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:

The ongoing tale of finishing up my PhD: Part 2

This is an extension of my April blog contribution ‘The ongoing tale of finishing up my PhD’. Even though I found the research and write-up of my PhD thesis enjoyable and its challenges eventually vitalising, the experience was overshadowed by the arduous months of waiting for my results. Thus, my degree  turned into something of a time-distorting rabbit hole, much like the one I liken Tinder encounters to in my thesis.

One year after my initial PhD submission, following re-submitting my substantially revised thesis in March this year, I finally received my results yesterday!

I had to force myself to slowly, word-by-word, re-read the soberly formulated outcome – just to be sure I got it right:

‘Dear Leah Junck, The Doctoral Degrees Board (DDB) has agreed that you should be awarded the PhD degree subject to addressing the required trivial/typographical (including all changes, criticisms and suggestions indicated by all three examiners) to the satisfaction of the supervisor and the DDB.’

Letting the words sink in made way for a relief that is hard to describe. An initial burst of energy released itself through my body. It clashed with accumulated tensions that have been grimly but calmly nestled into my bones over the past year. This newfound vigour made me jump up and down my living room, throwing my arms into the air as though testing their aliveness. I felt a grimace control over my face and, gratefully, let it distort its concentrated frown. I had prepared myself for bad news and, in my mind, already drawn up a ‘gracious loser speech’. All of this could now stop taking up mind-space! Opening a beer, I sat on the balcony, and let a sense of calm wash over me again, mixing with the occasional tingle of excitement as I let the long-awaited news sink in.

Unfortunately, this calm was soon compromised by an email containing the announced ‘trivial/typographical’ changes to be done. The remaining examiner, whom I thought I had eventually convinced of my academic merit, still had quite a bit to say beyond trivialness and typography. As I mentioned in my previous post, most comments from my three examiners were very insightful and made my thesis all the richer. Yet, some of these new ones felt personal, questioning my disciplinary integrity and commitment given my drawing on a variety of disciplines.

The process of substantially re-working my thesis was structured by a ‘Template for Corrections to a PhD Thesis’, which had been sent to me along with my initial examination result. In the four months that I spent on revisions, the two columns grew into a detailed 14-page document. It outlined the comments of the examiners and my responses to each of them, including how and where in the thesis they had been addressed. Now, I have the same document in front of me again and am starting the process of explaining myself in this format once more. This is fair enough – it is a PhD after all, and that’s only worth something if people can trust in the thoroughness of the examination procedure.

However, I cannot help but wonder what things would have been like had I submitted in a different system. At many other universities, a thesis defense forms part of working towards a doctorate. When I realised this was not going to be the case for me at UCT, I was glad. The idea of it seemed stressful and I would have feared for my exam anxieties to pop up again at a rather inconvenient time. Now, I look at it differently. A thesis defense could have been an opportunity to explain myself in a way that I might not be able to when limited to a form. Beyond that, I imagine actually seeing your examiners to be a different experience entirely. Without the veil of (one-sided) anonymity, there is bound to be an actual conversation, an exchange – even if this happened in times of a pandemic through a computer screen. Had this been my experience, I might have walked away from this life episode with a feeling of finalisation. As it is, I will fill out my new response form as diligently as I possibly can and send it off – knowing it will be without a response from my remaining examiner.

Then I will wait a little more – for finally being able to graduate in December 2021, 1,5 years after what I thought was ‘the’ thesis hand-in and end of this story. Perhaps, the event will give things an air of finality. Or maybe, like my PhD itself, processing its completion will simply take time rather than a final act.