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Personal PhD Journey

This category contains tidbits of my own, personal PhD journey. This will contain all the highs and lows, all the hurdles I face and how I overcome them.

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,