Post-submission question marks

Question mark made of puzzle pieces | A big question mark ma… | Flickr

A few months ago, and upon submitting my PhD thesis in anthropology, I started hunting for jobs. More accurately, I took a breather before I actually sat down in front of my laptop again with that intention. Letting go of my thesis before taking that step had been an entire process in itself. It meant breaking up with an entire period of being engulfed in writing, living and breathing my subject.

Finding work is not an easy task in these times, as anyone might be able to imagine. Even without Corona – how does one figure out what to do after their postgraduate degree? What am I actually qualified to do and what is it that I want to do? I found myself staring at my screen that was, for the first time in months, not cluttered with open taps and documents, and watched the cursor hovering over an open Google page. It quickly became clear that it was crucial to finally grapple with these questions in order to figure out which platforms would be useful. One may think that I had had plenty of time to figure this out. I’m in my early 30s and have studied in my field for quite some time now. There is often the assumption that starting a postdoc is a decision to commit to academia – for better or worse, until… but does it have to be? – I asked myself. Especially at this juncture, I was harbouring ambiguous feelings about academia, its brand of competitiveness and politics of knowledge production. If ever the was a time to question the assumption of academia and I being an item, it was now. I also had to ponder whether I would be staying on in South Africa. I have been here for 10 years, but am still on a study visa, which makes it difficult to find work. And if I decided to go elsewhere, where would that be, and would my partner be able to find work there?

So what might I do outside of academia? This is by no means an obvious question to answer. Throughout my studies, I remember being repeatedly told that you can do ‘pretty much anything’ with an anthropology degree. This means that anthropologists could be desirable in all kinds of projects that involve a qualitative evaluation of human behaviour in a certain context. But what exactly are these and how do I find them? My previous work in research had sort of just ‘happened’ after replying to an email circulated at the department. Admittedly, I felt a little lost and left alone, especially given the lockdown situation and with campus and its career facilities not being physically accessible. And for an email, my questions seemed too broad and yet too discipline-specific to be directed that way.

After a lot of unfocused googling for keywords like ‘anthropology jobs’ and ‘researcher’, I gravitated towards looking at postdoc positions. At least they would answer the ‘where’ question for me. Also, I love doing extended fieldwork and enjoy analysing and writing. So it could not be that wrong of a choice, I mused. Besides, how sure is anyone ever about what they really want? There seem to be many and, at the same time, very few choices online. Or few that are a good fit and that may be an actual possibility with ongoing global immobilities. Currently, I am still in the process of combing the internet with this somewhat narrower approach but am much more enthusiastic about it. I will keep you in the loop about how it goes.

The uncomfortable truth about finances and academia

Can an average South African afford an academic career?

Every time Stats SA releases the country’s economic statistics, it is always a harsh reminder of how bad and unequal our economy is. A shocking statistic found by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group shows that 55.5% of our population lives below the upper-bound poverty line, which is currently at R1,227 per person per month. The discussions sparked by the 2020 first-quarter stats made me reflect on how finances are one of the leading systematic barriers to entry in the academic field.

I have had a first-hand experience of how finances could lead to choosing a different career path, even when one is a passionate academic.

In the final year of my MSc, I was faced with a financial dilemma; my mother was unemployed and desperately needed to purchase a bigger house that could accommodate our family. Being the eldest daughter, I really wanted to help her. Yes, I had a scholarship, but banks would never consider giving me a housing bond. As passionate as I was about science, my upbringing propelled me to assist my mother. My job applications were successful, and hence I was employed. This would have been the end of my academic career; fortunately, my mother secured a job, which paid enough for her to be able to buy a house. As a result, I was able to resign and continue with my studies. Unfortunately, most people never make it back to academia. 

I was also fortunate to receive a scholarship for my PhD studies, meaning that I would be able to assist at home financially. However, some of my colleagues are self-funded; this is another harsh finance reality. Most of these colleagues are at an age where families expect them to contribute financially, or they have families to look after. Ultimately, they have to rely on the income from tutoring, teaching and lab assistances. The time consumed on preparation and teaching compromises the quality of their research while the privileged students are able to solely focus on their research.

A major highlight from the Black lives matter movement conversations is how the prevalent inequalities are deeply rooted in the systems. The Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper lists various strategies on how the department plans to transform the field of science, but will their approaches be successful? The National Research Foundation (NRF) has played a significant role in diversifying the post-graduate space; currently, the bulk of their scholarships are received by learners coming from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. But does their funding model suit our economic climate?

The truth for this generation is that most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first to attend university. Families sacrifice a lot with the hope that an educated child is destined to improve their living conditions. This means that as soon as the student graduates, there is a financial expectation. Many label this as ‘black tax’ but I believe that the spirit of ubuntu that is engraved in our upbringing drives us to lift others as we rise. Unfortunately, current funding models do not cater for such students.

My ideal funding model would be one where the student signs an ‘employment’ contract which is recognised by South African financial institutions. The universities could also offer tutoring or lab assistance posts with an extended timeframe; not the usual annual contracts. This would allow post-graduate students to carry out similar responsibilities as peers in work environments. The major game-changer, of course, would be if financial institutions realistically catered for all the different economy populations. Countries like Colombia have been leading in the global financial inclusion rankings as their finance sector is able to equally cater for people at various income levels. A study showed that these were the main drivers for financial inclusion:  the government developed financial inclusion indicators and reports, the innovative establishment of bank access points, and custom-made products aimed at different segments of the population with a special focus on low-income individuals.

Transformation in the academic sphere is non-negotiable. However, it has to be more than just diversifying on the surface. True transformation is one that will change the current systems that are major barriers to entry. These changes would enable students to make career decisions that are based on passion and not biased by financial circumstances.