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Blackademic Womxn

Celebrating Blackademic Womxn: Dr Nthabiseng Violet Moraka

February 22, 2022

My first feature for Celebrating Blackademic Womxn in 2022! Whoop! I am so excited. I love writing these features because I believe that we need more representation. We need to be seeing and celebrating one another as black womxn in academia. I want us to show the world and our children that the fight for freedom and the right to education was not in vain; and it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Our children need to see the possibilities that education opens up, and that it is possible to attain that degree, even while doing life.

I had a chat with Dr Nthabiseng Violet Moraka earlier this month to feature her as a #WCW on The Blackademic instagram page; and lo and behold, the discussion was too long to fit into one Instagram post- hence this here blog.

So, who is Dr Moraka?

Dr. Nthabiseng Violet Moraka is currently the Chair (Head) of the Department of Business Management at Unisa. As the Chair of Department she is responsible for managing and implementing the operational plan of her department with over 55 staff members and her department services over 89 000 students at Unisa. Business Management is one of the largest academic departments at Unisa.

She also supervises masters and doctoral students. She has published and co-published a number of articles in scholarly accredited journals and has presented papers at local and international conferences. 

She serves as a reviewer of two international accredited journals and two local scientific and accredited journals. She is a member of the Academy of Management, a Business Consultant, and regularly consults with listed and unlisted companies on strategy, transformation, women on boards and governance issues. All of this, and she is married with three children, two boys and one little girl. (I know, it also blew my mind!)🤯

Her subjects of interest include:

  • Women (and men) on boards
  • Women in leadership and executive positions in the public and private sectors
  • Feminist research in post-colonial countries
  • Strategic Planning 
  • Strategic Implementation & Control
  • Transformation
  • Governance
  • Poverty and the role of education

In my chat with her, I asked a few questions to get an understanding of how she does it all? I mean, she really is doing it all. Here is how the chat went:

How did you balance work, studies and parenting?

No balance, but strategising and planning around own circumstances. I did what was best for me, my children, and my family and that was working on self-development and my goals. I just believe that to be an excellent mother, wife, sister, and friend, I must be a fulfilled and fully functioning individual.

  • I got myself a therapist (I had a psychologist and psychiatrist) 
  • Signed up for gym and Zumba classes
  • Hired a full-time nanny
  • Hired a driver to transport the kids to school
  • Present wife to my husband – cooking, lunchboxes, family traditions e.g. English breakfast Saturday mornings
  • Did what I could do for the kids – lunchboxes, and breakfast on me every single day, lunch dates, attend doctor appointments 

A Ph.D. journey is mental, spiritual. A journey of emotion, labor, and politics. It is the pursuit driven by own convictions, unanswered questions, and problems that have societal and sometimes personal significance.

Hesse-Biber, 2013 writes that own belief systems, experiences and emotions contribute to the process of creating knowledge and that is the case with the Ph.D. Thus, understanding and examining my social background, environment, and assumptions can impact the research process. Thus, I took everyone “who cared” through the journey with me and dropped those who didn’t want to be part of this journey.

What would you say was the most challenging part of your postgraduate career? 

  • Depression 
  • Death of academics, burnout 
  • Explaining why I couldn’t pitch or partake in events and activities

What was the most rewarding?

  • Meeting like-minded international scholars who share the same belief systems, convictions, research interests
  • Recognition for the work done, citation of my writings
  • To legally change the title, the progression of my work 

What is the one thing you learned about yourself during this journey? 

  • Fearless, I interviewed the high-profile members of society and met some incredible persons whom I would have not met despite this opportunity
  • All my Ph.D. examiners were international, at my request. I am not scared of criticism and failure.

Would you encourage your kids to pursue a similar path? What advice would you give them?

No, I wouldn’t encourage them to follow a similar path, they must follow their path whatever it is, it must be rooted and journey in deep alliance with God.

Secretly I want them to be medical doctors, but it is their choice after all.

What do you say to people who believe they can’t perform all these roles (being a mother, a wife, a working womxn, and a Ph.D. candidate)?

There is no reason why women cannot perform these duties, I mean first, they are women. Secondly, they are black. We can have it all, but we need a strong support system. You may have to sacrifice a few cents here and there.

What kind of support was the most important for you on this journey? Where did you source it?

Financial – the University awarded me a grant to support my research activities. I applied for every funding opportunity you could think of. NRF rejected my application but I didn’t give up.

Companionship– My husband had to understand my journey and where I could I involved him in the Ph.D. like driving to collect data or editing my work or “unfreezing my computer” after a tantrum.

Prayer – I surrounded myself with people who prayed for and encouraged me.

Shooo! I mean, if this isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is. I know I sure am inspired by her story, and I cannot wait to walk my own journey knowing it is possible for us black womxn to do it all, and to do it successfully!

Until the next celebration post, keep your dreams alive, keep working on them knowing it is possible!

Yours in glamorous writing,

Academic Support

Planning for your Masters/PhD

February 1, 2022

If you follow us on the socials, you would have seen that I recently posted a reel about planning for your PhD, in which I recorded myself plotting my calendar for PhinDile, my thesis. Due to the caption limitations on Instagram, I couldn’t get into too much detail with the tips; hence this blog. I am going to give you some handy tips on how to go about planning your timelines for your PhD, because I want us all to succeed. 

Bring out your inner Project Manager 

Your PhD is a huge project, and if you don’t plan adequately for it, you are setting yourself up for many impending panic attacks. There are various ways to plan for a project, and there are a number of different project management tools available on the web if you haven’t a clue where to start. Some scholars have made use of the popular retro planning method, which is a method in which you plan backwards from the deadline date.

I won’t go into too much detail on how this method works, but here is a brief highlight on the steps to take when working with it:

Step 1.

Jot down your major tasks, starting with the final deadline as a milestone mark, and break that down into what tasks are necessary to get you to that milestone. 

Step 2:

Assign timelines to each task. These don’t have to be exact to the minute, but try to estimate as closely and as realistically as you can. Make some wiggle room by having 3 timeline estimates: best case estimate, most likely estimate and a worst case estimate. Yes, include the worst case estimate so that you are able to quickly identify when you are headed in that direction and reroute. 

Step 3

Organise your  tasks, making note of which tasks are dependent on the completion of another task.

Try to find a method that works for you. If you are a visual person, include some pictures into your timeline to highlight the big tasks or submission dates. Have some fun with it, you are going to be engaging with it for the rest of the year! If you’re someone who isn’t intimidated by spreadsheets, get friendly with MS Excel or another similar program. 

In this guide, I will be listing a few steps that you can take to get started with your plan.

This is how I went about putting my plan together…let’s get into it.

1. 𝐃𝐨𝐰𝐧𝐥𝐨𝐚𝐝 𝐚 𝐠𝐨𝐨𝐝 𝐭𝐞𝐦𝐩𝐥𝐚𝐭𝐞 

Find a template that has a cell for every day. This way, you can populate it with small tasks for each day, making it easier to accomplish the greater goal. The best way to eat an elephant, you know. 

I use a colourful Excel template that I downloaded from Calendarpedia.com. They have different template options available: 4 pager’s with 3 months per page (for those who might find a full year view on one screen overwhelming) or a 2 pager with a 6 month view, and so on. Pick the one you are most comfortable with and start plotting.

2. 𝐒𝐭𝐚𝐫𝐭 𝐩𝐨𝐩𝐮𝐥𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 ‘𝐛𝐢𝐠 𝐝𝐚𝐲𝐬’

These are days such as 𝙨𝙪𝙗𝙢𝙞𝙨𝙨𝙞𝙤𝙣 𝙙𝙚𝙖𝙙𝙡𝙞𝙣𝙚𝙨, and then work backwards (retro planning) to fill in what you need to do to reach those deadlines. 

For example, I’d like to submit an application for a Doctoral Colloquium in May. I then determine what’s needed for that submission, break it down to smaller tasks, and determine how long it’ll take to do them. Say for example it takes one month overall… I then fill in 4 weeks of activity (write a motivation letter in week 1, write an abstract in week 2, etc). Then break it down even further. For the motivation letter, ‘find motivation letter templates’ can be Monday, ‘write opening paragraph’ can be Tuesday, and so on.

For some of you who might be starting the PhD journey, you will need to include days such as:

  • PhD Defence

Some universities, and some faculties and departments require a PhD defence before you begin your actual research (after the completion of your proposal). Once you submit your proposal, you will be assigned a defence date, in which the faculty members will ask you questions about your thesis to make sure you understand your field of study.  

  • Submission of thesis to the universities’ administration along with reports from the committee members. 
  • Committee thesis review; factor in the time your committee members will need to read your thesis and work back the submission date from there. Ie: if they need one month to review your thesis, you would need to submit it in time for them to do this, before your defence.

Work backwards to determine when you need to start writing your thesis. Will it take you 3 months, 5 months or 6 months? Work it out down to the weeks and the days, where possible.  

3.𝐀𝐥𝐰𝐚𝐲𝐬 𝐟𝐚𝐜𝐭𝐨𝐫 𝐢𝐧 𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐭 𝐝𝐚𝐲𝐬

Plan for rest days because these contribute to your progress. For example, usually after a big submission, I know I’ll be tired, so I’ll write ‘𝙍𝙚𝙨𝙩 – 𝙉𝙊 𝙋𝙃𝘿 𝙒𝙊𝙍𝙆!’ in the day, or days after that. You will know how much rest is enough rest to refresh your mind and bring you back stronger.

Taking care of your health should be the number one priority, otherwise who is going to meet that submission deadline? Make time for self care! Check out The Blackademic Instagram account for some self care ideas which we posted during the entire month of December.

4. 𝐀𝐝𝐝 𝐚 𝐜𝐨𝐥𝐮𝐦𝐧 𝐭𝐨 𝐦𝐚𝐫𝐤 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐩𝐥𝐞𝐭𝐞 𝐚 𝐭𝐚𝐬𝐤. 

I call this column ‘𝙎𝙩𝙖𝙩𝙪𝙨’. I then enter’𝘾𝙤𝙢𝙥𝙡𝙚𝙩𝙚𝙙, 𝙤𝙣 𝙓 𝙙𝙖𝙮’. You may have scheduled something for 4 September, but only complete it on 10 September (and that’s fine). Put down when you completed it; this helps you track yourself. Even better if you 𝙥𝙪𝙩 𝙩𝙝𝙤𝙨𝙚 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙘𝙤𝙢𝙥𝙡𝙚𝙩𝙚𝙙 𝙡𝙖𝙩𝙚 𝙞𝙣 𝙖 𝙙𝙞𝙛𝙛𝙚𝙧𝙚𝙣𝙩 𝙘𝙤𝙡𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙩𝙤 𝙩𝙝𝙤𝙨𝙚 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙘𝙤𝙢𝙥𝙡𝙚𝙩𝙚𝙙 𝙤𝙣 𝙩𝙞𝙢𝙚 𝙤𝙧 𝙗𝙚𝙛𝙤𝙧𝙚 𝙩𝙞𝙢𝙚. I use red for late, black for on time, and green for early. If you see a trend of too many reds, you’ll know you’re falling behind before it’s too late, and you can course correct. I like to give myself a reward when I have a few greens. Spa treatment, if the bank allows, or a lovely meal, or a glass of bubbly, or even a gold star sticker to remind myself I’m doing great. It’s important in keeping your motivation up.

5. 𝐆𝐨 𝐞𝐚𝐬𝐲 𝐨𝐧 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐬𝐞𝐥𝐟 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐛𝐞 𝐟𝐥𝐞𝐱𝐢𝐛𝐥𝐞. 

Life is complex and fluid. Allow your calendar to be the same. If adjustments need to be made to maintain your sanity, make those adjustments – and tell yourself it’s okay. Ask for help, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that we can’t predict the future. Yes, we can plan as best as we can, but anything can happen, and your plans could get interrupted. Which is where the worst case scenario timeline comes in, because even in the chaos there should still be some sort of plan. 

If you are starting off on your PhD journey, I would urge you to sit down with your supervisor and map out the predicted journey, and the major milestones that you should be working towards. 

Start NOW! Do not wait for mid year to start planning. Make use of every month, and try to achieve a task monthly. Remember that elephant? 

Planning helps you avoid anxiety

Scenario:

You’ve been bitten by the travel bug and you decide you want to visit Kenya. Are you just going to drive to the airport and hop onto any flight and hope it gets you to Kenya? And when you land there, are you just going to hop into a cab and drive to any hotel and sleep?

Well, I guess you could try it out… but I am willing to bet that before you even leave the country it will become glaringly clear that You Can’t Just Go. You need to plan the entire trip; from flights, to visas, accomodation, airport transfers, currency exchanges, booking of certain activities and so on. Planning is what will make your trip stress free and enjoyable. 

So, your PhD journey is just the same, it’s a journey that needs you to have the dedication to plan for it. You’re probably thinking it might not be possible to define the exact end date of a PhD project right from the beginning, because so many life things could happen along the way that might end up pushing the end date further out. I’m not disputing that, and I can tell you for free from my experience, the plan will definitely change. What I am saying is that, to avoid anxiety, you need to have a tangible objective from the get go. Without a plan, you can’t visualise yourself finishing and what steps you will be required to take in order to finish. 

Just the thought of that is making me anxious already. Whooosaaah.

Make sure you include your supervisor in your planning, share the plan with them so that they can keep you accountable and also help you course correct in case you stray off track. Supervisors are there for a reason, don’t try to go at it alone.

In conclusion, I hope this article has given you some things to think about; if not, remember that elephant

If you have any questions on planning for your PhD, drop them in the comments section, or DM me on the socials and I will help in any way I can.

Happy planning!

Yours in glamourous writing, 

Psychosocial Support

TOKENISM

January 18, 2022

Time for some real chats. Some not-so-comfy chats.

Let’s be honest. We all know what “the token black guy” is. You know… Winston Bishop in “New Girl”? Raj in “The Big Bang Theory”? Okay… Token Black, in “South Park”? Or every character to die first in all those horror movies?

It’s in politics (think Mmusi Maimane). It plays out in corporate boardrooms, in some friendship groups and even… you guessed it… in academia.

Let’s start by defining it in the context of television. TV is historically notorious for superficially incorporating diversity through tokenism, in which the “token” or diverse character is used purely to give support to a white main character, or being the sole representative of their entire race. What’s more, these characters never really have real story lines of their own. They exist either to crack jokes, give a line of ‘soulful’ advice, or do something stereotypical to support the main storyline of the leading white protagonist. Now let’s take it over to academia.

Token black guy (n.)–A black character deliberately featured in a show or movie for the sake of racial diversity.

