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.

My Organised Chaos

The intention of this vlog is simply to walk you through my organized chaos when it comes to research and structuring my thoughts. While I have my moments where I heartily envy other peoples’ organisational process and structured thoughts, I think that, at the end of the day, we all have to work out a research strategy that works for ourselves – and ourselves specifically.

I have just started a postdoc at the Institute for Humanities in Africa at UCT, exploring the social impacts of artificial intelligence on health – hence the book you see in the video. For me, it is a slow process of decapsulating myself from my PhD work on dating apps, which had truly acquired the status of something I was living and evolving alongside with in my life. Weaning myself away from it towards a related-yet-different aspect of coded technologies is not something that happens overnight for me. Especially given that my thesis is based on ethnographic fieldwork and the stories it tells will never simply be filed away.

Similarly, wrapping my head around a new topic or vantage point takes time. I try to read all the things that tease my curiosity further, meaning I surround myself with loads of books, and virtual heaps of articles, blogs etc. Especially at the beginning stages, I struggle to explain my thoughts in a way that is coherent. There is simply too much I find interesting, and I need to take my time to simmer all the input down to a more tangible focus – the question that will help me navigate a complex social phenomenon. In the meantime, you will find that my notes are all over – in different word documents, in my various notebooks (which I’m very fond of; I need to be able to physically hold on to my thoughts at times!), sticky notes and so forth.

The compulsion to make triple sure everything has been noted down properly and securely probably also comes from a bad previous experience I had. Just before the submission deadline of my Bachelor of Social Science Honours thesis (many a moon ago), my laptop was stolen in a house break-in. This was before I knew about ‘clouds’. I didn’t have a proper internet connection at home either and only made occasional copies on my hard drive. Alas, never again will I rework an entire project based on some earlyish drafts last minute!

Back to the video. It only reveals the surface of what looks like pure madness. However, as time passes and I develop a clearer train of thought (for which, of course, I have a special notebook), things become much converged and my notes more cohesive. Perhaps not for everyone who might be able to decipher my handwriting, but for me. And I then start introducing discussions around the topics with people around me, which helps giving the developing story in my head a more distinct motif once again.

I do have moments when I’m fed up with all of this along the way. This is when I clean up my documents, make sure they are labelled and sorted in a way that still makes sense to me and that my latest notes are readily accessible to me. To-do lists always make me calmer, too. Every now and then, I’m trying out something new, like Microsoft OneNote, which I mentioned in the vlog. I do still need my handwritten notes in addition, though – they also have the advantage that one can cross off completed tasks off with real vigour.

Whatever the process that you have found to be working in your scholarly career thus far, I’d encourage you to focus on that and refine it in a way that makes sense for you. Value it, cultivate it, and – most importantly – acknowledge that there are times when nothing works and you just need to take a step back and do something fun!