A day in the life of a PhD student – lab work, student supervision, COVID-19 vaccination assistance

We currently live in an era of everchanging regulations and permissible daily activities due to the measures taken to curb the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, I shared a vlog detailing what my typical day as a PhD student looks like. That was quite early in the year, and it was less busy at that time. At the moment, I am busier than I was back then, and have decided to share some of my current daily activities in another vlog post, see video below:

The year has gotten quite busy, and my typical day consists of assisting/supervising students and lots of lab work as shown in the vlog above. In addition to the activities shown in the vlog, I sometimes assist with COVID-19 vaccinations at the University of Pretoria’s vaccination site. The University of Pretoria was the first academic institution in South Africa to set up a COVID-19 vaccination site. Staff members from the University and the general public can access the vaccination site. Students from our Faculty of Health Sciences volunteer to assist with administrative procedures during vaccinations, and I also volunteered to assist, especially when students are not available.

A photo of me working at the University of Pretoria’s COVID-19 vaccination site

At the vaccination site, I either conduct administrative work or help out at the site pharmacy, where we prepare the vaccines for injection. The vaccination site opens from Tuesday to Thursday, and I unfortunately filmed the vlog on a Friday, therefore, I did not get a chance to show the activities I conduct at the vaccination site. As a PhD student, we normally do not get to interact with the public, and so assisting at the vaccination site has honestly been a worthwhile experience, as we interact with individuals from different backgrounds. I hope that during the festive holidays, I will spend more time at the vaccination site, and share another vlog that details my activities at the site. I hope this current vlog does provide you with a glimpse into the life of a typical PhD student.

PhD Student- Supervisor Relationship

As a PhD student, my supervisors have become the most important people in my academic life. That said, it is unusual that I have only met with each of them once since my PhD began. I enrolled in the beginning of 2020 and shortly after our initial face to face meeting, the global pandemic had begun.

During my Honours and MSc years, I had the habit of meeting my supervisor in his office to discuss my progress. During my PhD, communication has almost exclusively taken place online. This has led to a much less hands-on role by each of my supervisors in comparison. Each of my supervisors did warn me that a PhD requires the student to take ownership of major decisions and of their own work. The role of the supervisor is to advise and not instruct. This was something that did take a while getting used to, as it requires a higher level of academia.

I have communicated with each of my supervisors’ countless times on multiple platforms such as WhatsApp, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Each communication platform has its own pros and cons, and I have no real preference. For instance, Zoom has a 45-minute time restriction for users without a license, requiring attendees to rejoin the meeting whenever the time runs out. Microsoft Teams does not allow one of my supervisors to communicate using their microphone, and WhatsApp is often a two-way line of communication.

The most positive experiences were when each of us were present in an online meeting. I am appreciative that often, they could meet up with me together during the same meeting as their individual schedules are not always aligned. Such meetings were highly valuable to the PhD, and along the way helped me to build strong working relationships with each of them. The most crucial meeting was when we discussed the change of direction that the project was going to take, owing to the pandemic. 

It has not always been smooth sailing. Waiting on feedback on work was something that made me feel as though I was lagging and wasting valuable time. Managing the desires of each supervisor is also highly challenging. It is not always the case that both supervisors will want the same thing, and so I often must make the final decision when there is a disagreement. I am grateful that I do not get dictated what to do, rather I am advised on what would be a good option, meaning that the final decision rests with me. This responsibility towards my PhD and license to try and fail has helped me take true ownership of my work, aided by having two distinctly different supervisors.

In fact, I feel a lot more confident in my personal ability prior to when I started my PhD. I owe that to the advice each supervisor has given me, the countless hours of their time at all hours of the day, and their true belief in me. Undeniably, the level of support from each supervisor has remained the same throughout, 100%.

I encourage each PhD student to share open conversations with each of their supervisors. Speak up, ask when you need help, but be firm in your decision making. Your supervisor is there to support you, but it is ultimately your responsibility to drive your PhD forward.