Tokenism in academia

The University of Fort Hare, in the 1900s, was the first university in South Africa to accept black students. Some of our very first black elite scholars were fostered there: Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. My own parents went to Fort Hare, met there and graduated there in the midst of apartheid. The point is, more than decades after affirmative action started being implemented in tertiary institutions, faculty of colour are still significantly underrepresented in university faculty. And so we cried out for inclusion. Universities faced some heat, and some then rushed to include people of colour to appease the masses. The problem is, when they’re not sincerely invested in transformation, universities fall into the trap of hiring black faculty, or including black students in certain roles, for the sake of the performance of racial diversity – a perfect recipe for tokenism.

The idea of, and protest against, tokenism in academia is not new at all. Martin Luther King said it perfectly when he wrote about it in the 1960s:

We must remember that the university was developed with white males in mind as students, and people of color have only recently in our history been admitted to some universities. Tokenism has sufficed to appease the masses and prevent national revolt from people of color. If we are to have a truly integrated society, it will never develop through tokenism. 

Martin Luther King Jr., March 17, 1966

The problem with Tokenism

Where do we even begin? Sigh.. Alright, let’s go.

It furthers stereotypical narratives

Tokenism leads to a narrow representation of minority groups, and this trend often perpetuates negative stereotypes. When there’s one person of colour in a room of white people, there is less opportunity to understand the diversity of people of colour, and therefore more potential to make sweeping generalisations based on learned stereotypes. According to some research on token characters in TV, the representation of underrepresented ethnicities has grown in numbers, sure… But negative portrayals remain. Statistics still largely show, among other regressive stereotypes, toxic masculinity in black males, and the hypersexualisation of black women. For black womxn in academia, this leads to more issues, like trickling down to create everyday experiences in which they have to fight sexual harassment and the gross underestimation of their intellectual capacity. I know it. I’ve been there. 

It robs us of ‘being’

And this is detrimental both for the ‘token’ black person, as well as for the business, academic, or social space they exist in. As mentioned in the TV example, the token character never really has a narrative of their own. Tokenism, used as a quick fix for the absence of representation, includes these characters to superficially support the main storyline or, in academia and other spaces, to ‘show off’ transformation and inclusivity efforts. This means that our ‘being’, our ‘story’, doesn’t really get to happen. Which is a huge loss to both parties because the truth is we strengthen any storyline, any team, any strategy, any curriculum… 

Pressure to overstretch oneself

There is also a psychological effect when you’re ‘the only’ in a particular place. It comes with that sense of pressure that you cannot mess this opportunity up, as if being in said space as the first or as the only black person, makes you the representative of every black person to follow. It can be very exhausting, but this is the reality. Everyone slips up, but when a token slips up, that’s automatically attributed to their race. Which brings me to the next issue.

Pressure to represent

A lot of the time, being tokenised creates the expectation for you to be an authority on all black people, their lives, culture, and experiences. Because you’re black, you represent or understand everyone with a high dose of melanin.  You may have heard or heard of comments like:

 “We need to expand our market to appeal to the rising black middle class. Oh yeah, call   Jabu in, he’ll tell us how!”

Excuse me: One person cannot represent an entire race.

Louder for the ones at the back: One person cannot represent an entire race!

The ‘better’ you perform, the farther you are from your race

Because of the negative blanketing of people of colour, the minute you do something great, there’s a notion that you’re ‘not like the rest of them’. We’ve all heard it. Something that alludes to ‘the good black’. The further your behaviour is from their stereotypical expectations, the less threatening you are to them. Joe Biden was quoted as saying Barack Obama is a “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”. Sure, he phrased it as a compliment, but you can see the insult in it,  no? Mkay let me explain.

White people are comfortable with Barack Obama because they see him differently from the way they see black people as a whole. Him being articulate, bright, and clean is the direct opposite of their expectation of black people, and how black people are portrayed in mainstream media. Loud. Angry. Violent. Lazy. 

This portrayal of tokenism is a problematic cover-up, because it helps those on the other end of it feel and pretend that racism is not a problem. Instead of facing racism where it really exists, they believe that their association with their one, ‘good’, ‘bright’, ‘clean’, ‘well-spoken’, ‘hard-working’ (i.e. ‘palatable’) colleague/friend of colour makes them not racist.

The real problem with tokenism is that “complimenting” them like that is in fact placing that ‘good black’ over other people of the same race. Essentially saying that all black people, except the token of course, are the same. The psychological effect of this on me in particular as a ‘token’ in some spaces is that I love being black, and I love black people. But to be regarded highly in spaces where we’re not represented, there’s an expectation to move away from the identity and the people that I love. It’s messed up.

Pressure to regurgitate your trauma

Being ‘the only’ or ‘one of the only’ often means you have to deal with the ‘not so woke’ comments that get passed around in jest, most of which – if you have the energy and will – result in you having to share your trauma in order to educate colleagues and make them understand why what they are saying is offensive. This is especially true in a country like ours, that has a painful and still relevant history of racism and discrimination. So, what are some examples of these ‘not so woke’ comments?

Some are overtly racist (we won’t go into that) and some come in the form of microaggressions.

Tokenism microaggressions

Not everything in this case is overt. In fact, most of the time, tokenism plays out in subtle ways; in the form of microaggressions. It can play out in the form of attributing mainstream stereotypes, phrasing it as a compliment (these are especially harmful because they’re insidious and patronising):

“You know, ever since you joined our department, there’s so much more ‘spunk’! We love it!”

In a suburban neighbourhood:

“Oh! You live here?”

I was at an international conference once, in which me and my two colleagues were the only people of colour. We had worn traditional elements in our outfits for all three days of the conference, so when we attended the closing night’s gala dinner in black lace dresses and tuxedos, we got these comments:

“Oh! Where’s the colour today?”, and “We expected more… life!

Ummm… Ma’am/Sir? Black people do not exist for your consumption and entertainment. Louder now: Black people do not exist for your consumption or entertainment!

The biggest issue with microaggressions is that, because many are phrased as compliments, if you try to defend yourself against the insult, you’re only seen to perpetuate the stereotype of ‘unprovoked’ violence and anger. So in order to further protect your identity and race, you breathe deeply, suck it up, and walk away. Only to overhear:

“Oh she’s great. Calm, hey? Yeah, really approachable.”

Ohhhhh child! Let me stop it there, before you punch your screen. It’s tiring. And it’s everywhere. How do you fight something that’s everywhere, and so deeply entrenched, and so unseen by those who do it? (and I mean “unseen”, which really just means “unacknowledged”).

Fighting tokenism 

Tokenism vs Inclusion 

Someone wise (who I’ll admit I am too lazy to look up) told us you can’t fight fire with fire. You fight it with the opposite element. So what’s the opposite of tokenism? It happens to be one of the buzzwords that it’s often confused with. Let’s distinguish between the two. One more time: Tokenism is ‘the deliberate act of recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups to create an appearance of racial or gender equality in the workplace’. Inclusion, in a professional context, is ‘the process of involving a diverse range of workers in the decision making process in the company, instead of just having them fill the seats as representatives’.

In academia, Tokenism would be to hire a black lecturer to put on the website and report as a statistic at the year-end’s diversity and inclusivity report. Inclusion in academia would be to hire a black lecturer in order to question whether Western practices are “all that”; in order to promote indigenous knowledge practices; in order to normalise the celebration of their intellectual contributions; in order to create robust curricula as opposed to the one-sided, narrow, Eurocentric curriculum we’re all used to.  

