Getting a postgraduate qualification is challenging, but the end results are exciting

“We” look like we have it all under control. But postgraduate studies are hard and at times frustrating. You would think we have it all planned-out. That is not true. The process of getting a postgraduate degree is tiring, circuitous, hard and at times a little depressing. Choosing topics, writing proposals, approaching prospective supervisors, choosing institutions and applying for funding… it is just a lot.  We are forever hopeful that it will get better after completing a certain degree, but it never does. It feels like the higher you go the ‘crazier’ it becomes.  When I completed my Honours, I though it will be easy to get into a Masters programme with funding but it was never like that, I struggled for a while without any funding. I only got funding towards the end of my first year of Masters.

I am saying all this in relation to my plans to enrol for a PhD. These are plans which have been in motion ever since I got my Masters. According to my timeline, by now I was supposed to have already been registered and progressing through my PhD, but it is only now that my registration processes are about to be concluded. There is still a question of funding, which is a headache. I realised during my Masters that pursing a post-graduate degree without stable funding can take its toll on a student. You worry simultaneously on your research and your finances – how to pay for accommodation, fees and your everyday upkeep. Its stressful and I hope to never go through that pain again.

I honestly think these factors and all the others we often also shy away from should be talked about more openly, not to scare prospective student away but to give them a heads-up. Often, post-graduate students struggle, especially financially, and this affects all the aspects of the student’s life.  We do say that completing a postgraduate qualification is difficult, but usually we only focus on the actual research, the dissertation that we must write, and not the financial implications of being a postgraduate level students. These two are inseparable. We must talk about them as one.

In all honesty, completing a post-graduate degrees takes a lot of courage, will, determination and passion for research. But of course, with all these ups and downs and all of that, there are those of us who never think about giving up. I guess this is the will and determination I am talking about. Getting the qualification, against all odds. I am the first in my family to get a Master’s degree and I have seen how it has brightened up those around me and have given them hope and a reason to go to university, and I am not going to stop until I get my PhD. Despite the many challenges that come with pursuing a postgraduate qualification, I want to be counted among the strong and brave, the go-getters and the intellectuals. I want a PhD and I am going to get it. Do not get me wrong, this is a two-sided coin. There are exciting and thrilling moments too.

How my academic story changed from average to cum laude

Having completed high school with low marks and staying at home for 3 gap years, a lot of people ask how I eventually managed to obtain my degrees cum laude and obtain various accolades. I wish I could give a classic copy-paste solution to overcome some of the challenges I faced, but everyone is different and there is no specific formula to tackle various challenges. However, in this blog I aim to provide some tips on how to avoid some of the difficulties I faced, and various adjustments I made when I got into university. I believe some of these lessons I learnt could be beneficial to young high school students seeking to pursue university education in future, or current university students that need to make adjustments to maximize their academic performance.

Apply for as many programs and universities as you possibly can

One common mistake that many students make is limiting themselves to a specific area of study or just specific universities. I personally had an interest in Pharmacy, and I applied for that area of study at only two universities. Little did I know that it was a very competitive space, and I could have maximized my chance of university acceptance by diversifying the degrees I applied for and applying at more universities. When one has lower marks, they could apply for a related program that a has lower entry requirements, then improve their marks during their first semester, which could then improve the chances of being accepted into the degree they wanted to get into. In my case, I started off with a BSc degree, and chose science-based modules that provided good scientific knowledge required for post-graduate studies in Pharmacology. In my undergraduate studies, I worked hard, and eventually graduated with high marks that allowed me to pursue post-graduate studies in Pharmacology.

Be watchful of the company you keep

There’s no truer statement than “you eventually become the company you keep”. One therefore needs to be wary of the kind of people you surround yourself with, as they will eventually determine who you become. The university is a social space, and you are bound to meeting individuals from different backgrounds. If you surround yourself with playful friends, you eventually become playful, and the opposite is true regarding determined individuals. In my case, having experienced the disadvantage of having playful friends during my gap years, I carefully chose the friends I surrounded myself with, and this indeed help to keep me inspired and focus on my academics. Additionally, it is important to have a mentor to assist you throughout the journey, you should check with your faculty on how to obtain a mentor, as some universities do have free mentorship programs, such as the STARS Mentorship Programme at the university of Pretoria.

Your mental health matters – take care of it

The university environment can take a toll on one’s mental health, it is therefore important for one to carefully take care of their mental wellbeing. Staying far from family, failing some tests and general academic pressure can all cause various mental health problems. Fortunately, Universities have free student counseling units to assist with mental health issues that students may be facing. These are safe spaces, where your issues will be kept confidential, and you can obtain the best assistance regarding mental health, I highly recommend that students use such facilities. Finally, for you to make it, it is important to believe in yourself despite the challenges or failures you may face along the way, a made-up mind is a powerful mind!!

I recently participated in a live interview discussing some of the issues addressed in this blog, you can watch the video here: