Dear Postgraduate student

You may not know who I am but if you have been following the blog posts from SAYAS then you have a rough idea of who I am.  I just thought I should check up on you and see how you are doing. How are things going? By things, I don’t necessarily mean your research but I mean everything in your life generally. Are you eating well, getting enough sleep and spending time with your family and friends?

It is June now and we are halfway through the year, those of you have just started your MSc/PhD’s have probably submitted your proposals or working to meet the deadline. I have always felt like June was a good time to reflect on the year thus far. I always ask myself: “what have I achieved so far this year in my research?” Sometimes the answer to that question isn’t a good one, we all have this little timeline of how we want our MSc/PhD to go but it never really does. I am here to tell you that it is fine that everything is not going according to plan if it is then great for you.

June is an extremely busy time for the undergraduate students because it is exam season. Everyone seems to forget about us postgraduates because we don’t have exams and assignments anymore. Well, I am here to remind you that you are not forgotten. I am thinking of each and every one of you out there who are working hard to do your first submission, final submission or just trying to make sense of the research.

JustKeepSwimming

I know some days are harder than others but like all things in life, this too shall pass. Some days, I wake up and ready to conquer the world but other days I just want to sleep for the whole week. Unlike undergrad where we know exactly what is expected of us in terms of what to study and when to submit assignments, postgrad is slightly (trying not to scare anyone) more demanding. No one ever really warns us about what we are getting ourselves into and those that do warn us, we seem to not take them seriously because we believe we know better.

Since June is a good time to reflect on our journey thus far this year, let’s go through some checkpoints to see if you are surviving postgraduate or if it is surviving you.

  • Do you belong to a community of practice?

Are you part of a community of postgraduate students where you discuss how things are going? This community does not necessarily have to be people from your research group or even your department. Not all the problems we come across are research-related, sometimes someone from a different faculty might be going through or have gone through a similar situation. At Wits University, we have this Postgraduate club called “The PiG”, this is a place meant strictly for postgraduates and staff members. This has been a great place for me to meet fellow postgraduates where we discuss our research and life in general.

  • How well do you know yourself?

Well, we all know ourselves but do we really know ourselves well enough? I know that I suffer from stress-induced insomnia. When I start having sleepless nights and watch the night pass by slowly then I know that I am definitely stressed. I have multiple ways of dealing with my stress so I can’t really point you in a certain direction. Sometimes I lock myself in my room until I feel better, I take a walk or go for a hike, have a night out with my friends and other days I eat so much sugar and junk food. You need to know what the signs are that make you believe that there is a change in your behaviour that needs to be addressed. Then once you know these signs, find ways of dealing with these changes that work for you.

  • Are you looking after your mental and physical health?

There are many reports on the mental health of postgraduate students being a crisis, which is why I started my letter to you by asking if you are eating well, getting enough sleep and spending time with family and friends. There are many articles in the internet that address this issue of mental health and how to look after yourself, read through them and implement them. It’s better to lose a few minutes of your time taking a walk or a short jog than to wake up one day in the hospital because of fatigue. Please make time to take care of yourself both mentally and physically. Walking around looking like a zombie in the lab or campus will not get you your degree any faster. Here is a blog by Munira where she discusses how having hobbies can help with the postgrad life.

  • Are you dealing with life as it happens?

I have spent the first six months of this year trying to order equipment for my experimental setup. What was supposed to be something that takes a month dragged on for four months instead? This basically affected everything else that was meant to happen afterwards, at first I didn’t take it well but life goes on and I have since then readjusted the plan for the year. Life continues happening while we are doing our research. Like I mentioned above, things will not always go according to how we plan them. The trick is to be able to adjust our plans with what life throws at you. Challenges will come our way all the time, some will knock us down but be strong enough and get back up.

I really hope that you are doing well and if you are not, I hope things will get better soon.

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I admire you for choosing this career path and I know you will make a success out of it.

Yours faithfully,

Joyful

HELP…..I’M NOT READY TO “ADULT”

I have always made jokes about how I want to be a housewife after getting my PhD. A housewife with a PhD in Physics has a nice ring to it. I just recently celebrated my birthday (April baby) and I should admit that it wasn’t one of my happiest days. I woke up on my birthday last month and realized that I am 26. Everyone kept telling me how close I am to 30 after wishing me a happy birthday. Just the other day I was celebrating my 21st and thought to myself that I have all the time in the world. I was depressed half of the morning of my birthday and refused to leave the house. Finally, when I did leave the house, I tried to avoid as many people as possible who knew it was my birthday.

I always say that I have a fear of “adulting” but it never really occurred to me how serious this was until now. Everyone keeps asking me what I want to do with my life, sometimes I am honest enough and tell them I don’t know but they don’t believe me so instead I say I want to be an academic because that answer doesn’t have as many follow up questions.

I know I want to stay in academia and do a post-doc somewhere in Europe but I cannot seem to visualize myself in that situation. I am almost finished with my second year of PhD, this means that I am almost finished with this degree and will have to make serious life choices. Do I really want to stay in academia? Do I want to start a family? Do I want to get married? Do I even want to get a job? So many questions that I don’t have answers to.

MayI am at that point in my life where I cannot continue avoiding responsibilities by staying at school. I will definitely not start a completely new degree just to stay in school longer but at the same time, I don’t know if I want to leave school. I have repeatedly said that I want to stay in academia for the past 5 years that I can’t actually imagine myself anywhere else. At the same time, I can’t help question if this is really the right fit for me.

My friends and families around me are getting married, having babies, starting new jobs and building houses. I feel no pressure whatsoever to do the same which worries me a little, I feel like everyone has their lives planned out and then there is me. I’m just like “I wanna do a post-doc after my Phd”, I don’t know where, when or how but I am going to do it. People have detailed 10-year life plans, I don’t even have a detailed research plan for 3 years.

Growing up is difficult, especially since you realize along the way that not everything goes according to plan. Do we really know what we want to do with our lives or do we just go with the flow? Why can’t life come with a manual?

So my refusal to grow up is justified by all the unanswered questions I mentioned above but what are the reasons I feel like staying young is better? Well for starters, the responsibilities that come with growing up are too much. As a young person, the most you have to worry about is making sure you eat every day and remember to pay the rent. Even when it comes to the rent, if you find yourself without money that month, you can easily call home and cry your eyes out.

I have a rough idea of what is out there waiting for but at the same time, I feel like I don’t know enough to be out there. I know the best way to really know is to go out there and learn as you go but I don’t know if I’m ready to put myself out there. Every time I spend time with my mother/aunt and they tell me all the problems they have to deal with, I don’t know how they handle it all. I am scared that if I grow up “mentally”, I will have to start thinking about grown-up things. I will have to be more responsible for most aspects of my life. I am currently proud of the fact that I can walk into a grocery store and buy vegetables as part of the groceries. Am I ready to start worrying about utility bills and getting a payslip every month?

Honestly speaking, academia right now feels like the best option for young people like myself to be in. I know very few people in my life who actually want to stay in academia and for that reason, I keep them close because I need all the support I can get. Academia has flexible hours, allowing us to only work when we are most productive. As scared as I am about working, I am not scared about being an academic. I mean I hear academics complain about the admin that comes with the job and the endless frustrations of dealing with students but that doesn’t scare me as much as sitting in an office every day from 9-5pm writing reports.

I think I am ready to be open to the idea of “adulting”, after all, the clock is ticking (both biologically and approaching the submission deadline).