Dealing with tokenism for yourself

There’s a long way to go before that real inclusivity is entrenched. So how do you maintain your mental sanity while waiting for society to change? Unfortunately, it still involves a lot of work. A lot of self-talk, and reminders of your worth, educating others. Sometimes it’s going as far as not being yourself because you will be misunderstood, seen as loud, angry, unruly, with negative consequences for your race. Which in my opinion is exhausting and completely unfair. But ke.

We have such a huge burden on us as black people to repaint the way society sees us; which is a result of the oppressions that the very same society imposed on us, that led to the frustrations in the generations before us, who fought for us to not to have to feel this very way. When will this cycle end?

I’d love to engage more with you on this topic; drop your thoughts in the comments section below and share your experiences. Let us have these conversations and help each other navigate our responses and also take steps towards ending the cycle.  

Your in glamorous writing…

Blackademic Womxn

Celebrating Blackademic Womxn: Nthabiseng Mosena

November 24, 2021

Another feature to celebrate another inspiring womxn in academia. Nthabiseng Mosena came onto my radar after she commented on one of the posts I had shared on Instagram; and naturally I was curious to get to know her story. I reached out to her and asked to feature her as a #WCW, and she agreed. I sent her some interview style questions to get a better, more shareable picture of who she is, and her journey in academia and life.

Here is how that went.

What are your qualifications and from which institutions?

  1. Bachelor of Architecture- Wits University
  2. Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) – University of Sheffield( UK)
  3. Master of Science (Engineering Project Management) – University of Leeds (UK)
  4. Master of Business Administration- just completed my first year at Wits Business School.

What were the top 3 highs on your postgraduate journey?

I’ve had the privilege of doing postgraduate studies in two countries, one being my home base currently.

Abroad, my highlights were being in a class of diverse students and diverse thinkers from all corners of the world. (I’ve also made friends across the globe). It’s an incredible experience and environment to learn in. Being in a highly ranked British university means you are exposed to lectures of formidable standard. Another important high was getting to a point in my academic journey where I understood what I wanted to specialize in, choosing the right masters programme to align with my career goals and furthermore working on a dissertation topic that’s close to my heart and could possibly solve a problem in my industry.

Locally, my highs have included:
The amount of business acumen I’ve learnt from my MBA studies is something that would have taken me years to learn in the workforce.
I’m exposed to a high caliber of colleagues which include top managers, business owners, CEO’s , directors, high achieving entrepreneurs and people who are thriving in their careers. To be around people with such drive and ability to work hard automatically pushes you to strive for greater.
Being closer to my support system has really made this journey special for me.

What were the top 3 lows on your postgraduate journey?

  • As someone who values family with my whole heart, being far from my family was a lot more difficult than I had ever imagined it to be. My family and I are very close so being so far away was an emotional and mental battle.
  • Culture shock: I had had the privilege of traveling to many countries abroad long before I went to study abroad. But touring overseas and living overseas are two different dynamics. I had to adjust my lifestyle accordingly. The experience forces you to step outside your comfort zone. i.e. everything seemed so expensive and in my head I always always converting the pound to the rand. 😂😂
  • The academic standard was extremely high so I had to work harder and more strategically than I ever had to. I battled in the beginning with the intensity of my course so I had to change my entire approach to tackling the degree. Being around academic excellence in my class intimated me at first. I was shocked at the capacity at which my colleagues performed and at some stage struggled with imposter syndrome.

What advice would you give to your younger you, now?

  • Relax!!! 😂😂 life will turn out exactly how it’s meant to. Stop trying to control the narrative and just enjoy being young!
  • You deserve to be everywhere and everything you worked hard for. Don’t ever let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
  • Don’t believe the lies that your mind tells you about failure. Don’t be afraid of failure, it’s part of the journey and in fact, it makes you a lot stronger.
  • Everything isn’t meant to be done alone. Ask for help!!!
  • Prioritize the quality of people you have in your corner. It makes the world of a difference.
  • Don’t do too much online shopping during study breaks 😂😂 It’s a trap! Rather use the money to travel and clear your head.

How has your postgraduate career impacted your life today?

  • The commonality between two of my master’s degrees is that their difficulty has undoubtedly built my character, my integrity, but has also humbled me in many ways.
  • It has definitely granted me opportunities to understand the intricacies of project management from the feasibility phase of complex projects all the way to the execution phase.
  • It has helped place in positions, projects and conversations that would’ve been otherwise difficult to reach at my age.
  • It has accelerated me into leadership role within a formidable mining company.
  • My current MBA degree is equipping me with critical business, management and soft skills. It is developing in me a toolbox of applicable quantitative skills such as adaptability, leadership, problem solving, critical thinking, communication and the fundamentals of running a successful organization.

How do you deal with the challenges that come your way?

  • I pray a lot, be it through wins or challenges. At times when I’m overwhelmed with challenges I take those burdens into prayer. It grounds me and helps me think rationally.
  • Mindset is everything! I’m a firm believer that when you change your thinking, it changes your ability to make decisions and in turn you change your life. I have learnt not focus and marinade on a problem for too long but to rather come up with solutions to change its course.
  • I’ve got an incredible and loving support system. My family and loved ones are always so willing to hear me out, guide me and help me with practical solutions. They encourage me to get up after each blow that life hits me with.
  • Because I understand that challenges are part of the journey and that there is no success without trials and sacrifices, I’ve learnt not to respond to challenges from an emotional standpoint but rather ask myself “ what is this challenge trying to teach me about the situation and about myself?”

Do you feel the responsibility of obtaining your postgraduate degrees goes beyond just you? i.e. Who/what else rests on it, besides your own advancement? And how do you deal with that pressure (if it feels like pressure)

Yes, indeed. For as long as I can remember, It’s been a goal of mine to be actively part of infrastructure development on a large scale in South Africa. While navigating through my career I quickly became aware that there are very few black professionals in leadership positions in my industry. These spaces lack the representation of not only black but female counterparts. Positions of power in engineering, construction and property sectors are still dominated by white males. I understood the importance of obtaining my postgraduate studies so that it could possibly accelerate and elevate me into certain roles, where women of colour also have opportunities to make decisions about the infrastructure development of this country. An influential place to be is a place where one can contribute to decision making and that usually happens at top management level.
Sometimes people shy away from certain fields because they see no representation. But someone has to take that path in order to create opportunities and foster an environment that will be welcoming for black youth. The problem isn’t that young black people aren’t educated, therefore black talent isn’t lacking in abundance but it is seriously lacking in recognition and support.
Women of colour face insurmountable cultural and social barriers to career progression, including perceptions of a women’s potential, a lack of formal support or organizational policies to help them progress. I, too, struggle with the emotional tax of being a black women in corporate. As a woman aspiring to greater leadership roles my aim is to represent on a management panel where organizational changing decisions are made and here, carry out conversations about talent spotting, gender glass ceilings, overlooked in promotions, lack of leadership support, mentorship opportunities and career guidance for black females.

I don’t look at obtaining my postgraduate degrees as pressure because I’m not trying to be superwoman but having a seat at the table will enable me to make my contributions to uplifting women of colour.

Interview ends.

I hope you have been as inspired as I have today. I love to see black womxn flourishing and I am looking forward to having more conversations such as these, with beautifully minded individuals such as Nthabiseng Mosena.

Psychosocial Support

Battling Impostor Syndrome with your postgraduate degree.

November 9, 2021

What is impostor syndrome?

