A journey of numerous lessons

As many academics will let you know the academic journey is one that will teach you a variety of life lessons that will make you look at life from an appreciative glance. The academic journey is more than just working towards obtaining the degree; it is more of an emotional, physical, wallet(ical) and spiritual journey with numerous learning curves and fantastic milestones. So far for me, it has been a journey of the following lessons…

It is a journey of patience, learning soft skills and learning to adapt

We make plans, life happens and plans do not always go according to how we have planned. Staying in the right and positive state of mind amidst all the unplanned delays and waiting periods with one’s self and the rest of the universe requires patience. Combining agricultural extension and media has brought to me a few humbling lessons firstly: Patience will take me far in life particularly because the main focus of my research is people. I must be willing to read their emotions, how they like to be approached and treated, learn to listen and accept their opinions without upsetting them. Secondly, never underestimate the knowledge of the people I am interviewing about the topic I am investigating, especially the smallholder farmers (they be loaded with theoretical and practical knowledge) however, sometimes they are not forthcoming with it, meaning I must be patient until they are comfortable enough to share the knowledge. Thirdly, if I want people to speak to my camera and be at ease while doing it, I must be myself and respect their views on the matter at hand, let them respond to the camera in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Fourthly, I must pay attention to how I dress so that I do not offend the people of the community I am working with. There are communities where women (exempting young girls) are not allowed to wear pants and to be seen with their heads uncovered and so I have “when you are in Rome, do as the Romans do”. It takes a while for some people to be at ease in front of the camera and this requires me the researcher to be patient.

It is a journey of receiving humility and kindness

While pondering about the subject of humility I remembered a conversation I once had with a friend where were we spoke about unexpected, perhaps unforeseen challenges of data collection and how these humble us to the core.  He shared with me how he once ran for his life and for a moment “survival of the fittest” became his reality all because a dog caught sight of him and unleashed its barking and chasing powers. In an attempt to bring the dog to a halt he ran and screamed for help in the middle of a dusty village road. His saving grace was villagers who at the sound of his cry or rather scream for help could not help but aid his rescue by diverting the dog’s attention away from him. According to him (luckily he lived to tell the tale), that act of kindness from the villagers humbled him.

During my data collection period when I was doing my Honors and Master’s degree we (me and my friends who were assisting) were offered food, water, juice and sometimes even shade to stand in while filling the questions. People would open not only their intellect to us but their cupboards and their kind hearts. Whether it be the kindness of strangers or people we are familiar with, humility is taught to us in different ways in the academic journey. We just have to be willing to recognize it.

It is a journey of humour and good laughter…

One of the funniest stories I have heard so far is about a researcher who needed human urine samples from people in a particular community (I will not lie, I did not ask what he was going to test the urine for). He narrated that one of the challenges he had was convincing people that he was not going to use their urine for witchcraft. One day while desperately trying to convince one respondent to give him his urine, the respondent adamantly replied that he would rather urinate on the ground than give his urine to a stranger.  The researcher then responded, “I will wait for you to urinate and then I will pick up the soil on which you urinated on because that is how much I desperately need your urine” but even after such attempts the respondent would not budge. Just imagining the conversation in my head killed me. The challenges we meet in the world of academics can be overwhelming especially because research is an unfamiliar exercise in some parts of the country and because of this the responses are sometimes hilarious. Of course, sometimes carrying out research of this nature is easier when one is a local at a particular place however, one can never be too certain about which curveball research will throw their way.

It is a journey worth sharing

More often than not the most shared and celebrated time of one’s academic journey is during graduation. When in actual fact it should be all the time when one feels like doing so. We should not be shy to express how we are feeling and the good and not so good times we are going through because everybody’s experience is valid and worth a mention. Why? one might ask, firstly to avoid being overwhelmed and thinking that you are alone. Secondly, because it is not only challenges that we come across in academics it is also victories such as beginning and finishing a chapter, publishing an article or presenting at a conference you have always wanted to attend. All these experiences are worth recognition.

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Knowledge creation, recognition, packaging and delivering are not always the easiest of things to do. This is the challenge that most researchers come across. The need for sharing the experiences that academics come across is just as important as delivering the results of the research to those who intend to use it. Sometimes it is in the small-talk, blogs, and vlogs that linkages for better communication of research and the wellbeing of researchers are formed.

How having a hobby can help with postgrad life

I know what you are thinking – ‘I don’t have time for a hobby!”. And that might be true, which might be exactly the reason why you will benefit from a hobby. I have a few hobbies and I thought I would share why they help me, why they are especially important if you are a postgrad student and some ideas for low-cost and easy hobbies. I am going to concentrate on my love of reading fiction and running a blog about my reading – which I have been doing throughout my Honours year and I am still continuing even during my Masters!

