube videos showing what the rest of the world gets wrong

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about our beautiful country, some of it funny, some of it quite horrifying. As a young African explorer and traveler, I have been asked all the clichéd questions… “Do I have pet lion?” or even worse – “Have you walked to Nigeria?” Because you know, it’s all in Africa. Here, I want to give you a

taste of the cultural clashes and surprising culture shocks you might experience should you start using your student passport seriously.

Firstly, I think we South African are more prepared to travel the world, because we are regularly exposed to multiple cultures and languages back home. When I did my MSc degree in Korea (the “good” one!), I discovered quite the language barrier. English is not an official language over there, and very few schools use English as a medium of instruction. But, when I mentioned that South Africa was multilingual society and the average South African speaks more than 3 languages, people were flabbergasted. It made me realise how much of a mono-culture Korea was, and I missed our crazy diversity. I became involved with the South African Students(?) in Korea group – not to cling to my past, but to find people that shared my ‘rainbow nation’ mind-set. It was here that we had a space to discuss our academic concerns and speculate about opportunities that existed back home. It was during our meetings that we laughed and swapped stories; we used humour to mask the pain and ridicule that we felt being outsiders in this mono-cultural society.

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When I later moved to Canada, though, I was not ready for the whole new set of expectation and questions that I’d face in North America. Here, academics were generally concerned with the life quality of South African university students (the #feesmustfall movement has captured the world’s attention). I must admit it was refreshing to converse about the status quo in south Africa – even though I admit I’m not an expert on the topic.

I find there are major differences between the east and west- notably, in the east it is often asked, “When are you going back to your country?” and here I get asked, “ So, have you decided where you will settle in Canada?” It is always shocking when I tell my colleagues that I have every intention of going back home (why would I stay in a place that gets over a metre of snow on random Tuesday- THAT is another story).

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There is a lovely mix of people within the South African diaspora community: some who have no intention of returning home and those of us who recognise the potential impact/significance of our contributions to the South Africa academic landscape. Those of us wanting to return often share similar concerns- Have we been gone too long? What opportunities exist for someone with a foreign qualification? What is the academic landscape like now and how is it evolving? Is there a niche for my work? Would we be able to integrate back into mainstream south Africa? What challenges await us? When you have been gone for as long as I have, these questions are enough to give you mild anxiety and keep you up at night.