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

pic 1
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.

pic 2
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!

pic 3
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.

pic 4
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.

It’s a wrap!!!

Nothing beats the smell of fresh air especially as you reach the end of the tunnel; in this case, the end of the year. It’s been quite a ride and we ended this year’s long journey with our annual End-of-Year Postgraduate Seminar! The one event where the intellectual capacity of the department comes to share their research and open doors for further research.

The UFS Department of Zoology & Entomology postgraduate seminar is an event where postgraduate students present their research and findings with the rest of the department. It’s spread over two days of presentations all day long. This is where one gets to experience the heart and soul of zoology research. This year the research quality was world class. It really was an event to marvel at. The experience gave me a lot of ideas around my own research and what still can be done.

This month, though, I am just grateful and want to reflect on the rest of the year – it’s not been an easy one. So I only started my MSc this year and I chose the field of aquatic toxicology. When I started I thought it was going to be an easy one. Little did I know that it would take me out of my comfort zone and lead me into the space where the only thing I have is happiness. I got to explore the field of analytical chemistry through the interdisciplinary field of toxicology. I also derived some lessons from people that I work with…

  1. It’s okay not to be sure. This gives room for exploring, curiosity and knowledge. When I started I wanted to understand the relationship between carbon and bio-available nitrogen in water. This later changed to understanding the adsorption capabilities of the activated carbon and how it can be used in wastewater treatment. This later changed to understanding the nutrient dynamics of treated wastewater and the receiving streams. Shifting from topic to topic gave me an opportunity to read more and more and to identify several gaps within my field. If I were to do another degree, I am pretty sure I will know what to look at.
  2. Communication is key. Our lab has these weekly presentations where we give reports on our progress. One might say it’s too much. It might be for some people. But looking back at the seminar that just passed as well as the readiness and confidence of my peers during our individual presentations, the weekly stress was worth it. Science does not add value to society until it can be communicated. One of the ways we can do that is by presentations and sharing our research. Two of my colleagues published their data this year. I am currently working on two papers that I believe will be out in 2019.
  3. Your colleagues are not your enemies. One of the greatest values that the postgraduate journey adds to one’s life is professionalism. It also highlights the importance of collaboration and sharing data. Being able to go out there and become a world renowned scientist begins in the laboratory where you support each other as postgraduates and talk about your research and figure out how you can help each other.
  4. You will never have enough time. I felt that time was a relative construct throughout this year. By that I mean that it depends on who is conscious of it, who is using it and how one is using it. I have spent several days without proper sleep. I’ve spent nights in the office and in the lab. Mostly, I would still be behind on my work. I then, finally, found out what I was doing wrong: I spent those nights doing a 100 things and not finishing even one of them. Until I could have a proper schedule and daily goals, I kept wasting my time. Now I have learned and I know better.
  5. Getting a different perspective does help. We often get so wrapped up in what we do that we don’t consider people from other fields of research to be of any value to our research. My academic mentor, who is an ecologist by training, has added quite a lot to my research. Talking to him in trying to make sense of my writing or results has helped me to be better at what I do. If you really think about it, someone who is not an expert at what you do will demand that you explain your research as you would to a grade 4 learner. By doing this, everything becomes clearer even to you. So let it out. As long as you have audience, you will be better at what you do.

As we conclude 2018, I would like to leave this with you. When I was doing my first year 20180907_101256.jpgI had a pleasure of attending a leadership workshop by Prof Jonathan Jansen. He talked about a learner who was always failing and always being scolded for it. One day he came home with the highest mark he’d ever gotten in his life. His father was not happy at all. He asked his father why and his reply was, “There is always room for improvement”. So to postgraduates who feel like their supervisors are mean and unfair, there is always room for improvement. I have had to spoon feed myself these words this year. Any postgraduate student can attest: even when you feel like that paper or presentation or writing was your best, your supervisor will always find something wrong or something that needs to be changed. As much as it hurts, we do become better through that criticism of our best work. Let your 2019 be the year of improvement.

Remember…

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence”

~ Vince Lombardi