The other side of being a PhD student

Being a PhD student is an opportunity that can change one’s life for the better, however, it is no walk in the park. There are countless problems that PhD students come across, some very unique to each candidates project and some are quite universal, for example, the challenge of being financially frustrated. Before I became a PhD student I was not aware of the financial challenges and limitations that can exist in the 3 years of perusing a PhD because no one I knew had faced the challenge I have come to face in my PhD journey or rather no one has ever spoken to me about such a challenge. I was aware of other “mountains to climb”  such as expensive equipment, unreasonable supervisors and the long wait for ethical applications approval but running out of money was not one of the mountains I anticipated I would have to climb.

How my financial problems began                

In 2015 and 2016 the university students in South Africa embarked on the fees must fall campaign. The goals of the movement were to stop increases in student fees as well as to increase government funding of university course I too was in full support of the campaign. What I did not anticipate was how this action was going to affect me as a PhD student. In 2017 I applied for the National Research Fund (NRF) Free Standing Bursary and I received it which meant that I was able to register for my PhD In 2018. Previously NRF awarded students R120 000 for a PhD study but because of the fees must fall campaign (this was the explanation I received from an NRF consultant I spoke when I wanted to understand why the funding had been reduced) the bursary fund had been cut down by 30 % so the bursary was reduced to R70 000. This was obviously a shock to me. In my first year, I was obviously very determined and I said to myself “well I will make it work”. However, during my first year, I did not have to buy equipment, travel and budget for data collection activities, therefore “making it work” was not much of a tight financial squeeze.

October blog 1Now that I am in my second year I am realizing how little this amount of money is because actually, it has run out literally between rent, food and other expenses including transport. To fill this financial gap  I now depend on my father and my twin sister for everyday living expenses. Between food and taxi fare their financial assistance takes me through half the month. Fortunately, I also have a blogging contract with SAYAS where I can earn R250 at the end of every month, which I have to spend really carefully to get me to the next month.  I sometimes wonder how other candidates in my situation who do not have a support system like mine are coping. I never anticipated that my biggest concerns would be whether or not the food I have will last me the entire month or how will I be able to afford accommodation come January 2020. Agreed a PhD is not all about money and bursaries and one’s reasons to do a PhD should not be solely based on getting “bursary money”. However, once you have made up your mind that you will embark on a PhD having money to support you throughout your journey does make easier and also makes it easier to focus and be creative about your work the opposite is quite frustrating. 

Often students who are uncertain about whether they should embark on PhD studies or not ask what advice I can give them before deciding whether they want to do a  PhD or not and I usually give the following advice.

Do not be shy to look for funding  

Firstly, make sure you secure enough funding to carry you through your PhD. My mistake was assuming that I would have enough money and little did I know that funding was going to be cut by 30 %.  Make sure you are certain of the details of the funding so that you avoid having to look for a side hustle just to keep afloat during your PhD studies. I have actually lost count of many bursaries I have applied for, potential sponsors, individuals, companies, deans of faculties, you name them, I have emailed or called them looking for additional funding and I won’t stop until I get it because I am determined to complete my studies.

Do not be afraid nor ashamed to hustle

October blog 3I have decided to look for a part-time job in order to finance my data collection after realizing that the bursary money will not carry me through the entire process. Truth is, working towards a PhD does not really change anything nor does it make a person special. I have spoken to people who even after completing their PhD’s have had to go from one office to another begging to do even the most minimal of jobs just so they can afford to buy food at the end of the month. That was when I learnt that the title “DR” does not exempt me from looking for work anywhere where I can find it just to feed myself.  If you find yourself having to sell and bake muffins do not be shy if it pays the bills do not be ashamed of your hustle. The most important lesson I have learned from all of this is sometimes you just have to put your pride aside and feed yourself regardless of the title you might have or might be working towards.

Last but not least

Be certain of your reasons of why you want a PhD because, in times of difficulty where you have to choose to forgo certain needs because you must have enough transport money for the month or there is certain equipment you must buy, the initial reason for you to want to pursue a PhD will keep you going.

What student teachers learn when putting theory into classroom practice

by Dr Nhlanhla Mpofu

(Repost by The Conversation

The preparation of student teachers is a critical aspect of their journey to being professional teachers. And teaching practice – real-world experiences that students acquire from actual classroom teaching before they are qualified teachers – is one important characteristic of this preparation process.

