The dreaded F-word

FUNDING. What else did you think I meant?

Finances are possibly one of the biggest concerns for a student, whether undergraduate or postgraduate.  Fees must be paid, research costs have to be met and often times we are unable to do it on our personal account (I get anxious just thinking about it). The #FeesMustFall movement has sparked many debates surrounding the cost of tertiary education, there are many opposing views but there is something we can, and should all agree on, there is a funding crisis – amidst a national and local financial crisis.

Student-Dept_t580When I was an undergraduate, I was ill-prepared for university, not in the sense of my academic skills but the associated administrative skills that accompanied it. I did not know about funding calls and applications, how to fill them out, what they meant and if I qualified. When preparing our matriculants for university we have to ensure that we prepare them for the full ride, warts and all. Part of this preparation includes bridging the knowledge gap and ensuring that students are aware of all possible funding sources and other vital support systems.

Before you even begin grant searching and writing, it is important to ask yourself what type of support you are looking for, you do not want to spend hours of your time writing a grant application for a program that does not fit your needs. You can think of it as one of those flow chart quizzes in your favourite magazine, someone asks you a question and based on your answer, you can proceed to the next relevant question.

Some important questions to ask yourself before searching for funding are:

  • What type of degree do I intend on pursuing (if you are starting/ completing an undergraduate degree)?
  • Do I intend on studying full time or part time?
  • Do I require research support or financial support for living expenses while completing my degree?
  • Do I want to apply for a more generalised grant? Or one that is specifically tailored to my field?
  • When would I need the funding? This one is important, grant calls open and close months in advance, you need to know when you would ideally like to be funded so that you can start applications in a timely fashion.

Once you have an idea of what you’re generally looking for, it’s time to start searching for appropriate grants! Here are a few links to local and international grant opportunities.

  • The National Research Foundation (NRF): Funding calls are posted regularly, the NRF funds a variety of research programs and grants for students at different stages of their careers. Be sure to check the NRF deadlines as well as the internal deadlines for various institutions (these could differ). In my experience, calls close quite early in the year so go check out the page after reading this! (Also, your funding flow chart will really come in handy here!)
    • The National Research Foundation Centres of Excellence: Under the DST-NRF banner there are also 15 Centres of Excellence that span a variety of fields and offer financial support among other things! The link to each Centre is provided on the NRF website and you can learn more about the Centre that best suits your academic trajectory
  • The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS):  NSFAS offers financial assistance to students who would otherwise be unable to afford it, applications typically open in the second half of the year.
  • Bursaries South Africa: This website is AMAZING and provides a comprehensive list of government and private bursaries. These are applicable for undergraduates and postgraduates.
  • Scholarship Positions: Another great website for finding local and international funding, search “South Africa” or browse the extensive collection of international opportunities.
  • University Financial Aid: Most South African universities have a page on their website dedicated to keeping students informed about available funding. Check out your university page for more information or Google their financial aid. Don’t be shy to call enrolment and ask for guidance.

Now that you’ve found a grant that fits your needs, get cracking on the writing! If you’re tired of reading at this point, check out the Nature Careers podcast, “The Working Scientist” by Julie Gould which is packed with a ton of grant information. If you’re still with me then read on for a few of my personal tips!

  • Keep track of your deadlines. Make notes and reminders and schedule them so that you are not panicked the day before submission. I find that I work better if I can see the deadline, so it’s written on calendars and in diaries and on my phone. Here is a great (free) online short course on Udemy to teach you how to manage your time!  These are important applications and often take a while to compose.
  • Read the funding guidelines thoroughly. I am guilty of this, in a rush to start writing I often start without reading through this very important document. Please do not do this to yourself, most times it creates more work for you as you must go back and revise or reformat! It is important to abide by the guidelines, who would review an application if the applicant hasn’t even bothered to do it correctly?
  • Don’t procrastinate! I know, again I am guilty of this, and all it ever gave me was anxiety and a loss of sleep. Try to finish your application in a timely manner! If you need a few tips on procrastination cures, check out an earlier post by my fellow blogger Joyful Mdhluli.
  • Be concise– adding a ton of jargon or trying to meet the word limit by waffling on is not a good idea. Get to the point, summarise and be clear. This requires some thinking and a lot of reworking. Sometimes it is difficult to pen down all your thoughts and plans on the first go, this is why multiple drafts help. It is always good to look at it with fresh eyes when possible!
  • Ask someone to review it, someone you trust or who you think could provide good feedback. I find that it is even better when it is someone from outside of your field of research, this is a true test of how understandable and clear your application is. This feedback can help refine before you hit submit!
  • Apply again, even if you are rejected. Rejection is difficult, knowing you invested so much time and effort in an application only to have it turned down is crushing. Do not be discouraged though, apply again even if it means changing your approach or formatting the application. You won’t get every grant you apply for, but you also won’t get any grants you don’t apply for!
  • Apply to multiple sources. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Apply to as many potential funders as possible (if you fit the criteria!).

imagesThis is by no means an answer to the crisis facing tertiary education but can provide a few people with an opportunity. We must continue to communicate and engage with policymakers in order to ensure that students get a chance to pursue their dreams without a cap and gown that come attached to a lifetime of debt.

Return of an expat: concerns and opportunities


There are many blogs and YouTube videos showing what the rest of the world gets wrong

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about our beautiful country, some of it funny, some of it quite horrifying. As a young African explorer and traveler, I have been asked all the clichéd questions… “Do I have pet lion?” or even worse – “Have you walked to Nigeria?” Because you know, it’s all in Africa. Here, I want to give you a

taste of the cultural clashes and surprising culture shocks you might experience should you start using your student passport seriously.

Firstly, I think we South African are more prepared to travel the world, because we are regularly exposed to multiple cultures and languages back home. When I did my MSc degree in Korea (the “good” one!), I discovered quite the language barrier. English is not an official language over there, and very few schools use English as a medium of instruction. But, when I mentioned that South Africa was multilingual society and the average South African speaks more than 3 languages, people were flabbergasted. It made me realise how much of a mono-culture Korea was, and I missed our crazy diversity. I became involved with the South African Students(?) in Korea group – not to cling to my past, but to find people that shared my ‘rainbow nation’ mind-set. It was here that we had a space to discuss our academic concerns and speculate about opportunities that existed back home. It was during our meetings that we laughed and swapped stories; we used humour to mask the pain and ridicule that we felt being outsiders in this mono-cultural society.

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When I later moved to Canada, though, I was not ready for the whole new set of expectation and questions that I’d face in North America. Here, academics were generally concerned with the life quality of South African university students (the #feesmustfall movement has captured the world’s attention). I must admit it was refreshing to converse about the status quo in south Africa – even though I admit I’m not an expert on the topic.

I find there are major differences between the east and west- notably, in the east it is often asked, “When are you going back to your country?” and here I get asked, “ So, have you decided where you will settle in Canada?” It is always shocking when I tell my colleagues that I have every intention of going back home (why would I stay in a place that gets over a metre of snow on random Tuesday- THAT is another story).

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There is a lovely mix of people within the South African diaspora community: some who have no intention of returning home and those of us who recognise the potential impact/significance of our contributions to the South Africa academic landscape. Those of us wanting to return often share similar concerns- Have we been gone too long? What opportunities exist for someone with a foreign qualification? What is the academic landscape like now and how is it evolving? Is there a niche for my work? Would we be able to integrate back into mainstream south Africa? What challenges await us? When you have been gone for as long as I have, these questions are enough to give you mild anxiety and keep you up at night.