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.

Remember…

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

~ Vince Lombardi

My PhD Sunday plate of experiences…

In the South African township where I grew up we have a special meal on Sundays. It’s called “Seven colours”, or the Sunday plate. You will have rice, butternut, beetroot salad, a coleslaw, chakalaka, chicken or meat, French beans, spinach or cabbage…a mish-mash of foods and beautiful colours on your plate. Something you don’t see for the rest of the week, where meals are simple and consist mainly of pap (maize meal) with a side of vegetables or meat.  I thought today I would give you my seven colours of my PhD experience… It is a mish-mash of experiences/revelations I have had in this journey of PhD so far. Next year I will be in fourth year, and I thought this is an opportune time to take stock of the last three years.

1.     On a scale of one to ten…

I was speaking recently with my sister-in-law regarding her interest in doing a PhD. And it brought me back to my inaugural blog, What brings you here? I am always interested in people’s motivations for doing a PhD so I asked her about that. Turns out she is very well invested in her area of knowledge, and seems like the type of person who would actually enjoy exploring ideas more. She asked the basic question – do you think it is a good idea if I did a PhD? It was almost like, on a scale of one to ten, would you recommend a PhD? And my first instinct was, “Absolutely!” This surprised me because it wasn’t a particularly positive day in PhD land.  I still had the perspective of how this process is making me grow made me happy. It is the nature of the beast to have good and bad days because a PhD is life.

2.     15 drafts, one paper…should I give up?

Even if you have published before, your next paper can be a nightmare. I’ve changed my mind on this paper I am currently writing a number of times. It didn’t help that a conference opportunity came along and I, again, shifted my angle on it. So, a few months later (don’t worry, I have been doing other things), I think I finally have a solid draft. On the 15th try. Well I guess it doesn’t matter, because I have something I am happy with at the end of the day, no? We will see what reviewer 2 says about that. The point is, don’t give up. Just constantly improve.

3.     Technology is nice…but use your common sense

As a PhD student, you come across a plethora of tools for project management, writing, data analysis etc. I remember one time in particular discussing an analysis tool with one of the mentors in our department. There are all these neat data analysis tools out there! But these tools don’t do the thinking for you. And on top of that, the machines sometimes just don’t have enough information to give you valuable output. It is like the GPS that sent me in circles for eight minutes, to a building that was right across the street. But it was the first time in that country, I was there for a conference, and I trusted the machine more than my common sense — to the point of not believing my eyes. So sometimes trust your instincts, and always use your brain to interpret the outcomes, no matter what the sophisticated programs say.

4.     Writing retreats are the best thing money can buy.

To every supervisor out there, if you can afford it, or have the necessary connections, take your students on writing retreats. Two words for how writing retreats work: Mental space. Even if your student comes into the office every day, a writing retreat affords mental space in a way that they haven’t experienced before. I pray that they are the norm at every university in South Africa. A writing retreat is a space where you don’t worry about anything other than your writing. Someone else makes you tea, and food, and there are no errands. A week of writing can accomplish more than a month of trying to write. It’s made more enjoyable by the presence of your peers, who you meet over meals and tea, and informally discuss your experiences. Have a laugh, go back to your books. A lot of down, quiet time – in a collegial atmosphere. I have a sneaky suspicion that scholarship was always meant to be this way.

5.     When your proposal was your best work.

As it currently stands, my proposal is my best work in this entire three-year PhD process. (It will be topped by the thesis soon hopefully). But it is clear to me now why I took almost a year developing it. I read widely…I haven’t done that much reading since. My ideas were consolidated and my plan was solid. When I flail, I always go back to the proposal to ground me. In my mind, my ideas were supposed to get better with time. The proposal was supposed to be something I did just to get into the program and just to get started. But it has become my whole blueprint and my foundation. This week I am attending a writing retreat (high five emoji) and the one thing that has unlocked all of my creativity was going back to my read a section of my proposal. Taking stock of what I have managed to implement and most importantly, the rationale for my entire thesis. I am reading old papers that I haven’t read in three years. All this to say, yes to writing retreats 😉

6.     Surround yourself with inspiring people… People who think their PhD time was the best time.

Talk often to people who have gone through the PhD,  for perspective. I realize how important it is to talk to people who see their whole PhD journey as a positive experience. Because they have faced challenges as well, and can tell you about them. But they seem to focus on the good stuff. Because even when we talk about heavy issues such as mental health in academia, they have a way of showing you that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Those people tend to be solution oriented, and they motivate you to fight hard to design a positive experience for yourself. And sometimes that means shutting out contrary voices.

7.     Friendships and the PhD

This has been an interesting one. I have successfully retained my old friendships — but only those that don’t need a lot of time and constant engagement to be sustained. I have formed new friendships within the PhD environment. And you share with these people some very personal things, at least as far as they affect your work. And yet, these friendships somehow don’t work outside of the PhD environment. I guess it is the same idea as “work friends”. And these friendships have a very useful and important place in our lives. They are in the arsenal of the little things that help you go through the PhD.

Well there you have it! My seven colours of delicious PhD-esque experiences and reflections. Hope you enjoyed and it inspired you to reflect on your own experience, especially if you have been on this journey for a while.