My favourite dictionary describes impostor syndrome as “a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments, accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success”. (Merriam-Webster)

I want to highlight that impostor syndrome is, in fact, a real thing, and many people experience it. If you have ever felt like you are incapable of doing or completing a particular task that has been assigned to you; or you feel like you could never succeed in that job you applied for; or have felt that you are deceiving those around you into thinking you know more than you really do… Then you have experienced impostor syndrome. 

Impostor syndrome is that very uneasy feeling that can almost cripple you into never-ending procrastination, purely because you are afraid of failing, being ‘exposed’, or not achieving the task at hand to your sometimes ridiculously high expectations, or the expectations of your supervisor/boss/family or whomever else you hold in high regard.

What causes impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is a result of various factors and it is dependent on the individual’s personality traits, their surroundings, culture and upbringing. If you are someone that comes from a family of overachievers and you haven’t necessarily achieved as much as you perceive your siblings have,, you start to question whether you are actually good or smart enough. Another example is in the work space, where you may work in a team but you feel as though you don’t have as much to offer as the next person. That self-doubt is a result of impostor syndrome. Now I want to stress that just because you are feeling this way, it does not make it true. Louder for the ones at the back: It is not true! You got that job because you are qualified for it, you got accepted at that institution to pursue your postgraduate degree because you qualify. These positions are not given out of pity, or for any other reason other than that you are competent, and you are adequate. 

What are the common types of impostor syndrome?

There are generally 5 types of impostor syndrome, and many combinations and variations in between. Identifying the “type of impostor” that you are can help you solve or figure out how to manage your mind so that it works for you and not against you. Let’s have a look at the common types below. See if you identify with any of them; it might be more than one – there is nothing wrong with that. 

  1. The Perfectionist

This is the type of person who wants everything done exactly how they think it should be done, the ‘cross every t, and dot every i’ type of person. They tend to be control freaks and feel that if something is going to be done right, ie. to their standard, they need to do it themselves. This is because they are afraid of being shown out, or being seen as a failure. If you’re wondering if you fall into this category ask yourself the below the below questions: 

  • Do you find it difficult to delegate? And when you do, do you find that you get disappointed with the results, and that you could’ve done it better yourself?
  • Do you feel that you can’t submit something until it is 100%, 100% of the time?
  • When you don’t achieve that ridiculously high mark on an assignment or task, do you get the sense that you are “not good enough” or “you are not cut out for it” and you mull over it for days?
  1. The Superwoman/man

These are those people who feel like they can take on multiple roles or wear multiple hats and succeed at each one perfectly at all times. This, I feel, is mostly common in womxn, especially black womxn. I know many womxn who are climbing the corporate ladder, while being mothers, wives, postgraduate students and pushing side hustles. Always looking for that next thing to add onto their plate to show the world just how “super” they are, most times to the detriment of their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. 

Not sure if this applies to you? Ask yourself:

  • Are you the last to leave the office in your team? Even after you have completed the day’s work?
  • Do you get agitated when you are not doing anything, or do you feel like rest is a waste of useful time?
  • Do you feel a sense of pressure to work harder than those around you to prove your worth, even though you have multiple awards/certificates/degrees that attest to your worth?
  1. The Natural Genius

This is the person who believes in getting it right the first, because if you don’t then you’re just not that smart. The natural genius judges their competence based on speed and ease, and not on effort. Like the Perfectionist, they set their standards really high, and make it a point to get it right the first time. 

Are you a natural genius impostor?:

  • Are you one of those A student types of people? Do you feel you don’t have to study as much as your peers for that big exam?
  • Do you dislike the idea of having a mentor, because you feel like you can handle things yourself?
  • Do you avoid new challenges because you’re afraid you won’t get it right the first time? 
  1. The Soloist 

This type of impostor believes in going at it alone. I could argue that this is probably the most dangerous type of impostor syndrome, because these people feel as though asking for help is a sign of weakness; they’d rather figure it out on their own and prove their worth. Their pride could be to their detriment. If you are a Soloist, you’d answer ‘yes’ to at least one of these:

  • Do you find it difficult to ask for help when you’re in a tough situation?
  • When you do ask for help, do you phrase it in terms of the project or task, instead of phrasing it as “you” needing help?
  1. The Expert 

These are the know-it-all versions of the Perfectionist. They focus on what they know, how much they know about how much, or how much they can do. They feel that if they don’t know enough about everything, they might be seen as inexperienced. 

  • When you look at the job spec, do you feel you shouldn’t apply if you don’t tick all the boxes?
  • Do you feel like you still don’t know enough even after doing something or being in a role for many years?
  • Do you have a relentless yearning to keep learning more about a subject? 

How to deal with impostor syndrome 

First, accept and embrace your feelings. Ignoring the problem only means you are not addressing it.  When you have identified the type of “impostor”  you are, there are a number of ways to deal with it. My main go-to is to first breathe deeply, and tell myself that my mind is powerful – but it can also be a liar. I tell myself that my fear is illogical. And how do you fight something illogical? With logic, of course! So I counteract said fear with logic. I follow these steps in particular:

  1. Get a paper and pen and split it vertically into two columns
  2. In the first column, write the ‘fear’, or ‘belief’.
  3. In the second column, write an indisputable fact that counteracts the fear/belief in the first column.
  4. Repeat the logical fact to yourself, as you continue with your task. Even if the fear doesn’t subside – you can’t fight facts. It works.

For example, I may fear that “I will give up and fail on my PhD because I am not smart enough”. My counteracting fact would be “My application was run through a panel of academics whose job it is to determine whether or not someone has what it takes to complete the degree, and I made it. The fact is that I am smart enough, no matter what my brain tells me”.

Depending on the environment that you are in, ie: work, studies, relationships; there are various steps you can take to deal with impostor syndrome. I also found these steps to be useful for me in my postgraduate studies. 

I hope this blog helps you deal and I hope you come out on the other side stronger and more confident. Remember, it may be that you triumph over impostor syndrome today, but that it may flare up again tomorrow. It is a constant battle. So, fight again.

Yours in glamorous writing,

Academic Support

HOW TO WRITE A RESEARCH OUTLINE

October 26, 2021

Okay, before you panic and start overthinking things, pause, breathe and tell yourself you’ve got this. Writing a research outline can be daunting because a lot of the time you don’t know where to begin. I have been there myself, and I have guided many others after me. So, in this blog, I am going to guide you on writing solid a research outline and hopefully put your worries to rest.

What is a research outline?

The answer is simple; a research outline, as the name suggests, is an outline of what you plan to research. Your planned thesis. It’s the skeleton of your research paper, and it typically includes an introduction, a problem statement and research questions or hypotheses, a methodology section, and a conclusion. Note, that the content of this skeleton will most likely change as you proceed with your research; so the topic of your outline doesn’t have to be final, or even anything like your final product.

What is the purpose of a research outline?

The purpose of a research outline is for the admissions panel to see that you know how to define a problem you want to address, that you can point out its significance, that you know what research questions are best suited to investigate it, and what methods are best suited for that. 

There are various sources online that offer good examples of proposals. A research outline is essentially a mini-proposal. You can also visit your campus library, or any other academic repositories, and have a look at past theses. Most introductory chapters of a thesis are essentially the proposal, so take that and make it small scale.

The advantages of a research outline?

A research outline isn’t just for the admissions panel; it also helps you. Here’s why this part of the process is beneficial to you:

  1. It provides structure to your plan
  2. It organises your thoughts and helps with writers’ block
  3. It gives you a snapshot of the ‘big picture’ of your research
  4. It helps with time management
  5. It lessens anxiety, increases productivity and keeps you motivated

What constitutes a good research outline?

