To be or not to be an academic? 

Ziglar said ‘Making a big life change is pretty scary. But, know what’s even scarier? Regret’. I had chased goals my whole life. A perfectionist. I was the youngest of everything – deployed diplomat, project manage a multi-million US$ initiative on behalf of the South African government abroad, a participant in a USA – South Africa exchange programme for earmarked future leaders and government senior manager at the time.

unnamed (1)Being an over-achiever became who I was. Being a workaholic was simply part of my personality. The fact that I survived an attack in my workplace and an attempted coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo – with a failed rocket in our complex pool (thank goodness for outdated Russian military rejects sold equally to African governments and rebels), reinforced this idea that I was a brave, young, warrior. A political activist since fourteen, I thought I knew who I was, what I wanted and exactly how to get there. 


Fast forward to 2017. Our eldest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD. She needed therapy and hands-on support to ensure that she didn’t think of herself as a failure, but as a shining star whose mind worked differently. It was our job to understand her, instead of her attempting to conform to us. I can’t explain the shock and guilt I felt. I should have known, but of course, I didn’t since I was working 14 to 18 hour days, travelling extensively whilst nannies and my mother did parental duties. I had failed our child and being me, failure was not an option. I quit my job immediately with my colleagues thinking I had a mental breakdown (later I would come to see it as a mental watershed moment). I home-schooled and supported all three girls in their individual needs and interests; even had a fourth child. By the end of 2018, the kids were ready to return/start school and our family was in a good place. Failure averted.

I always planned to enter academia. My husband suggested I do my Masters in Security Studies in 2019 to take time to re-evaluate and still be a hands-on mom. He forgot who I was. I had to be the top student in the Masters in Security Studies and when I was done in March with my mini-dissertation proposal, I couldn’t refuse the DST-NRF bursary to work on a full-time dissertation to be followed by a PhD in food safety governance as part of a broader Centre of Excellence in Food Security project. I thought it would be a breeze. It isn’t. Nothing prepared me for the intense work, emotional highs and lows and even challenges with my supervisors.

IMG_9762Being in my late thirties, I’m surrounded by youth who have achieved far more in academia, and elder academics who don’t appreciate my work experience as their rigid outlook does not fit with my views to transform academia by breaking down toxic patriarchal cultures, stop being a journal producing machine, aligning research outputs to what is relevant and required by society and avoid academic language as an exclusionary barrier. I advocate instead to co-produce knowledge with government and civil society that is understandable and practically geared, without removing rigorous evidence-based research –

Over the last two years I learned that instead of seeing my choices as a failure, I could use them as learning opportunities. My move to the Centre of Excellence could either be my best or worst decision over the coming year, but it did remind me of what my passions were – Africa, immigration, security and decolonization. I realized that it’s okay to change course as only you impose your limits. I might not currently be writing on a topic of my choice but it pushes me to my limits and reignited my passion for writing, reading diversely, sharing knowledge, continuous learning and listening to different perspectives to best iteratively engage.

unnamedIt’s not easy to start from scratch, but I’m going to be scared enough to not want to regret that I didn’t try. My plans are to complete my dissertation by July and immediately continue with my PhD. I hope to research, to write and importantly to learn more from others, perhaps even lecture the next generation of political scientists if given the opportunity. I learned the hard way that my family is my first passion and priority. I might no longer need to over-achieve, the balance might be more important now, but doing my best within the circumstances remains. As Gandalf said ‘We cannot choose what time is given to us, all we can decide is what to do with it’. And I’ve made my decision, for 2020 at least. 

Find what fuels your passion

Are you brave enough to reach for the stars?

My full name is Sinenhlanhla Precious Sikhosana, born in Harding south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. My family consists of my grandmother, mother, three siblings, and many cousins. My inquisitive mind and passion for problem-solving led me to the science field at a very young age. However, it was only in my matric year (when I attended the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU) career week at UKZN) that I was exposed to career opportunities in astrophysics. Postgraduate students passionately shared their research and how they go about solving the mysteries of the universe; I was instantly sold.


I am currently studying towards a PhD in Applied Mathematics with a research focus in Astrophysics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. My research involves understanding high-energy particle physics on the largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe (galaxy clusters).

My academic journey, like any other, has been filled with a lot of obstacles but also equally numerous triumphs. In my undergraduate years, I obtained the SKA Africa (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory) scholarship and the top 10 African females award at the college for 3 years. I have also received numerous awards in my postgrad, with the 2019 highlights being; receiving the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women In Science research grant and attending the 69th Nobel Laureate Meeting at Lindau.

With all these achievements one would think I would be very confident in my abilities, but that was not the case. Due to the unfamiliar surroundings and lack of representations, I suffered from the ‘imposter syndrome’, the feeling of not belonging. I had to fight hard mentally to convince myself that yes, I am intelligent enough and I belong. The advantage is that now I get to pave the way for younger aspiring female scientist, to make their journey less uphill than mine was.

Now that the formalities are out of the way, let me let you in on what fuels my passion. I believe that without educational knowledge one can never experience true liberation. It is because of this belief that I spend most of my time outside of academia participating in educational outreach programmes. I mainly give talks at high schools and career exhibitions. I do this to encourage students to pursue tertiary studies and to also make them aware that science no longer has the face it used to have centuries ago. One does not need to be a male with crazy hair and a lab coat to do science. When I do get the opportunity to speak to young girls, I make it a point to be as feminine and bubbly as I can be (be myself basically), because I want to show them that science is for them and that science is fun and trendy too!

OutreachWhen I finally attain that ‘Dr’ tittle, I would like to establish a mentorship programme that guides young girls that are science enthusiasts. I have also personally encountered that no matter how brilliant your science is unless communicated effectively, it will never make a great impact. This led me to the idea of technical science writing retreats for postgrad students; it is a dream I intend to fulfil in the near future.