Of writing

What did I learn about getting a dissertation done?

By the time this piece is published my dissertation will be sitting in the hands of my examiners and I will be moving on to my PhD. The last two and-a-bit years have been the most intense learning experience of my life, professionally and personally, and in the brief moments of peace between franticly making the last few edits of the final draft there has been much reflection about what this degree meant to me. This is a quick reflection about one (significantly important) aspect of that journey: Writing.

I have always been bookish. My childhood was a stark contrast of feral adventures exploring the natural world, and having my nose buried in one of the thousands of imaginary realms hidden behind yellowing pages and rigid text. Reading is, in my opinion, the basis of all writing because it exposes you to different styles. Finding your own style is crucial if you want your work to come across as authentic. My reading has always had a distinct lean towards the natural sciences with significant influence from the recommendations of my Dramatic Arts and AP English teachers (and in more recent years my friends of jurisprudential flavour). This has led to a somewhat unconventional style, particularly for a career in STEM.

Reading widely also exposes you to new ideas. It allows you to blend disciplines and gives opposing thoughts time to marinate in the mind. This is certainly important for developing ideas, but I think it is also largely because of my obsession with reading widely that writing came easily to me. Essays and assignments at school, and well into my undergrad, flowed from pens without much planning and I tended to edit as I write instead of after. Writing a dissertation is, however, an entirely different beast to wrestle with.

Despite writing coming easily to me, I am incredibly critical of what I write and never enjoy actually reading my own work. A dissertation requires you to go back, re-read, reflect, and correct. I’ve had to learn that sometimes it’s better to just write, get some points on paper, and keep it moving even if you’re not entirely happy with the immediate output. I usually prefer to tackle large chunks of writing in one-go, but this isn’t possible every day. Don’t underestimate how quickly daily additions of even short pieces can add up and help you finish a chapter, particularly when you’ve hit a low patch and aren’t feeling productive. A dissertation is also an ever-evolving piece of writing, but it will also never be perfect. As we’ve reached the final stages I’ve had to learn that a dissertation is, after all, just a submission for a degree. It’s never meant to be a career-defining piece of writing, but a step towards a qualification. As much as there is always a better way to structure and word a paragraph, and I’ve had to learn to leave things as I’ve written them if there’s no real reason to change things.

For those of you thinking of doing, or who are just starting, a Masters I think the only real advice I can give you is to read outside your discipline, and to just write. It’s a fine balance between developing your ideas and getting it down on paper, and your approach will be unique to who you are, your style or writing, and the subject of your research. Write in a way that is reflective of who you are, but see the piece for what it is: a stepping-stone.


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.


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

~ Vince Lombardi