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.

The uncomfortable truth about finances and academia

Can an average South African afford an academic career?

Every time Stats SA releases the country’s economic statistics, it is always a harsh reminder of how bad and unequal our economy is. A shocking statistic found by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group shows that 55.5% of our population lives below the upper-bound poverty line, which is currently at R1,227 per person per month. The discussions sparked by the 2020 first-quarter stats made me reflect on how finances are one of the leading systematic barriers to entry in the academic field.

I have had a first-hand experience of how finances could lead to choosing a different career path, even when one is a passionate academic.

In the final year of my MSc, I was faced with a financial dilemma; my mother was unemployed and desperately needed to purchase a bigger house that could accommodate our family. Being the eldest daughter, I really wanted to help her. Yes, I had a scholarship, but banks would never consider giving me a housing bond. As passionate as I was about science, my upbringing propelled me to assist my mother. My job applications were successful, and hence I was employed. This would have been the end of my academic career; fortunately, my mother secured a job, which paid enough for her to be able to buy a house. As a result, I was able to resign and continue with my studies. Unfortunately, most people never make it back to academia. 

I was also fortunate to receive a scholarship for my PhD studies, meaning that I would be able to assist at home financially. However, some of my colleagues are self-funded; this is another harsh finance reality. Most of these colleagues are at an age where families expect them to contribute financially, or they have families to look after. Ultimately, they have to rely on the income from tutoring, teaching and lab assistances. The time consumed on preparation and teaching compromises the quality of their research while the privileged students are able to solely focus on their research.

A major highlight from the Black lives matter movement conversations is how the prevalent inequalities are deeply rooted in the systems. The Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper lists various strategies on how the department plans to transform the field of science, but will their approaches be successful? The National Research Foundation (NRF) has played a significant role in diversifying the post-graduate space; currently, the bulk of their scholarships are received by learners coming from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. But does their funding model suit our economic climate?

The truth for this generation is that most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first to attend university. Families sacrifice a lot with the hope that an educated child is destined to improve their living conditions. This means that as soon as the student graduates, there is a financial expectation. Many label this as ‘black tax’ but I believe that the spirit of ubuntu that is engraved in our upbringing drives us to lift others as we rise. Unfortunately, current funding models do not cater for such students.

My ideal funding model would be one where the student signs an ‘employment’ contract which is recognised by South African financial institutions. The universities could also offer tutoring or lab assistance posts with an extended timeframe; not the usual annual contracts. This would allow post-graduate students to carry out similar responsibilities as peers in work environments. The major game-changer, of course, would be if financial institutions realistically catered for all the different economy populations. Countries like Colombia have been leading in the global financial inclusion rankings as their finance sector is able to equally cater for people at various income levels. A study showed that these were the main drivers for financial inclusion:  the government developed financial inclusion indicators and reports, the innovative establishment of bank access points, and custom-made products aimed at different segments of the population with a special focus on low-income individuals.

Transformation in the academic sphere is non-negotiable. However, it has to be more than just diversifying on the surface. True transformation is one that will change the current systems that are major barriers to entry. These changes would enable students to make career decisions that are based on passion and not biased by financial circumstances.