On academic detachment and relational research

A few months ago, I started a postdoctoral position at the University of Cape Town. Becoming part of an environment of active and supportive(!) scholarly exchange made me realise how much I had conditioned myself to work independently so far in my still rather pubescent academic life. While that is not a bad thing per se, I firmly believe that research is inherently relational. It is a form of knowledge production that requires a stimulus beyond stoically practicing data collection and writing in the ways we have learnt to be academically sound.

I have technically been working ‘from home’ for quite some years now. Doing my Masters by dissertation meant that I was only on campus for departmental seminars and irregular meetings with my thesis supervisor. This was after I had done a six-week qualitative research project on refugees in Cape Town and practices of dreaming for my Honours degree, which had given me an appetite for more in-depth research. I missed being part of academic life during my Masters but was really excited to conduct my first long-term ethnographic fieldwork. It allowed me the time and space to immerse myself in a topic for much longer – this time doing research on suburban neighbourhood surveillance groups. I would get a degree for spending my time observing, interviewing and writing – I was thrilled! And it really was a great experience at the time, even if not without ups and downs. I established my routines and enjoyed being able to do so without being impeded by class schedules and other academic obligations.

After embracing my degree certificate for my work, which, thankfully, had not felt torturously laborious for the most part, I worked for a health research organisation for three years remotely. Even though the topics I got to research interested me, my junior status and the fact that the project I was hired to work on did not materialise had me working on bits and pieces of other peoples’ projects. There was therefore no substantial, stimulating exchange with colleagues beyond brief Skype updates. When the situation did not change and funding became even more limited, I pursued my PhD on Tinder dating – another opportunity to spend A LOT of time talking to people about a topic that fascinates me.

I have always embraced a sense of independence. As a younger girl, I envisioned myself growing into a journalist when older, travelling around the world, covering all kinds of exciting topics. The anthropologist I grew to embody instead has roamed the world much less than I would have liked – mostly for funding reasons. I have, however, still managed to go out and explore the very themes I felt strongly about. It has taken a moment, but I feel like I’m getting closer to positioning myself in academia and thinking of myself as a ‘digital anthropologist’ – whatever that may actually mean. Especially through writing many an application in search for a postdoc, summarising my interests concisely over and over helped with that.

Having my first ‘proper’ (as in, fully paid) position pursuing my own research interests and now being part of a lively even if still remotely operating academic environment makes me feel the last years of academic detachment. Particularly so after the past 1.5 years of COVID-19-enforced remoteness. I am hungry for fieldwork and even more hungry for exchanging ideas with other scholars. Scholars, that is, who harbour a collaborative rather than a competitive sentiment – something that is not to be taken for granted.

I got a strong sense of what a collaborative spirit can do when attending my first hybrid workshop on UCT campus the other day. The big screen was not working and the five of us who were present in person were all still looking at our respective computer screens with our facial expressions hidden behind masks. And still, it was a very different feeling from following the same meeting from my kitchen table. The workshop went on for more than three hours, but I felt enlivened by the mere physical proximity of colleagues with whom I could exchange thoughts on our projects located within the same research cluster. It may have been the combination of the ability to share our progress and insecurities within this space, working on a similar research topic and having been deprived of unmediated support for a long time that made for this animating effect.

For me, the takeaway from these experiences is to, yes, embrace the autonomy research allows me when it comes to going to a certain field and approaching a topic in an exploratory manner – even though this autonomy in always also impeded by funding, institutional expectations and the pressures to fit moulds in academia. And the way things have panned out for me also cautions me to value not just my relations to the people I work with when conducting research but also academic environments that offer me space to develop frameworks to think with. Even if it is sometimes hard to admit, at the end of the day, none of it can be done alone.

Standing on the edge of a precipice

I will end this year as I began it, with the dream of a wily, confident and adventurous eight year old. I have been one of the fortunate ones. I have always known what I wanted to do for a living. It was not continuously romantic (certainly didn’t feel that way while dissecting a human brain) but it was always there and it was comforting. I, unlike like some others, never found it predictable or boring but felt bolstered by the fact that I was moving in the right direction. But now, placed under extreme stress of being the only person in the world working on a particular project, significant personal changes and new responsibility, I have the current feeling that my clearly defined path has become a bushy wilderness- one out of which a tiger could leap out and take me.


I’m sure that this is a common feeling for people approaching the milestone of 30 and probably has more to do with the feeling of mortality and less to do with the piling up of experiments you will never complete. Nevertheless, with 3 years to go to the big 3-0, I am acutely aware that I have particular comforts that I take for granted. As I close in on my final PhD year, I can feel the sense of loss of my eternal student status. I will now have to get a real job. What I do is challenging and often down right impossible but I have some very real perks. Starting the work day really whenever I feel I need to is a blessing. I have also realised, with a surmountable sadness, that at some point I will have to leave my wonderful lab – my scientific home for the last 5 years and 3 degrees. There is an incredible comfort in knowing where the pipettes or the hidden stash of reagents are. Having worked in the States for a couple of months, returning to my lab is nothing short of an epic homecoming.

Ultimately, at our core, scientists are creatures of habit. We need things just so – so that we can trace back to the point of a potential mistake. One needs to be in a routine so that methodically we can work out if that discovery was real or just a slip of the pipette. Life is a series of habits, and now I must shortly break them. The thought horrifies me. Looking forward, I’m sure there is a great amount of exciting new challenges to be had. Really though, all it feels like is a distant haze that is just beyond the steep precipice of doom that has recently presented itself. I have emerged from 2016, a year fraught with its own unique challenges (a Trump, a Brexit, a Zuma, a Gupta or 2) and I can’t see a fully cleared path.december-handover Instead, I catch glimpses of it out of the corner of my eye.

But, ever the optimist, I will keep looking until one reveals itself to me. I might need to use a panga to clear my own path, but this uncertainty too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone; but it will pass. Uncertainty leaves many different doors open and quite excitingly, in science as in life, we can find ourselves on quite a different journey than what we started out on. Openness to a swift change in direction is what leads us to the best discoveries. Life after a PhD is as confusing as life during one, but is just where stuff  gets good. It’s going to be a hell of a journey. Best grab my panga.