As I mentioned earlier, it is not expected that you have everything figured out at the outset, so the simple questions to ask yourself in order to determine whether you’ve nailed it, are:

  • Does it identify a gap in knowledge?
  • Does it tell us why it is important to fill that gap, and to whom it is important?
  • Does it tell us how you’re going to fill that gap, and why that is the best way?

A step-by-step guide to your research outline

Introduction

First, you will need an introduction, which should be intriguing, engaging, and informative, without giving away too much. You want the reader to want to continue reading on. This section should present a little background story of your topic (paint a pretty picture), a gap you’ve found in existing knowledge, definitions of key terms to be used throughout the study, and the main issues you’d like to address with your research. To make your introduction stand out, try to include the following:

A surprising fact or an interesting statistic: Who doesn’t enjoy an interesting fact? Something to make them think “Oh, really? I didn’t know that!”. Naturally, they will want to read on, right? I know I would…

A thought-provoking quotation: A relevant quote from an expert in the field, or any well-known figure who said something poignant that relates to your topic, makes a great hook for an introduction. 

Problem statement

This is the very essence of your research paper. It answers the questions: Why is this necessary, and how do you know it’s necessary? Keep this very brief (just a few sentences will do). A good problem statement gives context (what is already known about your topic), the relevance of your study (why it’s important), and aims and objectives (what do you wanna do about it?).

Still not clear? Here are a few problem statements to get your brain going. You’re welcome 🙂

Hypotheses, research questions and objectives

Research questions are typically used in qualitative and quantitative research. The tip here is to word your knowledge gap as a question, and as an objective. The same gap you’ve identified in your problem statement? Just take that and word it as a question. And word it as an aim for the research objective. With the objective, you start with the word “to”, and with the question, you end with a “?”. Hypotheses are typically used in quantitative research, and are essentially ‘educated guesses’. It’s a statement made of what you predict the outcome of your research will be.

Let’s see how all these play out in an example. You feel that there isn’t much knowledge on why GBV is so prevalent in South Africa, and that this makes it hard to tackle, and so womxn continue to be murdered (problem statement). Add a little sprinkle of academic language, and your research question becomes “What are the factors that cause gender-based violence in South Africa?”. Similarly, your research objective becomes “To determine the factors that cause gender-based violence in South Africa”. Your hypothesis would be “Gender-based violence is caused by financial strain, alcoholism, and trash men”. See? Simple!

Methodology

Now that you’ve told the panel what the problem is and what you’re going to do about it, this is your chance to briefly describe how you’re going to do that. Don’t worry, you don’t have to figure this all out by yourself. There are long-established methods in academia to approach studies – you just need to pick the best one for yours. Your choices here all depend on the research objectives and questions that you established in the previous step.

For example, you’re going to conduct interviews with perpetrators of GBV to ask them some burning questions. Or you’re going to analyse some psychological reports about GBV perpetrators. Remember, you will always need to give reasons to justify why these chosen methods are the best way to get the answers you’re looking for.

Conclusion 

To wrap up your research outline, your conclusion should include a summary of all the items you’ve written above. Reiterate your strongest points without going into too much detail. This should sum up, most importantly, what the gap is, and how you’re going to fill it.

Wow, I feel like I just gave an entire lecture! I hope that you found this valuable and that it will help you with your future research outlines. 

Happy writing!

Yours in glamorous writing,

Administrative Support

Applying for Your Postgrad Degree: A Guide

February 17, 2021

Photo by Laura Kapfer

I get so excited when people (especially womxn of colour) want to do a postgraduate degree. I get excited not only because of what it can do for them, but what it will do for their local and global communities… and how it can inspire others to do the same. But there are many obstacles to getting there, and one of the first is the application process. South African universities sometimes have a bad rap when it comes to supporting their prospective students while they apply. I get many emails from people outside my institution struggling with the administrative and confusing hassle of applications. The issue is, many faculty members don’t prioritise these emails; there can be a general air of “not our student, not our problem”.

So I thought I would give some advice about applying for your Masters or PhD degrees, based on common questions I get, and my own experiences. If it’s too much to take in right now, scroll through and check out the Big Tips! in blue throughout the article to read some easy helpful tips. But if you’re ready, buckle up, and digest it section by section.

Types of application
Most of the university institutions in SA (UCT, Wits, UJ, UP, Stellenbosch, UKZN, etc) all require online applications for postgrad degrees and do not accept any other type of application. This can add a bit of stress to the process, but considering Covid and its effects, I believe it should be the only way. I also believe this because I know of horror stories about physical applications being lost or damaged, damaging peoples’ education prospects in the process. Also, it’s eco-responsible.

Prerequisites
The educational qualification necessary for a PhD is usually a Masters degree, related to the field you’re applying for. For a Masters, it’s usually an Honours degree or an undergrad degree inclusive of Honours. More rarely, a good amount of research experience, or even lots of work experience, can qualify you. This does differ from institution to institution, so make sure to read all the application guidelines thoroughly and, if you can, to pick up the phone or send an email to ask about exceptions.

Timelines
Most institutions’ deadlines are usually stated as towards the end of year (September to November). But let me let you in on a little secret. If you are applying specifically for a full thesis/dissertation, i.e. no coursework/modules are involved, I consider the application period open throughout the year. Why? Because it’s fully research, you work the degree at your own pace. Sure, if you apply after the deadline they may only consider you with the next round of applications, but you can still do some work in the background. Here’s a Big Tip! Speak to faculty members (any faculty, anywhere) if you need help with the proposal. Find a professor or lecturer in that field and ask for advice. If they don’t respond, find another one. It’s possible that they may be too busy, or on leave, or not interested. But do you know what’s never too busy, or on leave, or uninterested? The library! I don’t necessarily mean go comb through shelves of books. I mean spend some time on Google Scholar. Do your research in the meantime, on the topic you are interested in. By the time your application’s up for consideration, you have more solid ideas; you’re not starting your degree from scratch. Another Big Tip! Do think about starting the proposal on your own, long before your application is reviewed. Faculty might even be impressed by the ground you’ve covered. It’s a smart move. Stay ready, so you ain’t gotta get ready 😎

Checklists
Once you reach the online application for your university, there’s typically a pane with sections. The order and naming differs from institution to institution, but they usually include Personal/Demographic Information; Degree/Major Selection, Previous Education and Work Experience, and so on. Big Tip! To stay on track, take all of that and make it into a checklist to refer to throughout the process of your application. 

Motivation letters
This is where you get to tell the university why you want to do the degree and why they should accept you. A young sales pitch. My advice is to make this three-fold, with the three main areas of focus being you, the institution, and the real world. The real world part gives you an advantage, so don’t neglect it.

  • With the institution, take time to research the institutions you’re applying to. What are their core principles? What do they value most? What types of graduates do they seek? I’m not saying be a parrot. Chances are, as a potential postgraduate student, you have similar values as they do anyway. So just find where they meet and highlight those areas, with a personal touch. Which brings me to the next focus.
  • You. Highlight skills about yourself that show why you see them as a good fit, why you are able to complete a postgraduate degree, and what that would mean for you, your family, your social circles…
  • Thirdly, what it means for the real world. Do you want to bring change to corporates, or the health system? Are you going to create knowledge so you can help inform regulation and policy? Do you want to uplift a community? Give some real though to your reasons for pursuing a postgrad degree before writing this. If you need help considering this, check out “To PhD or not to PhD?” for food for thought.

