The dreaded F-word

FUNDING. What else did you think I meant?

Finances are possibly one of the biggest concerns for a student, whether undergraduate or postgraduate.  Fees must be paid, research costs have to be met and often times we are unable to do it on our personal account (I get anxious just thinking about it). The #FeesMustFall movement has sparked many debates surrounding the cost of tertiary education, there are many opposing views but there is something we can, and should all agree on, there is a funding crisis – amidst a national and local financial crisis.

Student-Dept_t580When I was an undergraduate, I was ill-prepared for university, not in the sense of my academic skills but the associated administrative skills that accompanied it. I did not know about funding calls and applications, how to fill them out, what they meant and if I qualified. When preparing our matriculants for university we have to ensure that we prepare them for the full ride, warts and all. Part of this preparation includes bridging the knowledge gap and ensuring that students are aware of all possible funding sources and other vital support systems.

Before you even begin grant searching and writing, it is important to ask yourself what type of support you are looking for, you do not want to spend hours of your time writing a grant application for a program that does not fit your needs. You can think of it as one of those flow chart quizzes in your favourite magazine, someone asks you a question and based on your answer, you can proceed to the next relevant question.

Some important questions to ask yourself before searching for funding are:

  • What type of degree do I intend on pursuing (if you are starting/ completing an undergraduate degree)?
  • Do I intend on studying full time or part time?
  • Do I require research support or financial support for living expenses while completing my degree?
  • Do I want to apply for a more generalised grant? Or one that is specifically tailored to my field?
  • When would I need the funding? This one is important, grant calls open and close months in advance, you need to know when you would ideally like to be funded so that you can start applications in a timely fashion.

Once you have an idea of what you’re generally looking for, it’s time to start searching for appropriate grants! Here are a few links to local and international grant opportunities.

  • The National Research Foundation (NRF): Funding calls are posted regularly, the NRF funds a variety of research programs and grants for students at different stages of their careers. Be sure to check the NRF deadlines as well as the internal deadlines for various institutions (these could differ). In my experience, calls close quite early in the year so go check out the page after reading this! (Also, your funding flow chart will really come in handy here!)
    • The National Research Foundation Centres of Excellence: Under the DST-NRF banner there are also 15 Centres of Excellence that span a variety of fields and offer financial support among other things! The link to each Centre is provided on the NRF website and you can learn more about the Centre that best suits your academic trajectory
  • The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS):  NSFAS offers financial assistance to students who would otherwise be unable to afford it, applications typically open in the second half of the year.
  • Bursaries South Africa: This website is AMAZING and provides a comprehensive list of government and private bursaries. These are applicable for undergraduates and postgraduates.
  • Scholarship Positions: Another great website for finding local and international funding, search “South Africa” or browse the extensive collection of international opportunities.
  • University Financial Aid: Most South African universities have a page on their website dedicated to keeping students informed about available funding. Check out your university page for more information or Google their financial aid. Don’t be shy to call enrolment and ask for guidance.

Now that you’ve found a grant that fits your needs, get cracking on the writing! If you’re tired of reading at this point, check out the Nature Careers podcast, “The Working Scientist” by Julie Gould which is packed with a ton of grant information. If you’re still with me then read on for a few of my personal tips!

  • Keep track of your deadlines. Make notes and reminders and schedule them so that you are not panicked the day before submission. I find that I work better if I can see the deadline, so it’s written on calendars and in diaries and on my phone. Here is a great (free) online short course on Udemy to teach you how to manage your time!  These are important applications and often take a while to compose.
  • Read the funding guidelines thoroughly. I am guilty of this, in a rush to start writing I often start without reading through this very important document. Please do not do this to yourself, most times it creates more work for you as you must go back and revise or reformat! It is important to abide by the guidelines, who would review an application if the applicant hasn’t even bothered to do it correctly?
  • Don’t procrastinate! I know, again I am guilty of this, and all it ever gave me was anxiety and a loss of sleep. Try to finish your application in a timely manner! If you need a few tips on procrastination cures, check out an earlier post by my fellow blogger Joyful Mdhluli.
  • Be concise– adding a ton of jargon or trying to meet the word limit by waffling on is not a good idea. Get to the point, summarise and be clear. This requires some thinking and a lot of reworking. Sometimes it is difficult to pen down all your thoughts and plans on the first go, this is why multiple drafts help. It is always good to look at it with fresh eyes when possible!
  • Ask someone to review it, someone you trust or who you think could provide good feedback. I find that it is even better when it is someone from outside of your field of research, this is a true test of how understandable and clear your application is. This feedback can help refine before you hit submit!
  • Apply again, even if you are rejected. Rejection is difficult, knowing you invested so much time and effort in an application only to have it turned down is crushing. Do not be discouraged though, apply again even if it means changing your approach or formatting the application. You won’t get every grant you apply for, but you also won’t get any grants you don’t apply for!
  • Apply to multiple sources. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Apply to as many potential funders as possible (if you fit the criteria!).

imagesThis is by no means an answer to the crisis facing tertiary education but can provide a few people with an opportunity. We must continue to communicate and engage with policymakers in order to ensure that students get a chance to pursue their dreams without a cap and gown that come attached to a lifetime of debt.

