Dr Bongekile Skosana
Fellow academics, hello hi!
In the spirit of creating more visibility for the hardworking, smart black women in academia, I spoke to Dr Bongekile Skosana, a lecturer who just completed her PhD in Medical Physiology* at Stellenbosch University. Dr Skosana had the interesting experience of having her Masters degree upgraded to a PhD (sigh, things we dream of!)
She speaks of her PhD journey, her experiences of diversity as a black womxn in academia, her setbacks and proud moments, and gives some solid advice for other PhD candidates.
On how I got into my PhD journey
My PhD journey started a lot sooner than I had initially planned. After my Honours degree, I was accepted into the NRF Internship program and I became an Intern in the laboratory where I did my Honours research. My supervisor (Prof. Stefan du Plessis) was also the Head of Division so he had a lot of admin and lecturing duties, which meant that I had to take over most of the lab admin and training of the incoming Honours (and other new MSc and PhD) students in lab techniques. I continued with these responsibilities after the end of my internship (as a Masters student) and essentially became the lab manager for our group. During my Masters degree, my supervisor exposed me to many opportunities that paved the way for my current career as an academic: I got the opportunity to lecture to the Honours students, to present at national and University conferences, to present at a few of the weekly Divisional meetings, to write research grants and to supervise students. By the end of my Masters, I had 2 years of teaching experience, and gained immense insight into how to run a research lab and work within the research budget. That was all invaluable and I felt incredibly empowered. When I looked around at our Division, I realised that there were no research or teaching positions available (well, no paid ones anyway), and there wouldn’t be any in the near future as most of the members of staff were still quite young. So, I looked for opportunities elsewhere. I interviewed for an internship at a Fertility Clinic in my home province and I was successful. I was getting ready to move back home when my HOD was able to obtain funding for a Lecturer post. I qualified for the post so he nominated me for it, which HR and the lecturing staff approved. I then became appointed as a Junior Lecturer and full time academic at the age of 28. Together with that, we upgraded my Masters to a PhD because of the amount of data we were able to generate from it.
Did you always want to be an academic?
Absolutely not. I had already decided back in High School that I was terrible at teaching (from my experience of trying to explain class work to my friends, which left them even more bewildered than before). It was actually at the bottom of the list of careers that I thought I would pursue. Little did I know that in about a decade’s time, I would right in the middle of it! I would say that I “fell” into academia. I became intrigued with reproductive research and I realised how under-researched the work was; especially our research which investigates factors that affect male fertility. I then received the proper mentoring and training, and everything just aligned for me.
On the diversity of faculty and PhD students in my department
The PhD candidates in my faculty are quite diverse, which is wonderful. There are more female candidates, which seems to be the trend in more recent years. I was, however, the only person of colour among the lecturing staff. That came with its own challenges because Stellenbosch is a historically Afrikaans institution. However, we have been fortunate enough to become more diverse since 2019 when 2 more people of colour joined the lecturing team. This has definitely enriched the team as well as the students that we teach.
As a black womxn, was your experience any different from the majority?
It was definitely different in terms of the language barriers that I encountered when I started my postgraduate studies. Postgraduate courses are taught in English at Stellenbosch, but Afrikaans is spoken quite widely in the social context. Even our Whatsapp group in my Honours year had quite a lot of exchanges in Afrikaans. I mostly didn’t mind but it did have unfortunate consequences. I once arrived late to class because it was communicated over Whatsapp that the lecture had been moved to “half 10” and arrived at 10:30, forgetting that in Afrikaans it meant 9:30. I had quite a steep learning curve but I improved quite drastically by the end of the year. That experience is obviously in contrast to someone who is a native speaker who could interchange between the two languages at will, and receive some of the information first hand without needing someone verbally to translate it for them first.
What were your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge during my PhD was time. I was working and studying full time, and it always felt as though there weren’t enough hours in the day. I ended up taking 2 more years to complete my PhD than I would have hoped. As with all research, we also had stumbling blocks along the way. We had to reanalyse a crucial set of data two months before my first attempt at submission. The following year, my thesis changed from being written in the article format (thesis by publication) to a traditional thesis, also close to the submission date. By the end, overcoming my lethargy to sit and write the remaining sections of my thesis was quite difficult but I had an immense amount of support from my husband, friends, family and my mentor (Prof. Samantha Sampson).
What were your proudest moments?
Submitting my thesis! Okay, that was the big one, but there were many small victories along the way. Finally getting results after months of optimizing experiments was a real joy, and even better was finding statistical significance in that data. Research is a process and you have to go where the data leads you. It was an interesting journey, and still continues to be. Now, my proudest moment is hearing my family and colleagues calling me Dr, because they know what it takes to achieve that title.
What do you think is the most important thing for someone doing their PhD to keep in mind?
Find your “Why”. You need to know why you are starting this journey and what you hope to accomplish from it. Don’t just do a PhD because it is the next step after Masters, figure out if you need it for what you eventually want to do. Look at the requirements needed for the job posts that you are interested in and work towards that. If you want to run your own research group, your own revenue-generating laboratory, to be an academic, or to be an expert in your field and generate your income from that, then a PhD is definitely for you. The timing, though, is up to you (and in my case, the universe).
*Dr Bongekile Skosana’s PhD thesis was in the field of reproductive research, entitled “An Investigation of Obesity as an Etiology of Male Infertility in a Rat Model”