Another important thing to note is that university staff use your motivation letter as an example of your writing capabilities, so write it well. Put in effort and thought, check for spelling and grammar errors, and maybe run it past someone you know who can give you honest feedback. Big Tip!: Do not reiterate what’s on your CV because, chances are, they’ve seen all that. Just give more layered and creative ideas about why you should be accepted. But be sure to highlight not just what value you can give them, but also what value they will get from you. Do you bring industry experience? Do you bring teaching or academic assistance? Diversity (in your identity, your experiences, your research directions)? A fresh perspective? You definitely have value to add, and highlighting that should work in your favour.

Reference letters
Not all institutions require these. And even in the institutions that do, not all faculties or departments request them. But if they do – take them very seriously. Find good referees (professors, previous employers or lecturers – people who have some level of clout. Try to aim for at least one to be academic). Big Tip! Do not be afraid to let your referees know what you would like them to say in the letter. A common approach is to draft your own letter, showing how you meet the criteria of the institutions you’re applying for. It’s not cheating, I swear, I’d never mislead you. The thing is, your referee most likely has 100 other things on their plate. Taking their time to write you a letter is very kind, so try to make it easier for them. Write what you would like said, send them a draft, and tell them to alter it as they see fit. After all, they’re signing their name on it; they have to be comfortable with what it says. But it’s best when they don’t have to start from scratch. Help them help you.

Do your research to see if you align
You’re going to have to read. Read up on all the institutions you’re targeting. What are their selection criteria? Do they make decisions based more on academic merit, your research experience? Or do they place more importance on giving opportunities to those from disadvantaged backgrounds? Or perhaps they seek an alignment between your research idea and their goals as a department? If you’re applying for a PhD: institutions refer to your Masters thesis for a demonstration of your research and academic writing capabilities, which is also a common criteria. Make notes on each institution to see if you fulfil each one’s specific criteria. You don’t have to meet them all, but zone in on those you do.

Funding
Many institutions will ask for your funding information. In other words, they want to know how you’re going to pay the money. If you have a scholarship or plan to apply for one, they want that highlighted. If you are privileged enough to have a sponsor such as a parent, or employer or mentor, or are able to pay for it yourself, they’d request that information. Institutions usually have their own funding available for various degrees, and so there may be an option (within the application process) to apply for funding. You would then need to follow due process there. But the format in which this information is required differs across the board. In some departments at UCT, for example, it can simply be a text document in which you state “This is to certify that [insert name here] will be responsible for the payment of this degree”. Slap some formal things on to it. A date, an address, a ‘to whom it may concern’, and that should be enough. Sidebar: When I applied abroad, they wanted declarations of income, bank statements and expenses, to really prove that I can afford to be there. It’s a lot. But if your institution wants it, give it.

Research outline
Have you ever heard of a mini-dissertation? Now think of a mini-proposal. Now, think even more mini. There is typically 500 word limit but, again, it differs across institutions and departments. The idea of a research outline can get overwhelming real quick. It can feel like you have to have it all figured out – your topic, your methodology, your problem statement, your analysis. You don’t! Truth is, from the moment you decide on a topic, your direction will change a number of times before you finally settle on a final proposal anyway. Your direction may even change after your proposal has been approved! As a faculty member, I can tell you for free, we don’t want you to have it all figured out. But what we do want is an indication that you can do research and you know what it entails. Big Tip! For your research outline, your topic doesn’t have to be final. It can even be the complete opposite of what the final will be. But we do need to see that you know how to define a problem you want to address, that you can point out its significance, that you know what research questions are best suited to investigate it, and what methods are best suited for that. Big Tip Again! Look online for some good proposal templates. Or even for previous theses. Most introduction chapters of a thesis are essentially a proposal, so take that and make it small scale.

Attachments
Ah, the admin 🙃
You will be asked for a number of attachments. Your CV, motivation letter, reference letter(s), research outline, academic transcripts, etc. Make a checklist of ALL the attachments. I cannot tell you how many applications we receive in our faculty where they have a great academic record, but there’s no research outline so we have no idea how to place them. Or someone has a great research outline but dololo transcript, so we don’t know if they meet the academic requirements to be accepted. Make a list of every document that needs to be uploaded, and scratch them off the list only when the system gives you confirmation that the document is uploaded (technology can be tricky; I have been dribbled). Usually they offer a preview option, so you can open that and check if indeed it is the correct file. There will also be institution-specific requirements in terms of what types of files you can upload (Word, PDFs, PNG, etc) and how large the files must be. So make sure you convert and compress and all that.

Interviews
Not all institutions, faculties, or departments invite you for interviews. But if they do, you’ve already made it through the hard part. An interview will just serve to cement what you’ve already told them through your application, and to meet you in person. I can’t speak too much about what they will ask you because that will differ. But my advice is to enter knowing that you deserve to be there, and make sure to let them know that. Fake the confidence if you have to. See that research you did on your goals aligning with theirs? That could come in as a huge help here.

Common pitfalls
Okay, now that I’ve gone on forever, let me go on just a little bit more 😊

Watch out for these common mistakes that I see too often:
1. Incomplete applications. This is why the checklist is essential; most institutions tell you they will not consider incomplete applications. Believe them. It’s true.
2. Incorrect department. I’ve seen applications come in to Commerce when they were clearly meant for Law, or Engineering. Check and double check that you select the right one.
3. No motivation/cheating the motivation. Can you imagine the amounts of applications that these institutions get? They don’t need to hear (again) about your academic and work achievements. Spend some time with your motivation, and write more about who you are than you what you’ve done.

Be okay with rejections
This is easier said than done, I know. We’re emotional beings, of course we want acceptance. Otherwise we wouldn’t go through this whole process. But, true story: if you do not get accepted by your chosen tribe, it’s never the end. It’s just the beginning of another way in or around, or elsewhere. Rejections are also a lot more common than you think. Last Big Tip! There are way more rejections than acceptances. To give you perspective; I was rejected not once, not twice, but three times by UCT before I got accepted for my Masters degree. I also applied for my PhD at six different institutions, and got rejected by five. Rejections are not usually a reflection of you and your capabilities. Reasons could be that the department just doesn’t have enough supervisors; or the competition really was that tight and you were a close call, or perhaps they think your topic may be more suitable for another department/faculty. Apply to other institutions. Cast your net wide. And if you only want the one institution and you won’t budge, that’s also fine. Adjust your application. Try again.

*This is all written with South African universities in mind, as applying abroad can be a different ballgame. We’ll get there.

Yours in glamorous intelligence,

Blackademic Womxn

Celebrating Blackademic Womxn: Dr Bongekile Skosana

February 3, 2021

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”

Personal PhD Journey Psychosocial Support

To PhD or not to PhD? 5 Reasons to think about…

January 25, 2021

Hello hi, fellow academics!

I am currently doing some heavy brunt work for my thesis, and sometimes when that happens I find myself asking “why am I even doing this?”… Which takes me back to my reasons for starting in the first place. Please read on if you are currently thinking about doing a PhD, but are hesitant about taking the leap.

The PhD is a monumental step, so naturally it will bring up many questions or doubts about pursuing it. Those questions usually begin with whether or not it’s a good choice for you. Although there are many reasons one would not want to do a PhD (it’s draining; mentally, financially, emotionally and physically), I’d like to focus on the reasons why you would want to do a PhD. But before I begin this listicle, I’ll share why I find joy in mine.