“We need a break, it’s both of us (but more you than me)”

I have said this line to my degree. More than a few times.

I began my undergraduate degree at WITS University in 2011. I was a fresh-faced 18-year-old and had the world at my feet. Then reality set in and I went from being a top achiever at the high school to failing my chemistry block test (“Oh sweet girl, if you only knew you would fail a few more before finally passing”). That was the first time I thought, “We need a break”. BSc undergrad and I had hit a rough patch; my first-year spark was dying down; our love was dwindling. At the time though, as a first generation WITSIE, I knew I could not call it quits. My family had made sacrifices to get me here and BSc and I simply had to work it out. Eventually, we did, a few more downs, a couple of failures (so many) and at the end of it, my marks afforded me the opportunity to join an Honours program.


Honours was a tough time, the course was intense and it was the first time I had undertaken a ‘big’ research project; a bit overwhelming. I had a great support system in some of my classmates but I was still exhausted, I would leave for campus at 5:45 AM, endure a 30-45 minute bus drive to campus, work all day, get home at 6pm and start working again before an uneasy sleep only to repeat the cycle again the following day. I was tired, I knew it, my family knew it but I justified it by saying “everyone goes through this”. I found myself getting sick frequently as stress was taking a toll on my health. I was unravelling but I did it with a smile on my face because I thought that this was normal and that I had to be grateful. ‘I’m fine’ is the default answer, when it is usually the waving red flag.

After I completed my honours I made an important decision and said: “I think we need a break”. I took time off before my MSc and went to work for a few months. Although there were many contributors to my decision, ultimately I needed time off from my academic path. My supervisors and I stayed in contact and a few months later, they offered me a place in an MSc project that I was really excited about, so I returned in August of 2016. I felt so energised that I decided I wanted to plan my project so that I could complete it within a year. My approach was different, I didn’t work from sunrise until sunset, instead I set myself weekly goals and how much time it took to reach them was completely up to me. I kept my supervisors updated frequently (maybe too frequently) and they were supportive of my approach. One of my advisors had recently relocated back home to America early on in my degree and we had a 10 hour time difference but still managed to make it work (and work well) this showed in my project. It was big, it was stressful but it was flowing, relatively smoothly because I had to supervisors who didn’t see me as a work mule but instead allowed me to thrive through gentle guidance and many open conversations. I am grateful for that support, it is rare in academia.


Academia and I broke up once more as I took a year off between my MSc and my PhD (which I am beginning this year) and I went to work full time. To some, it may seem that I am not as dedicated to my degree as students who choose to go through it all in one go but I am dedicated, to myself first and foremost. It is another mechanism to protect myself from breaking; a stop to gain momentum again and make important decisions such as the choice of institution, supervisors and potential projects.

The Guardian published a great article early in 2018 on mental health in universities, more specifically the experience of PhD students. This article also highlighted the ripple effect, stressed senior academics (who are often the product of a flawed system themselves) can often take frustrations out on their students leading to anxiety-ridden postgrads. There are numerous other examples of articles highlighting mental health problems in academia, from different perspectives, in different fields and the fact that it is so common means we can’t write it off as the experience of a few ‘weak’ students because it is clearly a systemic and deeply engrained problem.

A recent study that looked at over 3,500 PhD students in Belgium found that one in two PhD students experienced psychological distress during their PhD. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) released statistics in October stating that 1 in 4 university students had been diagnosed with depression. Although I think that number is higher because, within our communities, we are taught that mental health and mental illness is not legitimate, it is embarrassing and we do not discuss it. We are yet to examine these statistics in a South African context especially amongst first generation people of colour entering the university space. This demographic often has compounding stresses as we try to survive in a world our families often do not understand but one that we want to thrive in because we feel we owe it to the people we love to do so. I was fortunate to have my family and support system within reach, not many first-generation students do and this is possibly one of the toughest journeys to walk alone.

Academics can’t afford to adopt a ‘well I went through this and I survived’ or a ‘they just were not cut out for it’ mentality when students are dropping out of programs, leaving the field or most saddening of all, taking their own lives. That approach leads to a ‘lost generation’, students who had the potential to succeed but were derailed by unsupportive and negative mentors. As an academic community, we need to address the stigma surrounding mental health problems and work toward an environment and a people that are conscious of their mental wellbeing.