During this process, student teachers entering the profession are supported to realise that teaching is not just about applying learnt theories. It also requires practical problem-solving expertise that leads to effective teaching. Simply put, it’s not adequate for student teachers to only observe and read about teaching if they don’t also practise it.

According to research, mentorship from experienced teachers and systematic reflection in practice helps student teachers to cultivate knowledge of the subject, learners and teaching communities.

In South Africa, all initial teacher education institutions are mandated through policy to include teaching practice as part of the Bachelor of Education programme. I recently conducted a study about teaching practice at one South African university.

At this institution, teaching practice begins in the first year of enrolment. In the first two years, the students are sent to schools for a time to observe an experienced teacher in the actual process of teaching. In the last two years of the study, the student teachers began the actual teaching under the mentorship of an experienced mentor teacher.

I wanted to know how student teachers in their third year deal with what are known as “critical incidents”. These are defined as unplanned and unanticipated events that occur during a lesson or outside the classroom that provides important insight to the practitioner about teaching and learning. For example, a high school teacher might plan to have learners debate on a topic, but discover that the learners are unable to construct a comprehensible English sentence. This incident will serve as a future reference to the teacher not to assume the learners’ level of proficiency.

In my study, I found that the student teachers used critical incidents to notice, reflect and reshape their teaching practices. Such reflection is critical as it enables them to question their practices, the initial process to their professional development.

Three key areas

In my study, I examined the critical incidents that the 38 student teachers who were being prepared to teach English in high school encountered during teaching practice. These incidents resulted from situations in which student teachers were puzzled about how to maintain an effective teaching environment.

Three key areas emerged from the study. One related to discipline; the second was about student teachers’ professional identity; the third outlined how student teachers grappled with differences between theory and practice.

Firstly, the student teachers felt challenged in maintaining classroom discipline. They found that there was a mismatch between the theories of classroom management they had studied at university and the realities of the classrooms where they had been placed.

Classroom indiscipline was largely a result of large classes and limited learning resources. Learners also often struggled with the English language – they came from multi-lingual backgrounds and were learning English as a second language.

The student teachers seem to have learnt that the failure to match subject knowledge and the actual context of the classroom caused ill-discipline among learners.

Secondly, the student teachers learnt that the way they chose to groom themselves as professionals, especially in dress, influenced how learners assigned credibility to them as teachers. The student teachers became aware that their developing professional identity was shaped in interactions with others – including the learners during various activities of teaching and learning.

While the student teachers had only focused on the classroom as a source of practising their professionalism, they came to realise that sites of instruction were multiple and, at times, informal.

Thirdly, the student teachers experienced estrangement between the theories of second language teaching and the practical instruction needs in the classroom. Although the student teachers have theoretical knowledge of teaching English, the realities in the classroom did not align to their preparation experiences.

Perhaps the most significant “incident” that all the student teachers described on this point was that their learners lacked the prior knowledge they’d expected to be in place at those levels. They filled the gap by developing remedial programmes to help their learners. But they told me they weren’t certain they’d be able to continue with this sort of support when they actually became full-time teachers. They worried doing this would add to an already heavy workload.

What does this mean?

These findings lay bare just some of the wide range of experiences to which student teachers are exposed when they work in classrooms and schools. The study also shows how student teachers responded to these incidents: they saw them as a learning process that caused them to act, respond and reflect so they could maintain quality teaching.

These descriptions are important as evidence of the way student teachers reframe, rephrase, reshape and ultimately transform their teaching practices to reflect both context and diversity in English Language teaching.

Nhlanhla-pixDr Nhlanhla Mpofu is the Director for Teaching, Learning and Programme Development and a Senior Lecturer at Sol Plaatje University. Nhlanhla received her PhD (Humanities Education) from the University of Pretoria. Her research interests are in the area of knowing sciences positioned within the socio-cultural and cognitive perspectives. Through her research focus, Nhlanhla seeks to gain a strategic, epistemological and pragmatic understanding of the nuanced discourse of knowing how to teach. Her research and professional perspectives are drawn from multi-paradigmatic trajectories that seek to locate teaching knowledge in the empowering epistemic metaphors embedded in context, reflection, problem-solving, critical thinking, experiential and transformative spaces. Following her research foci, Nhlanhla, is at the moment the principal investigator of two research grants.
Twitter handle: @MPO12