When I was in primary school, we had one of those orientation days where we were asked the all-too-familiar question of what we wanted to be when we grew up. All the kids around me were quite focused, explaining how they wanted to be an accountant, or a doctor, or an astronaut. When it was my turn, I said “I want to be an actress, an author, a lawyer, a traveller, an artist, a teacher…”, and the whole hall erupted with laughter before I even got to the end of my list. Being an academic, and doing a PhD, was never on it. But when I got into it I realised that it has, in fact, allowed me to be all of these things. Writing these articles, writing research publications, writing motivations for applications and scholarships, and writing my PhD has made me an author. Presenting at conferences and symposiums, and standing in a lecture hall in front of hundreds of students, has in a way allowed me to embrace the actress in me. Fighting for equality and transformation in academia has appealed to the lawyer in me. Using my creativity to teach and research in innovative ways has made me an artist; and teaching, supervising and mentoring my students has made me what is pretty much at the core of who I am: A teacher. And as a bonus, travelling (before Corona) is something I have been very privileged to pursue while doing all of the above. In short, my road to the PhD has actually allowed me to be everything I wanted to be.

I didn’t always know why I really wanted to pursue a PhD though. I had a conversation with my Father at the beginning of my journey about my reasons for doing it. I told him I just want the Doctor title. That I’d love to hear my name with a “Dr” before it. I’ll make all my students, family and friends call me Dr. I’ll sign off every email and letter with “Dr Bundwini”. I’ll never even make a restaurant reservation without the title. He didn’t crack a smile when he said “When you get to the end of your PhD, you will know what it takes to get there, and you will respect that title”. Now, in my second year, I can tell you that I am definitely starting to respect it! It is a journey unlike anything you’ve ever embarked on before. So I suggest you put some serious brain juice into weighing up the reasons to PhD or not to PhD. Let’s talk about the reasons you would:

  1. You want to invest in yourself. Doing a PhD is an extrinsic investment, but it is mostly intrinsic. Your PhD teaches you and inspires you. It builds a myriad of skills – writing, problem-solving,  communication and presentation skills, time management, synthesising information, networking, and countless others. Point is, you will never come out on the other side being the same person you were when you went in. If your motives include transforming yourself – this is a solid reason to do your PhD.
  2. You thrive on overcoming challenges. This journey is riddled with obstacles. One day, you’ll feel inspired and on top of the world, and the next you’ve hit a brick wall. Sticking it out and doing everything in your power to get through that wall can be the most euphoric feeling. Getting from “I have no idea how” to “I did it!” can be a very addictive rollercoaster, and I live for the highs of it. If this is you too, then I can confidently tell you that a PhD is the gift that keeps on giving. 
  3. Money. Gwap. Chankura. The bag. Okay, before I get ahead of myself, I’m not saying that doing a PhD will have you rolling around a room full of cash. But I am saying that it opens doors for potential additional income. After spending years immersed in one topic, you automatically become an expert on the matter. This means you can exploit opportunities such as consulting, presenting, writing content, reviewing others’ content, or even publishing your own works on various platforms. I am in no way blind to the fact that there are people who remain jobless with PhDs. This is an inherent, systematic problem of access and opportunity in the context of our continent. But that’s a topic for another day. For now, if you are wondering what the financial benefits of having a PhD are, cast your mind beyond just an academic or corporate position and think about the ways in which you can use the skills learnt to explore additional streams of income. Think about how you could patent your intellectual property (IP), or start a consulting business, or share your knowledge on online platforms. And please (specifically talking to womxn of colour here), nothing for free! 
  4. You’re passionate about a topic and you want to contribute to creating knowledge about it. This one pretty much speaks for itself. Research, especially at PhD level, is about creating knowledge, adding something new and of value, that can be used to inform, enlighten, and even effect change. If a topic makes your eyes light up, or your mind race (in a good way), this is an essential reason to pursue a PhD.
  5. You want to have a career in academia. I get it, not everyone is chasing academic tenure or professorship, but if you are one of the very few who are then a PhD really is your starting block. A Professor once told me “No one will ever take you seriously in academia without a PhD”. Yes, it sounds cold, bit it’s a bit of a hard truth. Your PhD is the evidence that you can conduct groundbreaking (hopefully) research, which is partly what academia is about. It also gives you, almost forcefully, all the armour you need to be an academic. Without a PhD, without the skills it gives you, academia just doesn’t let you in very far. And you wouldn’t be able to embrace it fully in return.

If you’re on the fence, I hope this helps you in making a decision. Lowkey, I am hoping I’ve convinced you to go ahead.

Yours in glamorous intelligence,

Personal PhD Journey Psychosocial Support

Begin, Anywhere: The Story of Document 1

January 11, 2021

Given that it’s a new year, many people have goals but are still at the very beginning of going for them. I find it fitting then to share this personal story before getting into other academic topics.

In late 2019, I was a new academic and had just registered for my PhD. I was ashamed then, but am not ashamed now (because growth), to tell you that I had absolutely no idea what a PhD was. Not a clue. A whole academic, but if you asked me what the difference was between a Masters and a PhD, I would have stared at you blankly and disappeared in a cloud of shame and anxiety. I had a broad idea of what I wanted my topic to be on: the cannabis industry. It’s a new industry, which is something we don’t get to see much in our lifetime, so I wanted to be a part of it, but I had no clear angle. Time flies when you’re confused. So when I realised I only had only 2 months to go until I had to defend my proposal to a panel of esteemed professors that would either accept or reject it, I panicked.

I sat down in front of my office computer, and I opened a new Word document. After crying for an hour on the phone to my best friend “I can’t do it, I should just deregister, I’m dumb, I don’t know what I’m doing” (the typical negative self-talk), I had no choice but to come face-to-face with my unwritten proposal. I looked at the blank page: ‘Document 1’. We had a straight up stare-down. I blinked a few times at the flashing cursor, and it blinked back at me, almost menacingly. And let me tell you this for free – I had nothing. I whipped out my phone and took a short video of that blank screen and that flashing cursor. And then I saved Document 1 (blank as it was) – named it ‘PhD proposal draft’, packed up my bags and went home.

I wasn’t sure at the time why I saved a completely empty document. Maybe I thought that if I named it, words would magically appear and fill the page? Maybe I thought that if it had a name, it would compel me to write because a document with a name is harder to ignore than document without one? But two months later, I stood in front of those professors defending my proposal and I realised why I did it. In that moment of hopelessness in my office, all I saw through my tears was a blinking cursor. But I had to have known, somewhere very deep down, that the story of Document 1 would be the first of many stories to share of my journey to becoming a Doctor. All it would take was a decision. To fight. And to commit to that fight because, as you may already know (and if you don’t know, now you know), postgraduate degrees are war. War with many battles on the way. Some will be won, some will be lost, some will be abandoned. But in the end, the war will be won if you make the decision. The ‘how’ will come later.

I still whip out that short video from time to time, to remind me: you will feel hopeless sometimes, like you have nothing to show but a blinking cursor and no words. But looking back at that video now, I realise the cursor wasn’t actually menacing. It was anticipating. It was calling out my potential. Every flash of the cursor is a nudge, telling you you just need to begin. Begin with procrastinating (yes, it’s a natural part of the journey). Begin with tears. Begin with calling a friend. Begin with one word; begin with two. Begin with Document 1. Begin, anywhere. Just begin.

Yours in glamorous intelligence,