Behind the scenes of a typical life of a PhD candidate

I have always understood the concept of multitasking, but holding an umbrella in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other hand, filming a video and looking out for traffic while rushing to an early meeting was not an activity that I had never dreamt of. This is how my day started on the day that I filmed a vlog, capturing a day in my life as a PhD student.

From my experience, PhD students within various fields are not the most open individuals. It might be quite a challenge to figure out what we get up to daily. With this in mind, the SAYAS 2021 blogging team decided to film vlogs to show you what a typical day as a PhD student looks like.

As I alluded to in the vlog, typical student, PhD candidates doing research degrees do not have to attend classes (a privilege I really appreciate), However, the day is typically packed with various activities. These differ amongst candidates in different fields of research.

Additional to the activities shown in the vlog, I have a few extra things that I get up to on and off campus. As the year proceeds, activities in the lab get busier. Mainly, I embark on collecting data for my own PhD studies, and this entails conducting experiments in a sterile cell culturing environment. On such days, I occasionally spend very long hours in the lab, as some of these experiments run for a long time. After collecting this data, I prefer to analyze and compile it immediately on campus. However, with the advent of lockdowns introduced us by the novel coronavirus, working from home has become a norm, and I therefore, conduct data analysis and other activities from home.

Although teaching junior students is in integral part of many PhD students, conducting these lessons from home is an activity we quickly had to adapt to as Universities transitioned to online teaching platforms due to the restrictions associated with the pandemic. Thus, in addition to continuing with research activity at home, a substantial portion of my “working from home” time is spent preparing and conducting online lectures and tutorials.

It is very fulfilling and interesting to share your research findings with peers within your field, and this typically happens in conferences, both within the country and internationally (look out for a blog later in the year, where I will share my experiences from these conferences). Part of my time is usually spent preparing for such conferences, but with current restrictions this is unfortunately currently halted.

You may be wondering, what about the social life? Well… although I do have social activities here and there, spending long hours doing what you have a passion for (scientific research in my case) feels like social activity, and I hence, do not feel deprived of the ‘normal’ social activities. Certainly, our experiences as various PhD candidates differ amongst each other, as we are individuals with different personalities and life experiences, but I hope the vlog gives a glimpse into the human element of our often closed off lives.

A bumpy but successful academic journey

After completing high school, many students aspire to move on to the next step of their academic journey. My path took an unfortunate turn, as the marks I attained were too low for admission into the University degrees I intended to study. As a consequence, I found myself taking some languishing three involuntary gap-years, sitting at home in the township, with a seemingly stagnant career. However, like every fairy tale, my journey continues ‘happily ever after’, as I have managed to obtain three degrees amongst other numerous accolades. I am Keith Ncube, a doctoral student in Pharmacology at the University of Pretoria.

During my high school studies, I found the complex structure of chemicals such an intriguing concept. Our chemistry teacher narrated how some of these chemicals are used in the treatment of various diseases, and this ignited a passion within me to pursue a career in health sciences. However, this zeal quickly diminished, as the grades I obtained during my final exams were not sufficient for admission into programs such as Pharmacy and Medicine. For three consecutive years, I tried applying for alternative degrees at various universities without any success. Just as I had lost hope, I received admission to study a BSc in Medical Sciences at the University of Pretoria, a turning point which I reckon was the true birth of my academic journey.

Transitioning from a period of inactivity, I found the acceptance into University to be a privilege, and I prioritized my studies. As a result, I managed to pass most of my modules with distinction during my first year. This enabled me to work as a tutor for chemistry (my old forgotten passion) during my second year of studies. Engaging with students during tutoring made me realize the massive gap between the content taught during matric, and the more complex concepts that students encounter during University studies.

Myself, with some of the students we mentored in the Yakhanani High School mentorship program.

Then, I came together with individuals from various fields of study to start up and serve as a coordinator for the Yakhanani High School Mentorship Project, which is aimed at grooming and preparing high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds for the transition from high school into the tertiary environment. I have continuously utilized this platform to share my journey and inspire young students, and to advise them on how to maneuver around potential hurdles that they may encounter in their academic journey.

Upon completing my undergraduate degree with distinction, I was introduced to the world of academic research through admission into an Honours degree in Pharmacology. I was assigned with a project that aims to develop laboratory models of breast cancer that optimally mimic the attributes of cancer in the human body. These models are then used to study the potential effect of new anti-cancer drugs.

I passed the Honours degree with distinction, and as a result, I was accepted as a Masters student received an NRF scholarship which afforded me an opportunity to continue with the research and sharpen my skills as a Master’s student within the same field. With support from my supervisors, I managed to grow as a young researcher, and scooped several accolades within the country and internationally. The most significant of these was being chosen to be amongst 600 students across the globe to meet and engage with Nobel Prize winners at the prestigious Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting (Germany) in 2018. In the same year, I presented part of my research results at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology in Kyoto, Japan. In addition to presentation in various national conferences within South Africa, I also got the opportunity to act as an academic supervisor for junior students within our Department of Pharmacology. I have since completed my Master’s degree (Magna Cum laude), and I am pursuing my Doctoral degree in Pharmacology.

Myself, posing for a picture with Anja Maria-Antonia Karliczek, the Federal Minister of Education and Research in Germany (left) and Professor Michael Levitt, a Pretoria-born Nobel Prize winner (right), at the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting in Germany (2018).

My shift from a seemingly futureless young teenage boy to an established health scientist has ignited a passion within me to inspire upcoming academics that ‘failure is sometimes a necessary detour, and not a dead end’. This journey within the past decade has offered me a wealth of experiences which I would like to share with academics and individuals who are aspiring to pursue a career as an academic. Some of these experiences include transitioning from high school into tertiary education, how to select a good supervisor, maintaining resilience, and the craft of scientific writing and presenting amongst other additional topics. I look forward to using the SAYAS blog to share these experiences.