Winding up 2022 and making way for 2023.

As each year ends, I take time to reflect on all that I have done, what I have achieved, and what could be better. During this time, I use a gardening model where I use headings inspired by gardening to reflect on my year.

Flower – what I loved about the year
Fertilizer – things I could add or improve on
Weeds – things that were a distraction or I could leave out.

One of the best things I developed this year was the ability to learn and be teachable. I have loved the tenacity in me and the way that through all the curveballs life has thrown at me, I have remained teachable and a better listener than I have been in the past. I was fortunate to be part of the SAYAS 2022 blogging team and this came at a point where I doubted myself and my ability to do anything. I saw this as an opportunity to let people see another side of me, a side that is not only academic but spoke about the realities we face on a day-to-day basis.

I have appreciated blending into the Pietermaritzburg UKZN campus and being part of the inorganic and nanomaterials group. I have learned to make friends, and I have learned to be patient and understanding. I have and continue to learn diligence and excellence. Through being part of both the SAYAS 2022 blogging team and chemistry at UKZN, I have learned to love and respect my work. What I put out there is the only impression people will have about me. I have also learned that people are not always against you but their criticism directs you on the right path, sometimes it may not be easy to swallow the truth, but we have to for growth. I have also appreciated using the therapy facilities provided by the university which helped with my mental health during the hard times.

Many distractions have come along the way. Things that I cannot go back to and change but can do better for the future. One of them is dwelling on the negatives. Like many people in the PhD journey, I have had funding rejections and rejections from publishers. Sometimes, I would take longer to snap back to reality. I also wish I was a better planner; chemistry requires a lot of experiments and one should plan to make the work cohesive. I have worked on it and continue to.

As 2023 awaits, I intend to improve my networking skills, attend more conferences, and learn how to collaborate with other scientists. I have honed my skills in writing and editing, through my supervisor and Jen, the SAYAS editor. I have also been learning to be patient with myself and my work: when experiments don’t work, I have been learning to be patient rather than frustrated. I could also add more fun to my life, read more books, go out for breakfast alone or with a friend, or learn a new hobby. Three words that summarize my 2022: growth, tenacity, and patience. I also intend to learn more about money and have financial literacy. Many postgraduates are funded by the NRF or the CSIR and other funding institutions (private or public). The money comes as a lump sum to most of us, and we must use it well to sustain us through the year and into the year that follows before the funds are released again. We sometimes get it wrong, due to financial responsibilities of our own, this is one of the goals I want to improve on to become a holistic being even as a postgraduate student because finances play a pivotal role in this journey.

A phrase I wish to go to 2023 in is ‘leap before you look’. We are often told to look before we leap but I want my 2023 to have an opposite narrative. I want to start taking risks, apply for more scholarships, network more, collaborate more with my peers or even seek mentors from seasoned professors. I want to believe more in my chemical reactions and myself. I want to take a leap of faith in everything I do and let the universe run its part. 2022 has been a year of learning and opportunities and 2023 has to be taking a leap of faith.

The opportunity to be a SAYAS blogger is one I will cherish for the rest of my life. I have learned to conquer my fears and put my best foot forward. I have learned to be a better science communicator without being too scientific. This has made me understand my work and the works of others better because it made the work relatable. I have appreciated every moment of 2022 and believe that 2023 will be better.

What is important when choosing a supervisor? Finding the one…

A common topic among graduate students is how their supervisor is treating them, and their relationship with their sups or in general their relationship with one. I have found this to be one of the most important aspects if one wants to continue from their undergraduate to postgraduate education. How does one make an informed decision on finding the ‘right’ one? Unfortunately, for many people, this decision was either made for them or they were oblivious to the matter. People like me for example who did not have a clue what postgraduate studies entail or have any mentors or friends to guide them through the journey end up being miserable or the opposite because they found great people to help them through the journey.  

Choosing the right supervisor is not only beneficial for your health but the progress of your work too. Many articles have been published regarding supervisor-student relationships and the outcome that comes with them. Dr Harry Hothi’s blog post on the qualities of a good supervisor summarized them as having a strong understanding of your research field, demonstrated by consistent and significant publications, having a proven track record of PhD supervision, having the time to support you, and doing so by acting as a mentor rather than a “boss.” Another article written by the University of Otago indicated that the qualities that would constitute a good supervisor are; support, availability, interest and enthusiasm in the student’s work, knowledge and expertise in the field, interest in the student’s career, good communication, constructive feedback, a supervisor who provides direction had an experience and interested in the supervision, finally, a supervisor who is approachable.

Here are some of the tips you should take when choosing to embark on the graduate journey.

  • Do your research; Do thorough research on the supervisor’s work, the excellence of his/her work and the relevance to what you desire to do now and in the future.
  • Find out about them; one of the most important things we have to find out is your potential supervisor’s interpersonal skills, and whether their personality aligns well with yours. A supervisor can have all the academic or scientific skills in the world but how he treats people and how he treats his students is paramount. This will not only affect your mental health but your being, physically and emotionally.
  • Ask one of their past or present students about them. Asking not only helps you see the supervisor from another person’s perspective but also helps understand how people understand the supervisor’s leadership and receive them.
  • Have a meeting with them before the journey begins. I know most of the time we are desperate to go to school or just excited about the project. Please have a one-on-one meeting with your prospective supervisor before you register for your degree. Find out how they deal with conflict resolution. How do they deal with personal matters, for example, if you were to get pregnant, or find a part-time job? What kind of support do they provide for their students (mental health, writing workshops… anything)? This will in a way help you make the right decision.
  •  Collaborationsask the supervisor how it is done with other students and postdocs and the possibilities of it.
  • Independence – as an emerging researcher, how independent one can be?
  • Conferences, seminars and workshops – which conferences they prefer for students to apply to and the frequency.
  • Research publications – how many papers do they expect from you? What are the norms regarding authorship? What are the timelines?
  • Mentorship – he should advise on how he normally does it in the group.

My take is that even though I have experienced only a few months of the PhD journey, it can be hard, lonely, and daunting. Please find a supervisor who will guide you, encourage, support, and challenge you and most importantly realistically listen to you. Yes, the topic of interest, the school and funding are fundamental in graduate school but finding a good supervisor will help you even in dark times. Some people have the experience of their life during this journey, which is beautiful to watch and experience, soak in it and enjoy.