A week off…

So, I have to do analysis for pesticides and heavy metal analysis in water for my Master’s project. Unfortunately, we don’t have the equipment for that in our lab: I had to find a lab that does. Luckily enough, I discovered the University of Johannesburg’s Department

The Analytical & Environmental Chemistry laboratory, UJ.

of Applied Chemistry, which heads up the Analytical & Environmental Chemistry Research laboratory. This research visit was truly a week off from my very typical and everyday academic life.

On my first day I joined the members of the research group in their preparatory presentations for an upcoming seminar. I always thought my research was isolated from the realm of the truth and practicality. Listening and watching different students at Masters and PhD level presenting their research on wastewater was really an awakening for me. If I wasn’t certain before, now I am sure that ecotox could become my life! A couple of studies caught my attention but I don’t want to give too much away…


One student was synthesizing a nano-composite to adsorb lead in the acid mine drainage. Another studied the desalination of seawater using a specific nano-composite, while somebody else tried to work out how to remove personal care products from water. As the students were presenting this work, in my mind I kept asking myself why I didn’t know about this stuff sooner. On the other hand, I was grateful I experienced this at this level of my study when I am still trying to find what I want to do for my next postgraduate program.

The second day was lab work. From learning to dilute concentrations and processes of preparing analysis reagents, it was a roller-coaster. I felt like a sponge – a rather happy sponge! The processes weren’t necessarily easy but it all just clicked. In a chemistry lab of all places! Without any further elaboration, let me just say I felt at home.

Me, doing pesticide extraction using the solid-phase extraction method

One thing that stood out for me, apart from working with the amazing Prof Nomngongo and her students, was that the experience was the culmination of what I’ve been saying from the start. Through collaboration, interdisciplinarity and open-mindedness in research… this is how we build our research capacity in Africa. This is how we make science fun.

No matter your PhD needs, PhD Twitter has you covered…

In keeping with the spirit of being a millennial…I’m going talk about PhD Twitter and how great it is 🙂 . Before I did my PhD I hated Twitter. I found it too random, for lack of a better word. And not even lists and carefully curated content made a difference. I would login once and forget to come back for another six months. Until I started my PhD…

It started off with following the organizations I like, and then I got into PhD Twitter hashtags. #PhDchat #PhDlife #PhDadvice, #PhD… you name it. The information was still random, but now I felt connected to it. I was entertained, encouraged, and sometimes even enlightened. You cannot go 2 tweets without something that brings an emotional response out of you. And that’s why the platform is so addictive. Follow with care!

PhD Twitter can encourage you just as much as it can freak you out. Often people share horror stories of their experiences, or their disillusion with the PhD and academia…and you will wonder why you logged in. Here are some of my favourite (and not so favourite) things to engage with on PhD Twitter:

  1. Practical advice

This is a checklist on dealing with supervision. The best part for me is the comment from the PhD student, who balances this neat checklist with a little dose of reality. Some advice out there will miss the nuances of your situation, or your motivations at the time. As one of the responses state, sometimes your desperation to get into a program makes it hard to make sure your supervisor and project meet some criteria.

When you feel you can do the research and the supervisor seems nice enough, you do it.  We settle for the acceptance letter, and plan to solve all other issues later.  For better or worse. But it is good to always have this kind of advice around. PhD consultants abound on Twitter. There’s a checklist for everything.  And we don’t mind… we are begging to graduate and we are not choosers.

  1. Solidarity

Sometimes it takes only a few words to express it all, when others have had that same experience. And that is one of the most comforting feelings for any human — more so the PhD student. This person expressed a challenge without getting into detail, and was able to get support and sympathy from other PhD students. With every little word of encouragement, retweet, and heart, she felt a little better.

Even old acquaintances reached out to suggest a little coffee break…

…you can tell our PhD student hasn’t been all that reachable on the phone.

  1. Much. Relate.

Sometimes you stand in solidarity with others because you know you might need it someday, or you know how it feels to need those words of encouragement. But sometimes someone’s challenge seems like an exact replica of yours. And a comic strip captures everything that you go through or feel. When someone out there tweets about something this real, we can’t help but testify.  We say things like “I feel so attacked right now” (this is a good thing), “stop talking about my life”, and like this person, “behold, the gospel”.

  1. The dark side…

Sometimes someone will give you a little dose of reality regarding the PhD journey – the low paying academic jobs awaiting you, the poor job prospects overall, how overqualified you are for most positions, and how unsuitable you are for industry. When this advice comes from a well-rounded source it is palatable – perhaps a current academic trying to find their way in the milieu, someone who quit but found something valuable to do (“industry”, their own passions etc.).  Anybody who is not all doom and gloom.  But then there are pages like this:

Is not having any more PhD students the solution to all of challenges facing academia and society? With pages like these you don’t even do an example tweet. Just do a quick scroll through the timeline and if you are a PhD student, tell me if you aren’t scared. And discouraged. Or at least mildly concerned.

  1. PhD secrets. How many secrets can one field have?

PhD secrets are like PhD advice 2.0. They aren’t regular advice; they are things Big Academia is hiding from you! Sometimes they are educational; sometimes they are to the tune of number 4 above. These secrets are multifaceted. Some hide in plain sight…

Some are really, really magical hacks you would otherwise have not uncovered…

Who knew changing the name of a file you have been working on forever could give you a new lease on life? Changing your perspective on something changes how you deal with it for sure. Sometimes we make things harder for ourselves by thinking they are more complex than they really are. And little mental hacks like these are the little miraculous things that we didn’t even know could unlock our creativity and keep us going.

  1. Big ideas on the PhD in the 21st century…

Through PhD Twitter you get access to all of the latest ideas on how universities can reinvent the program and stay valuable to society.  Through these ideas, we as students can also see where our careers are headed. We know that change is inevitable, and graduate programs will have to continually evolve to fit better into their contexts. This means negotiating our own place in it, thinking about the meaning of what we do, and because we are the custodians of the future PhD …maybe even think ahead on the best way to advance science and the PhD in the future.

These are just six of the multitude of things you encounter during a brief session of PhD Twitter. Sometimes I get tired of the self-obsession of the platform. But sometimes it’s the only thing that can keep me going. A little bit of hope goes a long way. And virtual hugs sometimes work.  PhD twitter is great. Anyone, big or small, can have a say in things. Get advice. Feel connected to a bigger picture. All at the tap of an app…