The other side of being a PhD student

Being a PhD student is an opportunity that can change one’s life for the better, however, it is no walk in the park. There are countless problems that PhD students come across, some very unique to each candidates project and some are quite universal, for example, the challenge of being financially frustrated. Before I became a PhD student I was not aware of the financial challenges and limitations that can exist in the 3 years of perusing a PhD because no one I knew had faced the challenge I have come to face in my PhD journey or rather no one has ever spoken to me about such a challenge. I was aware of other “mountains to climb”  such as expensive equipment, unreasonable supervisors and the long wait for ethical applications approval but running out of money was not one of the mountains I anticipated I would have to climb.

How my financial problems began                

In 2015 and 2016 the university students in South Africa embarked on the fees must fall campaign. The goals of the movement were to stop increases in student fees as well as to increase government funding of university course I too was in full support of the campaign. What I did not anticipate was how this action was going to affect me as a PhD student. In 2017 I applied for the National Research Fund (NRF) Free Standing Bursary and I received it which meant that I was able to register for my PhD In 2018. Previously NRF awarded students R120 000 for a PhD study but because of the fees must fall campaign (this was the explanation I received from an NRF consultant I spoke when I wanted to understand why the funding had been reduced) the bursary fund had been cut down by 30 % so the bursary was reduced to R70 000. This was obviously a shock to me. In my first year, I was obviously very determined and I said to myself “well I will make it work”. However, during my first year, I did not have to buy equipment, travel and budget for data collection activities, therefore “making it work” was not much of a tight financial squeeze.

October blog 1Now that I am in my second year I am realizing how little this amount of money is because actually, it has run out literally between rent, food and other expenses including transport. To fill this financial gap  I now depend on my father and my twin sister for everyday living expenses. Between food and taxi fare their financial assistance takes me through half the month. Fortunately, I also have a blogging contract with SAYAS where I can earn R250 at the end of every month, which I have to spend really carefully to get me to the next month.  I sometimes wonder how other candidates in my situation who do not have a support system like mine are coping. I never anticipated that my biggest concerns would be whether or not the food I have will last me the entire month or how will I be able to afford accommodation come January 2020. Agreed a PhD is not all about money and bursaries and one’s reasons to do a PhD should not be solely based on getting “bursary money”. However, once you have made up your mind that you will embark on a PhD having money to support you throughout your journey does make easier and also makes it easier to focus and be creative about your work the opposite is quite frustrating. 

Often students who are uncertain about whether they should embark on PhD studies or not ask what advice I can give them before deciding whether they want to do a  PhD or not and I usually give the following advice.

Do not be shy to look for funding  

Firstly, make sure you secure enough funding to carry you through your PhD. My mistake was assuming that I would have enough money and little did I know that funding was going to be cut by 30 %.  Make sure you are certain of the details of the funding so that you avoid having to look for a side hustle just to keep afloat during your PhD studies. I have actually lost count of many bursaries I have applied for, potential sponsors, individuals, companies, deans of faculties, you name them, I have emailed or called them looking for additional funding and I won’t stop until I get it because I am determined to complete my studies.

Do not be afraid nor ashamed to hustle

October blog 3I have decided to look for a part-time job in order to finance my data collection after realizing that the bursary money will not carry me through the entire process. Truth is, working towards a PhD does not really change anything nor does it make a person special. I have spoken to people who even after completing their PhD’s have had to go from one office to another begging to do even the most minimal of jobs just so they can afford to buy food at the end of the month. That was when I learnt that the title “DR” does not exempt me from looking for work anywhere where I can find it just to feed myself.  If you find yourself having to sell and bake muffins do not be shy if it pays the bills do not be ashamed of your hustle. The most important lesson I have learned from all of this is sometimes you just have to put your pride aside and feed yourself regardless of the title you might have or might be working towards.

Last but not least

Be certain of your reasons of why you want a PhD because, in times of difficulty where you have to choose to forgo certain needs because you must have enough transport money for the month or there is certain equipment you must buy, the initial reason for you to want to pursue a PhD will keep you going.

Five Things Postgrad Students are Tired of Hearing

Postgrad science students have a lot on our plates. Between labwork, presentations, keeping up to date with the latest publications, meeting with our supervisors and the dreaded thesis, we are busy people. We are, after all, trying to uncover how the universe works and find new ways to interpret and use nature. Quite often, we get a few questions from our non-academic friends and family that we’re a little tired of hearing. We have either heard them (and answered them) 5000 times and often come from a place of misunderstanding or, worse, not taking our work as seriously as other fields. These questions can be frustrating for your favourite postgrad student, so here are five things not to say to them:

When are you getting a real job? 

This question is particularly frustrating because most postgrad students don’t really feel like students anymore. The work we do as researchers is very different from answering assignments and studying for exams. It’s a whole different phase of our lives that is already, in many ways, like a job. And if we plan on staying in academia, we won’t get a ‘real job’ (usually understood by most people as lecturing – something we may not even be interested in doing) until after we’ve got our PhDs. Nobody goes around asking medical students or law students when they’ll get a ‘real job’, even though they’re in training for as long as scientists. 

The Earth is Flat/Climate Change isn’t Real/etc

Most of the time, these people are trolling. If that’s the case, we’ll just keep moving and ignoring these questions. We don’t always have the time or the energy to lay out the mountains of evidence a quick google search would reveal. But, if we do, it would be a good chance to practice our science communication skills.

You must be so smart! I failed maths (economics/statistics/physics etc.) in high school!

While we all love being complimented, being ‘good at maths’ doesn’t necessarily equal being smart. Yes, I can do integrals and enjoyed trigonometry, but I can’t manage a business or figure out how to cook anything more complicated than pasta. We all have different talents and different ways of being smart. Additionally – not all scientists are good at maths or even use maths in their work. It’s better for everyone if society stopped viewing scientists as special geniuses and instead as ordinary people whose job it is to do science.

Isn’t it a waste of money to build bigger telescopes/particle accelerators/etc?

I understand the frustration at seeing the immense cost of building and running the Large Hadron Collider and the MeerKAT telescope when there is so much inequality in the world. But to do science, which informs us about our place in the universe and helps us understand what its made of – as well as developing technology and creating thousands of jobs – requires expensive equipment to push the boundaries of the unknown further. A quick look at the salaries of top soccer players and how much Jeff Bezos earns per second will put the cost of science into perspective. 

When are you going to graduate? Or How is it going with your studies?

Simple advice on how to ask this question: Simply don’t ask this question. Postgrad is stressful and this question may result in tears. We’re all trying to graduate as soon as we can, and asking this question isn’t going to make the process any quicker. Also, maybe another piece of advice, ask this question if you have the whole day free in your schedule to listen to the whole story. 

I hope this post clarified some of the misconceptions around postgrad science students and what you should not ask us. If you’d like to strike up an interesting conversation with one of us, ask us what we research and why we love it. We’re more than happy to talk about science (most of the time).