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Postgrad is stressful

Deadlines, failed experiments, computers that somehow do exactly what you tell them to do and not what you actually want them to do, supervisors, admin, funding…there is no end to the stress that comes with being a postgrad student. Severe stress for long periods of time can make your life feel absolutely miserable. A hobby is something that can provide some relief from all that stress. It gives your mind something to focus on that isn’t all of your academic woes and bring you lots of joy.

It uses different parts of your brain

Academic work requires very specific types of thinking. When you’re wrapped up in solving equations, pipetting (that’s something that biologists do…right?), or coding all week, it can become mentally exhausting. Picking up a soccer ball, a paintbrush or – my personal favourite – a good novel in your off time can activate the other parts of your brain that haven’t gotten much use lately. Your research-academic brain has a chance to switch off and have a rest for once. This might even stimulate some new ideas for your research!

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You can learn new skills that benefit you both inside and outside the lab

These might be tangible skills – like writing for the public and search engine optimization through blogging – or less obvious skills like persistence and discipline from learning how to do something new without having deadlines to motivate you. Having a lot of practice at writing blog posts has helped improve my confidence in writing – which translates into more confidence in my academic writing.

It can turn into a side-hustle

While I think you should have one hobby that is purely for your own personal enjoyment and has nothing to do with your overall productivity, you might be able to monetize your hobby to stretch your tiny postgrad budget a little further. I recently got to enjoy a box-full of free books in exchange for advertising an upcoming book sale because I regularly post pretty pictures of books on Instagram. This has helped me free up a bit of extra cash since I would have purchased many of those books on my own anyway. If you have got a creative or crafty hobby, there may be easy ways for you to make some money off of it.

It gives you a place to succeed and fail in ways not directly linked to your academic progress

This is something that I think is especially important if you’re someone who takes failure and rejection really badly. I don’t handle those things well, but having hobbies where small failures show quite quickly that I’m making progress. For example, if I a blog post of mine isn’t as widely-read as I would have liked, I can look at it and figure out ways to write a better post the next time. All I have lost is the small amount of time I spent working on the post – and it doesn’t mean that I’m a bad blogger. Similarly, if something goes wrong in my academic work, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad scientist. Failure is an important part of the scientific process and every academic career, and hobbies are a way to make failure less intimidating.

It helps you with your time management

This sounds a bit odd, I know. While there are exceptions during really busy periods, but if you have less time to finish something – you’ll finish it in less time. For example, if you have two days to finish an assignment, then it might take you all of those two days to finish it. But if you only have two hours, you’ll get that same assignment done in those two hours. Similarly, if you’re finding something is dragging on, but you’re looking forward to meeting your friends at 7 p.m. for a soccer game, then you’ll get that work done in time so you can join them. Academic culture often requires our entire lives to be wrapped up in our research and having hobbies and activities outside of academia helps you break out of that unhealthy culture.

Some ideas for hobbies

I would like to emphasise that a hobby is a highly personal thing. If your hobby is binge-watching Game of Thrones and being totally immersed in it – that is awesome because it works for you and helps you de-stress. While reading might be my favourite thing to do, you might not enjoy it at all.  I would suggest trying to have at least one, even if it’s something you’re already doing (like cooking, for example). I have put together a list of ideas for you to try if you are looking for a new hobby. These are just suggestions and are generally affordable or doable with items you already own or could purchase very easily. Most universities also have societies or clubs for various hobbies and activities that you can easily join and gain access to equipment and experts

  • Cooking (putting a bit of effort into it instead of just eating 2-minute noodles…which I am guilty of).
  • Photography (if you have a smartphone, it probably already has an excellent camera that you can use)WhatsApp Image 2019-04-23 at 13.27.45(1)
  • Soccer/Rugby/Cricket/Running/ etc. (either sign up for a class or a club to make it social and even more fun)
  • Sketching (all you need is a pen/pencil and some paper)
  • Hiking (there are hundreds of hiking trails around the country!)
  • Journaling/writing
  • Yoga (I started with free, online classes by Yoga With Adriene)
  • Blogging (get started on WordPress for free!)
  • DIY/crafts like sewing, knitting, making cool things with your hands (this will probably require you to borrow equipment from someone)
  • Reading (you can get books for free from your university library or your nearest public library. You can also get cheap books from second-hand book stores).

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I hope this post has inspired you to try out a new hobby! Let me know what your current hobbies are!