Oh no, public speaking!!!

Ever since I was young, I dreaded speaking in public. I hated the English and Afrikaans teachers the most because they would make us have prepared reading, unprepared reading and all those other readings that required us to stand in front of the class with everyone listening to you. Over the years as I grew older, I thought that maybe this fear of public speaking would go away but it never did. I am a very friendly person who can literally befriend anyone in any situation but why was is it so difficult for me to speak to a group of people at once?

There are different techniques people recommend that normally help with public speaking like picture everyone naked or take a deep breath before you start and you will be fine. All I can think about the second I open my mouth is how I would like to be done already.


When I got to university and was seated in a lecture room with more than a hundred students, I couldn’t help but have this satisfying feeling that I never have to speak in front of anyone for the next three years. Unfortunately, my excitement was cut short when I got to the second year major physics, we were expected to give project presentations all the way to Honours.

Finally, I started my MSc and I was certain that I was done but to my dismay, I was told I would be attending conferences and would have to give a talk about my research. I was overwhelmed with fear when I got to my first international conference, especially since I was not just giving a talk but I also felt the pressure of representing the University and the country. I remember the night before my talk, I tried really hard to practice my slides but I couldn’t get anywhere. I decided to get some rest and I would “go with the flow” during my presentation the following day.

When I got there in front of everyone, I had a very tight knot in my stomach that completely disappeared after I started speaking. I stood there in front of everyone and started talking to everyone about my research. That was the day it finally made sense to me why they call it a “talk” instead. The idea is to engage with your audience, talk to them instead of trying to recite as much information to them as you can in 15 minutes. Ever since that day, I don’t have sleepless nights when I am told I will be giving a talk for anything. Obviously, I still prepare for presentations but I don’t spend countless hours trying to cram what to say in every slide.

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I overcame my fear of public speaking by realising that the people in my audience are there to either learn something from me or the experts in the field are there to teach me something. I realised that giving talks is a great platform to get peoples’ input and ideas on what I am working on. What I do now is I only add content that I am 100% sure that I know and understand in my slides. I do not add words I do not know their exact meaning or diagrams that I have no idea what they are representing. I stopped looking at giving talks as punishment and I honestly believe that exactly was the day I also started enjoying speaking in public.

Another thing I do is always remove my glasses, that way I can make eye contact with the audience and yet I don’t actually see them because my eyesight is a little impaired.

I am mastering the art of communicating my science, just watch the space. My postgraduate journey so far has equipped me with communication skills, something that I struggled with all my life. I can now give a talk, present a poster and generally just speak in front of a group of people without feeling like the air is becoming less in the room.

It’s that wonderful time of the year…

It is Christmas time. Someone said a PhD student is not hard to shop for – just give them “time, patience, and steady job prospects”. And I like that very much. It is also that time of the year where we write Christmas cards to our family, friends and colleagues. “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year…” In lieu of my last blog here, I am writing a thank you note / Christmas letter to everyone remotely related to my PhD experience, including my future self.

My family

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With my youngest, he better not ask for co-authorship.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Your presence this year has reminded me that this journey is not mine alone, that other people have a stake in it too. I have loved simplifying my thesis in one sentence, literally explaining to a 6 year-old. Studying when you are around has trained me to be disciplined with my time; to focus on doing the meaningful stuff and taking the necessary breaks. Taking a break in the day to cook for us, and taking walks with you has been all the therapy I need. You are an important part of my identity, one that threatened to be consumed wholly by “being a PhD student”.


My parents/brothers and sisters (including in-laws)

Thank you for caring about my self-determination, and asking often, “how is school going?”, and “when do you finish?” Yes, as PhD students we often don’t like hearing these questions; so thank you for understanding and accepting the short and simple answers of  “it’s going” and “soon”. I really appreciate your big dreams for me; how you think I will be able to get any job I want as soon as I complete this degree. I am often too tired to discuss the reality, and I would rather have the positive affirmations.  You are a big part of my positive outlook on my future.

My supervisors

Thank you for being reliable, consistent and open about your own challenges and the nature of academia. Seeing you balance your own work and still giving me prompt and constructive feedback on my project is inspiring to me. I hardly have enough time for the PhD — and it is all I do — so I don’t know how you do all you do. I feel confident that in the next year we can build on the positive and productive momentum we have created, in order for me to submit my thesis. I will need what you have always provided in the past, which is your experience, wisdom and knowledge. I have learned so much from you in the past three years that I will keep with me when I become a supervisor too.

My PhD friends and colleagues

Thank you for the laughs and the inside jokes this year. Thank you for all the personal stories you have told me, and for making me comfortable to tell mine. It has been amazing the number of stories we could tell each other over lunch or dinner between intense, isolated work sessions. I was happy to be your springboard for ideas as you were mine. Thanks for nodding enthusiastically as I ranted on and on about my project and giving advice the best way you could J Thank you for reciprocally taking my advice as well, even going as far as calling it “great advice, thank you!” 🙂 We make each other feel and do better.

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Some PhD colleagues and friends at a recent writing retreat.


My school and funding body

Thank you for the financial and other support that enables me to dedicate all my time to this PhD. We complain it is not enough but even CEOs of Fortune 500 companies think they deserve more. And those guys get a lot; they categorically don’t deserve more. I digress. Thank you for always lending an ear to the ways in which students could feel more supported, and creating tools to ensure that it happens. Thank you for the analysis software licences, the retreats, the conferences, the journal clubs, the support for extra coursework you name it. Thank you for showing your compassion to starving students on campus – through the food donation drive and feeding schemes for the general student body. And thank you for being full of approachable world-class professors/lecturers who are willing to talk to you about your project and listen to your challenges even though they are not even your supervisors. Thank you to the university at large for the library resources I can access off campus and the librarians who are always online, ready to chat!

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With some PhD colleagues, supervisors, policymakers and funders at a recent conference



Government and the bodies that be

Thank you for your recognition of research as an essential part of the development of South Africa. Thank you for your subsequent endeavours to support students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Thank you for all efforts to make sure that you meet the demand for higher education in this country given the unique needs of this nation and the lack of resources we contend with. Thank you for any effort to ensure that resources are therefore not wasted but invested in the diverse and brilliant minds of this nation, from kindergarten to tenure. Thank you for any effort (now and/or future) to lend an ear to students and experts on how to positively transform higher education in South Africa to be an empowering space for students, their families and society in general.

The Universe

Thank you for the positive vibez… ha ha.

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Source: Unsplash



My future self

I have ended this year on a positive note, which is surprising because it has probably been the most challenging of my adult life.  This blog post has been an exercise in zeroing in on the positives all around me.  It is an exercise of self-preservation that is necessary to keep a balanced perspective on things. It’s easy for the brain to latch onto negative things and let those propel us to action or worse: inaction.  In contrast, the positive gifts all around us can provide the leverage to act in positive ways and do what is beneficial for ourselves and others. 2019 will be hard, with the anxiety to finish and to plan the next steps. Use anything positive around you, no matter how small, to cope. And just like that the year will be over and you will be writing a letter to your 2020 self.