And so I write to you

By Yonela Z. Njisane

Social writing: Through this blog, I have been receiving very positive comments about my writing. Apparently I write so well, mmmh! I am flattered, really. I remember I used to get similar feedback in high school (Sehole Combine School) from the dialog stories/books I used to write… I wonder where they are now. At the time, the stories got a lot of attention from all the different social groups residing in the boarding premises.
Even my tutor from the S.A. Writers College has been really impressed with my writing on the tasks they’ve been requesting for a blog-writing course. “Your writing is great and fresh and original, I love your stories” she says. I have been enjoying all the praise, I must say ☺. With all this positive reinforcement, I really should have no writing “issues.” However…
Scientific writing: I can’t say the same about my scientific writing skills; it’s been a nightmare. Ever wrote something and felt “Yeah! I nailed it,” only to find out that you didn’t? LOL, at least not as great as you thought. Yup! That’s the story of my life. You see, I can strip down someone else’s document and suggest this and that to improve it, but it seems I am failing when it comes to my own.

Maybe if I cleared my desk, things would get better...
Maybe if I cleared my desk, things would get better…

I have been trying to write a publishable review paper for almost two years now and my supervisor is not pleased at all. I am not too happy with myself either, and I am not taking it well. How could I take this long with a single paper? ☹ You would think reviewing literature is the easiest thing to do; I mean, you are supposed to just be analysing information that has been generated over the years: everything is there already. Or not, since you are actively trying to identify a sensible gap.
I honestly think it’s the most challenging type of paper to write, and yet has the most potential to boost your research profile once it’s out there. Everybody reads and cites review papers! But rejections and vague, mysterious comments by anonymous reviewers are not helping me with this. Exposing yourself to criticism is part of the job, but it’s so hard to go back to a manuscript after your masterwork has been rejected. It makes me feel like a complete failure and trust me, I know that is a very bad way to respond to the challenge.

Or maybe if I get out of my comfort zone and allow Mother Nature to speak to me while I’m at it...
Or maybe if I get out of my comfort zone and allow Mother Nature to speak to me while I’m at it…

I am even considering putting it aside and concentrate on writing the experimental papers instead; maybe I will get inspiration afterwards. There are four of them and each of them individually includes an Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results and Discussion, Conclusion and list of references. I even have an unfinished experiment from lab work. Maybe I should do all that so long — get something done in the little time that’s left to me.
However, a wise man once told me that publishing a review as early as possible at PhD level is more like building your thesis on solid ground. I think it was something along those lines. Don’t forget, it can’t be just any old publication, but a world class paper that will be suitable for a high impact factor journal. I mean this is where you prove yourself as a scientist, right? And we all want a bigger RG score (ResearchGate) through citations and contributions.

I don't think I like my desk this way, makes me feel empty. Maybe I'll just stick to my mess...
I don’t think I like my desk this way, makes me feel empty. Maybe I’ll just stick to my mess…

I guess it’s time I pull up my socks, stretch them out if I have to and learn every trick in the book on how to overcome this review threat. That “finding your motivation or inspiration” I spoke about last month must now come to the rescue. “Njisane et al., 2016″ suits me, right? ☺ I know hahaha! If you have any trick for me, please don’t be shy to share (I promise to read them VERY quickly before returning to my scientific writing).

The beginning of the end

By Yonela Z. Njisane

Rubbing shoulders with the big guns -- the new Dr Amanda Yucca Chulayo
Rubbing shoulders with the big guns — the new Dr Amanda Yucca Chulayo

Just the other day a senior colleague and a big sis, Dr Amanda Yucca Chulayo, graduated with her doctoral degree in Agriculture-Animal Science. It was a great achievement and the beginning of a new chapter for her. For me it was inspiring and motivating. The thing is, she is “one of us”- another girl from the small town of Cofimvaba, blossoming for the whole world to witness.

Myself and Amanda, some years ago. I would like to think the conversation was about our work on cattle, getting some tips from the sweetest breed - Boran.
Myself and Amanda, some years ago. I would like to think the conversation was about our work on cattle, getting some tips from the sweetest breed – Boran.

