To be or not to be an academic? 

Ziglar said ‘Making a big life change is pretty scary. But, know what’s even scarier? Regret’. I had chased goals my whole life. A perfectionist. I was the youngest of everything – deployed diplomat, project manage a multi-million US$ initiative on behalf of the South African government abroad, a participant in a USA – South Africa exchange programme for earmarked future leaders and government senior manager at the time.

unnamed (1)Being an over-achiever became who I was. Being a workaholic was simply part of my personality. The fact that I survived an attack in my workplace and an attempted coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo – with a failed rocket in our complex pool (thank goodness for outdated Russian military rejects sold equally to African governments and rebels), reinforced this idea that I was a brave, young, warrior. A political activist since fourteen, I thought I knew who I was, what I wanted and exactly how to get there. 


Fast forward to 2017. Our eldest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD. She needed therapy and hands-on support to ensure that she didn’t think of herself as a failure, but as a shining star whose mind worked differently. It was our job to understand her, instead of her attempting to conform to us. I can’t explain the shock and guilt I felt. I should have known, but of course, I didn’t since I was working 14 to 18 hour days, travelling extensively whilst nannies and my mother did parental duties. I had failed our child and being me, failure was not an option. I quit my job immediately with my colleagues thinking I had a mental breakdown (later I would come to see it as a mental watershed moment). I home-schooled and supported all three girls in their individual needs and interests; even had a fourth child. By the end of 2018, the kids were ready to return/start school and our family was in a good place. Failure averted.

I always planned to enter academia. My husband suggested I do my Masters in Security Studies in 2019 to take time to re-evaluate and still be a hands-on mom. He forgot who I was. I had to be the top student in the Masters in Security Studies and when I was done in March with my mini-dissertation proposal, I couldn’t refuse the DST-NRF bursary to work on a full-time dissertation to be followed by a PhD in food safety governance as part of a broader Centre of Excellence in Food Security project. I thought it would be a breeze. It isn’t. Nothing prepared me for the intense work, emotional highs and lows and even challenges with my supervisors.

IMG_9762Being in my late thirties, I’m surrounded by youth who have achieved far more in academia, and elder academics who don’t appreciate my work experience as their rigid outlook does not fit with my views to transform academia by breaking down toxic patriarchal cultures, stop being a journal producing machine, aligning research outputs to what is relevant and required by society and avoid academic language as an exclusionary barrier. I advocate instead to co-produce knowledge with government and civil society that is understandable and practically geared, without removing rigorous evidence-based research –

Over the last two years I learned that instead of seeing my choices as a failure, I could use them as learning opportunities. My move to the Centre of Excellence could either be my best or worst decision over the coming year, but it did remind me of what my passions were – Africa, immigration, security and decolonization. I realized that it’s okay to change course as only you impose your limits. I might not currently be writing on a topic of my choice but it pushes me to my limits and reignited my passion for writing, reading diversely, sharing knowledge, continuous learning and listening to different perspectives to best iteratively engage.

unnamedIt’s not easy to start from scratch, but I’m going to be scared enough to not want to regret that I didn’t try. My plans are to complete my dissertation by July and immediately continue with my PhD. I hope to research, to write and importantly to learn more from others, perhaps even lecture the next generation of political scientists if given the opportunity. I learned the hard way that my family is my first passion and priority. I might no longer need to over-achieve, the balance might be more important now, but doing my best within the circumstances remains. As Gandalf said ‘We cannot choose what time is given to us, all we can decide is what to do with it’. And I’ve made my decision, for 2020 at least. 

A Letter from 2050

Dear Munira


2019 was the year the world finally woke up and did something to prevent the catastrophic destruction of our climate. It’s also the year you decided to fully commit to an academic career by starting your Master’s degree in Astrophysics to embark on a life of science. Because this journey is one that’s inherently about discovery, you didn’t know where the future would take you. It’s also the year you read a book that helped you realise that being a scientist would forever make your life different from everyone else in your community and that that’s what makes it so exciting and perfect.


“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” – Hope Jahren, Lab Girl


You have become such a role model for Muslim girls interested in science around the world. The foundations you put down in 2019 led you to develop your skills as a writer, along with your science, and your latest book launch attracted so much attention. You also hang out with Kim and the other SAYAS bloggers every now and then at scicomm events! It’s amazing being part of the incredible community of South African scientists.   


In the year 2019, you barely survived the crushing disappointment of rejection after being shortlisted for a summer school.  It’s also the year you learnt to pick yourself up, learnt that it’s okay to fail and get rejected and – despite all of that – keep your hopes up and keep applying. This first year of your Masters, after you learnt the difficult lesson that your value as a scientist isn’t determined by external factors and that you will always be good enough if you put in the effort and work hard, finally got that life-changing acceptance letter to attend a summer school abroad in your field. 


The most notable quality of a scientist is not how brilliant their discoveries are or how prestigious their awards are – it’s how kind and supportive they are towards other scientists. In the future, you will meet several high-profile scientists who hurt people and push people away from science. I hope that now, in 2019, you appreciate your supervisors who are both brilliant scientists and immensely kind and supportive people. Under their guidance, you will continue to grow as a successful and confident astronomer.


I’m sure you must be wondering what SKA is like, now in 2050? Well, I’m happy to report that Phase II is built and running smoothly. After the success of MeerKAT, SKA got so much more funding and input from the international community that it exceeds everyone’s expectations. There are even rumours of its latest discovery winning the Jocelyn Bell Prize – which doesn’t exist yet in 2019 but is now far more coveted than the outdated Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, you have to wait until 2050 to find out what that discovery is. It may have something to do with dark energy…  


I know that the future is scary, but you will do so well. Keep working hard, keep asking questions and keep writing, and keep applying! 


PS: We also don’t have to worry about load-shedding anymore, ever since the switchover to renewable energy and nuclear fusion reactors.