What I get up to when I am not PhDing

One particular question I always struggle to answer is: “Keith, what are your hobbies?” This is due to the amount of time that research consumes, rendering it a challenge to have regular hobbies. Work does not simply end when I leave the university’s gates, as I often have to take some work with me to complete from home. This involves preparing lectures, reviewing documents submitted by junior students, writing papers, amongst a few other things. Working is an integral part of our daily routine, to the extent that I feel like academic responsibilities consume most of my time. Despite this, there are moments when I do find time for non-academic activities.

I love adventure and seeing new places when I do get the chance to. There’s this one activity I have always looked forward to doing for such a long time… skydiving, and I finally managed to go for a tandem jump at Skydive Pretoria early this year. I generally love aviation, but the idea of safely jumping off a moving aeroplane has always excited me. The experience I got was far much better than I expected. We took a 10-minute scenic ride on a light aircraft up to the dizzying height of approximately 3.4km above ground level, where we jumped off the aircraft as I was attached by a harness to an instructor. We then plunged into the rush of a 40-second freefall before the instructor opened the parachute, before guiding us to a safe landing on the ground. Although this is an experience that many people fear, it is certainly an activity I would love to do regularly, and I am considering obtaining a skydiving license so I can jump out of a plane alone. 

Myself jumping off an aircraft, attached to an instructor during a recent tandem jump in Pretoria.

In addition to jumping off planes, I also love reaching destinations. I believe travelling to different destinations broadens one’s understanding of this world, as you are exposed to diverse places and cultures. Fortunately for me, in our field, we get to travel to conferences both nationally and internationally, and this helps me enjoy my hobby while I complete schoolwork. I have travelled to Germany and Japan to conferences, opportunities I would not have been able to afford in my capacity. Travelling around South Africa for local conferences has also given me the chance to experience the true beauty of this country. Sadly though, as I mentioned in my previous blog, physical conferences are currently limited due to COVID-19 precautionary measures. Hopefully, we will get to travel to conferences once the pandemic is over. In my capacity, I travel to neighbouring countries such as Swaziland, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and I am looking to explore other African countries a little bit more.

In addition to attending church regularly, one more thing I enjoy is spending time with high-school students for mentoring and teaching purposes. It is particularly concerning that a lot of students from disadvantaged backgrounds lack role models and people who can guide them to a bright future. Some colleagues and I started the Yakhanani High School mentorship Project, where we go to high schools in disadvantaged areas to mentor and teach children in high school, as a way of preparing them for University, and we usually do this on weekends. With the current COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, such mentoring is a challenge, and I hope we can resume the mentoring sessions soon.

Ultimately, besides these few activities, scientific research is my one true hobby, because it is something I enjoy. As the famous quote by Mark Twain says “find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” conducting research is not only a job for me, it is something I enjoy doing while I am working.

Behind the scenes of a typical life of a PhD candidate

I have always understood the concept of multitasking, but holding an umbrella in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other hand, filming a video and looking out for traffic while rushing to an early meeting was not an activity that I had never dreamt of. This is how my day started on the day that I filmed a vlog, capturing a day in my life as a PhD student.

From my experience, PhD students within various fields are not the most open individuals. It might be quite a challenge to figure out what we get up to daily. With this in mind, the SAYAS 2021 blogging team decided to film vlogs to show you what a typical day as a PhD student looks like.

As I alluded to in the vlog, typical student, PhD candidates doing research degrees do not have to attend classes (a privilege I really appreciate), However, the day is typically packed with various activities. These differ amongst candidates in different fields of research.

Additional to the activities shown in the vlog, I have a few extra things that I get up to on and off campus. As the year proceeds, activities in the lab get busier. Mainly, I embark on collecting data for my own PhD studies, and this entails conducting experiments in a sterile cell culturing environment. On such days, I occasionally spend very long hours in the lab, as some of these experiments run for a long time. After collecting this data, I prefer to analyze and compile it immediately on campus. However, with the advent of lockdowns introduced us by the novel coronavirus, working from home has become a norm, and I therefore, conduct data analysis and other activities from home.

Although teaching junior students is in integral part of many PhD students, conducting these lessons from home is an activity we quickly had to adapt to as Universities transitioned to online teaching platforms due to the restrictions associated with the pandemic. Thus, in addition to continuing with research activity at home, a substantial portion of my “working from home” time is spent preparing and conducting online lectures and tutorials.

It is very fulfilling and interesting to share your research findings with peers within your field, and this typically happens in conferences, both within the country and internationally (look out for a blog later in the year, where I will share my experiences from these conferences). Part of my time is usually spent preparing for such conferences, but with current restrictions this is unfortunately currently halted.

You may be wondering, what about the social life? Well… although I do have social activities here and there, spending long hours doing what you have a passion for (scientific research in my case) feels like social activity, and I hence, do not feel deprived of the ‘normal’ social activities. Certainly, our experiences as various PhD candidates differ amongst each other, as we are individuals with different personalities and life experiences, but I hope the vlog gives a glimpse into the human element of our often closed off lives.