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.

PhD(ing) During A Global Pandemic

Is academic pressure really necessary?

Being a final year PhD student amid a global pandemic was never part of my grand five-year plans! However, life happened, and I had to soldier on regardless of the circumstances. Given that this is my final insert, I thought I should reflect on what a year this has been. 

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a lot of social ills, the major one being how unequal South Africa is. These inequalities are detrimental in the educational sphere; this was evident at our basic education level in various ways. 

Exhibit A: The ‘privileged’ community was waging for learners to return to schools because schools were safe enough for students to continue learning. However, in rural schools, where a vast majority of schools still have pit latrines, returning to school would have had catastrophic results.

The social divide was also apparent in higher education. The historically advantaged universities were able to develop online platforms and swiftly crossover to online learning while the historically disadvantaged universities struggled to adapt to the unforeseen changes. The challenges in adapting to online learning and data availability did not only impact undergrad students but caused major hiccups to postgraduate students’ research. I will briefly share how I was affected and also share the experiences of my friend Lerato Sokhulu, a second-year UKZN PhD student in Education.

The lockdown period came as a shock to everyone; as a final year student, my anxiety levels were extremely high. The enforced regulations meant that I could only work from home. Fortunately for me, my research is mainly based on supercomputers which I could still access from home. However, the internet connection at home is much slower and sharing my work environment with nine other people was not easy. It took a while for me to adapt, and this inevitably delayed my progress. The most challenging period was when my mother fell ill, as the oldest sibling, I had to look after her until she had fully recovered. Again, my research progress was stalled. Given all the challenges I faced, I was stunned when I found out that the academic calendar was only extended for undergraduate students. All submission deadlines for postgrads remained the same!

Mine was not a single story; Lerato also shared how this period impacted her research. For her project, she had to conduct multiple interviews with individuals and focus groups. When the lockdown started, she had only just begun interviewing a few individuals, the implementation of the lockdown rules meant she could no longer conduct interviews face to face. She had to change her entire methodology and move to digital platforms. Another hurdle she faced was working from home. The university environment provided constant internet connection which is vital for her studies; such luxuries were not immediately available when she moved home. The transition was not easy.

I have heard similar stories from colleagues and even students from other universities. What is mind-boggling is how the university officials saw it fitting that the submission deadlines remained; this highlighted how university bureaucracy prevents student involvement when decisions directly affecting students need to be made. Top-level management is often completely out of touch with student realities and fails to create platforms that will bridge this gap. 

By not extending the submission deadline were they implying that postgrad students were immune to the difficulties that resulted in the extension of the undergrad calendar? Were there any student supervisors present when this decision was made? Was there a student representative present? To me, this decision just highlighted how universities could create unnecessarily toxic environments for postgrad students. These toxic environments evidently drive students away from academia. I am set to complete my PhD in time, but keeping up with the tight deadlines resulted in me neglecting my mental and physical health. I am not disregarding the fact that a PhD should be challenging; it is the highest level academic qualification and should be demanding. However, some of the academic pressures result in more harm than good.

I know that to some I might sound like a broken record whenever I mention these issues; however, I genuinely believe that once the systems are changed students from all walks of life will thrive in academia. A positive highlight was when the university provided online counselling sessions for students and introduced online support groups; this was a step in the right direction. It is these kinds of actions that will ensure that the academic space becomes genuinely transformed.

As unexpectantly gruesome as this year was, what was beautiful to see is the resilience of the human spirit. Although the systems of this world divide us in so many ways, our hearts always resonate with how the human spirit triumphs even when faced with death.  Since this blog is my last piece, I saw it fitting that I leave you with a piece of me: 

We are the Universe

As black hole minds pull us to a place of no escape

May our thoughts lead us to the remembrance of the beauty of co-existence

That without the dust, even the brightest star could never come to life

Let the collision of our souls ignite Milky smiles.

Even when the dark energy of alien thoughts tries to pull us are apart,

We will gravitate to the truth of common origin.

When we look up at the diamonds that brighten the night sky

May we remember; their magic is engraved in our DNA.