About that funding…

I have been thinking a lot about funding for the next year of my PhD. It will be Year Four. Almost universally, it seems that PhD programs only fund you for about ¾ of the time you actually need to complete your studies.  Is the idea that you get a job towards the end? Or that you hurry up and finish?  If you go online my story is not unique; this is a common experience for many PhD students. This happens in South Africa, the rest of the continent, and even abroad. Discussion forums abound with PhD students offering each other encouragement and tips on how to survive/ where to get funding. It would almost be charming if it wasn’t so serious.

My lack of future funding feels like an individual failure – but it really is part of a larger societal problem. Postgraduate funding in South Africa is quite inadequate for a country that wants to pull up its socks. Not enough people are funded, and the lucky ones are not funded sufficiently. The issue of funding is not just about making life easy for a PhD student, as important as that peace of mind is. For South Africa in particular, there is a “need to bring a fresh outlook to the country’s development hurdles by training up postgraduate students who have been raised in disadvantaged communities and deeply understand the kinds of problems we need to overcome as a nation”. These are some of the thoughts of UCT vice chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng on the issue of postgraduate funding in the country.

To widen our lens a bit, we live on a continent that is 16% of the world population but only produces 1% of its research output. Wait, that’s less than 1%.  Lack of political will to invest in research and development (R&D) on the continent is one of the main factors leading to these dire statistics. South Africa is cited as only one of a few countries who have fulfilled the African Union pledge to spend 1% of their budget on R&D.

Where does this leave us? International funding and collaboration. There is nothing wrong with international partnerships. But as Dr Alan Christoffels of the University of the Western Cape writes, “the dependence on international collaboration and investment without any pan-African framework for increasing and sustaining local funding, limits Africa’s ability to drive a scientific agenda that is aligned to its specific needs”.

Long story short is that my problems with funding are the problems of every PhD student in South Africa and on the continent. The option is to accept it as the nature of the beast. Or we can look beyond the surface and examine the root causes, and advocate for better performance by our governments and even the private sector. As a society we need to care about our knowledge economy and home-grown solutions.  While we wait, and as we toil through fieldwork and data analysis (on our way to an even more uncertain researcher career),  we will nurse in our minds the nagging question whether it was/is all really worth it.

So, what brings you here?

When I meet another person pursuing their PhD, I am almost always tempted to ask them, “So, what brings you here?” This might actually interest me more than their research topic. I exaggerate, but it’s something I think about quite a lot.  This interest in other people’s motivations might stem from my own preoccupation with why I am pursuing a PhD. The answer to this depends on how my research is going 🙂

hows research
Not my advisers, of course… 🙂

I decided to do my PhD when I realized that I could not wait the indefinite number of years required to become an expert in Public Health. Building expertise through experience in Public Health is tricky because the field is so broad. In my short career, I had already worked as a community health researcher, a program assistant, and an analyst in two unrelated fields. The Masters in Public Health degree I held was multifaceted enough to allow this.  This was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand you need a job, and a generalist degree allows you to secure one much easier: on the other hand, you need deeper technical knowledge and a stable trajectory to build expertise in a field. And since we all need jobs, the market largely dictates where we end up.  In African public health, donor interests and political whims sway policy and dictate whether your sub-field is hot or not.

If you are like me and prefer to delve deep into your area of interest, jumping from one random job (however interesting it may be) to another can be seriously stressful. And, honestly, I’d already realized during my Masters that I am attracted to practice that had a heavy research component to it. The broad coursework was interesting but the most enjoyable part of my Masters in Public Health was the thesis year. I finally got to choose a topic I liked, and conducted research that contributed some knowledge to the world. I published and I was hooked. I knew that I loved research and wanted to do more of it. As my early career trajectory oscillated somewhat uncontrollably between unrelated public health fields, from infectious disease epidemiology to health market analysis, I knew that I needed to pause. I needed to go back to the basics, shut out the noise, and find my happy niche in the minefield that is Public Health. Something I wouldn’t mind dedicating years of training to, fighting for opportunities and innovating.

I’m not sure what works for others…


Definitely don’t do it to be called “Doctor!”

Apparently you shouldn’t do a PhD get out of a bad job or find one, simply to be called “Doctor”, or to impress your friends/colleagues/family. In South Africa, I would venture to say, you should also not do it simply because the government is eyeing your demographic group for some sweet, sweet funding.  All of these things are real motivations for people to pursue a PhD, however. Do you fall in any of them, and do you think it affects how you work at all? Because sometimes I wonder if the reasons for doing a PhD really matter, in the grand scheme of things. If you are putting in the work, do your motivations really make a difference?  A completed PhD dissertation, done for the right or wrong reasons, is a completed PhD dissertation. Right?

“A completed PhD dissertation, done for the right or wrong reasons, is a completed Phd dissertation”

A PhD is balanced with so many other demands in our lives. If you are me, these include young children, a rising cost of living, and the constant pull of exciting opportunities “out there”. And then I have to wonder if my personal motivation, the intrinsic pull towards knowledge, is going to be enough?