Seeing her make it out strong despite of all the ups and downs I have seen and heard from her about her academic journey made me reflect on my own share of troubles. See, the journey itself may be bitter at times but the fruits to bear at the end are certainly sweeter. I know it’s hard to think about the sugary side of it when you are busy climbing the mountain with its obstacles.
As Greg Child said “Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit, is the answer to the mystery why we climb”

 

The last picture I took with the Boys just before they were transported.
The last picture I took with the Boys just before they were transported.

It sure is a climb…
I am currently in the phase of my studies I would like to refer to as “The beginning of the end.” It has been a long and hectic five months of data collection and everything before and after that. The Boys are gone and I don’t really want to talk about it. They were loved dearly.
In short, we wrapped up all the behavioural observations and physiological sampling. I had to organize all the administrative issues around the slaughter processes. The observations and sampling was followed up during transportation and slaughter. And now, at the “almost” end, I am only left with some lab analyses.
Well, for obvious reasons, a part of me is glad it is all slowly coming to an end. But so far, I’ve learned more than I thought I could, and I think it’s not nearly the end of the learning process for me, even though I am edging closer and closer to that Dr title.
I think I am going to start writing a journal on “lessons of the day” just to make sure no day goes by without a dose of daily development. For instance, I have learnt a lot about myself, other people, different animal species and a long list of skills during this period of my studies:
• Selfie 101: I learnt that Yonela (Myself) is a strict, highly organized (Oh Yes I am!!!), straight forward and a professional person, period! She pays attention to details and she doesn’t really allow room for negotiations when it comes to that. Over time she can lose her cool when her patience is being tested. She gets frustrated when things are not going in order. She may be a sensitive person but she is very forgiving and has a big heart. She has learned to talk about herself in the third person 😉 and she might be doing better that she realizes…
• Society 101: I have learned that not everyone is as bad as I always perceived (personal experience). There are still good hearts out there, like those that tirelessly devoted their time and energy assisting me with my field work. As a good friend said in Shona “Yu werokamu” which means “we help each other,” and if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would have ever practically learned and seen the significance of that concept.
Of course you also have to learn the tough lessons about people. A friend made me realise that people will always talk. Whether you do “good or bad” there will always be those that are simply not satisfied with you. Sometimes you may know the reasons but sometimes you may not. But you can’t live trying to please other people. The lesson there is that you always strive to do the right thing, stick to your path without even trying to please anyone but God… in that way you will be safe.
• Animal 101: The time I spent at the farm was my favourite part of this PhD process. I always say that animals are the best creatures. I learned that it’s not just dogs and cats that are interesting, with that ability to amaze and make you smile. All animal species are fascinating and entertaining in their own way (but, sure, I may be biased a little bit…).

The Boys filling up in the afternoon for an evening snack -- it's their favourite time to graze.
The Boys filling up in the afternoon for an evening snack — it’s their favourite time to graze.

For instance, I didn’t know that donkeys were such anti-social creatures. We (with the Boys) were in the same paddock with them the other day and they would make sure to move further away whenever we got closer. But most of all, the animals I have studied all taught me to stay true to myself and always stick to the people that support and understand me.
• Time 101: Who would have thought that I (without being pushed) would make decisions to go to the field on weekends – even long ones and holidays? When I joined postgraduate studies I was told that there are no holidays at this level but I would always steal myself some time. I now have learnt the importance of each and every second. Time adds or subtracts towards the goal, depending on how it’s used.
Don’t they say you reap what you sow? I believe that! For every sacrifice there is a reward. One of the greatest examples is in the Bible, that of Jesus on the cross. One just needs to focus on the mission at hand and be disciplined, keeping the ultimate end in mind. What is a couple of holidays and weekends compared to the time of harvest? The ultimate goal…

All in all…

The last day of paddock behavioural observations -- my catwalk to the finish line.
The last day of paddock behaviour observations — my catwalk to the finish line.

One has to take a breath every now and again to reflect. As the Greek philosopher Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and that is true about the smaller parts of that life, including the PhD journey. Every journey is a teacher; either you take the lessons positively or negatively. What matters is the destination, which should inform your decisions. Whenever you feel discouraged, find inspiration from wherever you are. It could be from within or from other people or things. Just keep taking those steps towards the finish line.