Editorial Note: In this piece, Fellows in the BRIDGES Program reflect on their PhD journeys; the challenges and learning they have encountered thus far, along with the additional challenge of Covid-19 (narrated by Jennifer Githaiga)
Early in 2020 a cohort of doctoral and postdoctoral fellows joined the ‘Building Research in Inter-Disciplinary Gender and HIV through the Social Sciences’ (BRIDGES) Program, a 5-year NIH funded (D43) program, housed in the University of Cape Town’s Division of Social and Behavioural Sciences [DSBS], School of Public Health and Family Medicine. The Program seeks to expand the pool of early-career social science researchers working on gender and HIV in South Africa by recruiting and intensively training and mentoring PhD and postdoctoral research fellows.
In the course of the year, fellows grappled with questions around the nature of a doctorate including time commitments and length of the program, whether or not proposed research topics were ‘PhD-worthy’, juggling the PhD with the rest of life, including the unexpected COVID-19. Part of the process entailed the dawning realisation that the concept of a standard, homogenous ‘PhD experience’ – even within a Program such as BRIDGES – is an illusion worth demystifying. As depicted in the following reflections, each one’s PhD journey is a unique one laden with twists and turns that stretch beyond the academic experience.
Tsidiso Tolla experienced a range of emotions as she worked through her first year: “I finally registered for my PhD this year. Early in the year, there was a lot of self-doubt. I felt I was not PhD worthy, that my ideas were not PhD worthy. For the first few months I struggled with my research question. This was a short-lived struggle; by the end of March, I had a solid research question, which my supervisors liked and approved, and I started reading and writing, preparing for my proposal. While this process was going well, at some point I found myself struggling with the idea of doing this (PhD) for the next two – three years. I think what made it difficult was hearing a lot of stories about how difficult a PhD is and how this is going to be your life for the next few years. At some point I was overwhelmed by the idea of devoting myself to a PhD for so long. I wanted to get it over and done with already. I was impatient and that led to some anxieties. Despite my anxieties, I knew I wanted a PhD and I also got to understand that there is no easier way or a shortcut to attaining one. Looking back, I think that going through the process and allowing myself to embrace all sorts of feelings (anxiety, self-doubt and wanting to quit) showed me that a PhD is not only about getting the degree. Maybe it is too early for me to say this, but a PhD is a journey that teaches one a lot about themselves and academia and I am glad that I got to understand this earlier in the process.”
Namhla Sicwebu, who resumed her PhD in 2020 after one year leave of absence, reflected on preparedness and motivation: “A month after obtaining my master’s in Public Health degree, I was advised to apply for the 2018 PhD program in my department. In response, I sought advice from a friend about her experience as a PhD student, and while I was still unsure about the merits of undertaking such a momentous task, I eventually signed up. I mean, my PhD was fully funded, and at the time, it made no sense to turn down such a wonderful opportunity. While I knew that the PhD journey will not be a walk in the park, I was unprepared for how difficult and lonely it will be. I honestly struggled from the onset. The doubts and fears that every PhD student eventually faces presented themselves early in my journey. As an undergraduate student, and later, a master’s student, I relied heavily on my supervisors and peers. Suddenly, I was expected to take ownership of my academic life and I felt ill-prepared. This sudden challenge was compounded by a few issues that I also faced in my personal life. After a massive internal battle that raged on for months, and after many discussions with trusted friends and prayers, I decided to take a one-year sabbatical from my studies. It was not an easy choice as I knew that I would be disappointing a lot of people, however, I realised that I was feeling suffocated and barely made any progress. I knew that I needed a break to gain some perspective and to establish what I want out of life. It had become increasingly clear to me that I had embarked on the PhD journey without establishing my research interests or goals for my life…When I decided to return to my studies in 2020, I felt ready and hungry for the opportunity. I realised where my research interests lie and had a strong team around me that I knew would help me achieve my goals. While it has not been easy, and I still struggle with things such as time management among other challenges, I have been able to preserve and to meet my goals as I steadily work towards my life purpose.”
Chantal Fowler reflected on her unexpected health and family-related challenges as a first year PhD fellow, and growth that resulted in the process: “One of my mentors encourages me to see challenges as ‘gifts’ from the universe, and to always ask: ‘how can this gift help me to grow today?’, rather than buckling under the negativity that it brings. Well, 2020 saw fit to bless me with endless ‘gifts’ from three surgeries in three months, to having to take full financial reasonability for both my kids again as a result of COVID’s impact on their father. It was only after my PhD proposal was accepted for review that I realised what a bad case of imposter syndrome I had been dealing with all year. I honestly did not expect to finish it, much less to have it approved on the first presentation. For a few days after my proposal was accepted my old imposter friend’s admonishing played out over and over in my head, making me doubt myself, even in the face of contrary evidence. But I had done it and I had made it. I realised that throughout the year, I was not striving to succeed, but to grow in wisdom and life experience. And to count that life experience, no matter how harsh and painful, as an opportunity to know myself better. I had silenced my imposter’s voice with a choice to embrace whatever may come and to take from it anything that would make me a more real and honest human being, even if failure were to be my teacher.”
The BRIDGES Program ‘cohort’ plan to provide an interactive and supportive environment was, in some ways, thwarted by COVID-19 and the subsequent lock-down in South Africa. Face-to-face interactions and physical meetings on campus were replaced by virtual meetings as everyone was mandated to ‘stay-at-home’, save for essential service providers. The lock-down took a toll on fellows’ PhD journeys:
For Laing de Villiers, “2020 changed my approach and process to my PhD work dramatically. Instead of being full-time based in Cape Town, where I saw myself for the next two years grafting hard on getting my PhD completed, I moved out to a family-owned space in the Overberg region, close to Stanford. I became more involved with things on this side which drew my attention slightly off the work of PhD. I also found the shift in having to move from physical platforms of meeting to more electronic platforms very hard to keep myself accountable to my PhD and my fellowship (part of the BRDIGES Program). I felt more isolated and this further created tension of ‘falling behind’ and not communicating openly about my needs as student and fellow on the program… As 2020 showed us, things change drastically almost overnight, and so allow yourself to be adaptable to these changes to find the optimum space to still work effectively on your studies. Most importantly, we should remember that we are all in this together, supervisors, fellows, and peers and that we can rely on one another for feedback support or even just a quick check-in to keep the PhD project moving forward. The hard work of the PhD is that in and amongst the professional, personal, emotional, and other parts of our lives, we still need to find time to do the work of the PhD.”
Shehani Perera: “COVID-19 defined the first year of my (and everyone else’s) PhD journey. I expected to create a functional work-life balance (like they say you should in all the PhD-advice guides). I thought I would be in the library, three times a week, reading and writing and thinking. I thought I would be able to create an open, creative social space on campus; one where we would experiment with our ideas and thoughts and get together over tea to argue over non-sensical things. But then ‘work-from-home’ happened. And now? It has meant that the dinner table often serves multiple purposes: a desk, filing cabinet, Zoom meeting space, a café where you can eat amongst papers and books… and many of those early PhD-conversations I thought I’d have, have had to take place in my own mind or with my poor friends and family who probably all think they know way too many details about my topic by now. BUT it has not all been so bleak! Thanks to BRIDGES, I have achieved many of the universal PhD-milestones you hear about during those first few orientation weeks. I have settled on ONE research question (yes, this is totally possible even for those of us with idiosyncratic and numerous interests!), wrote up a proposal, defended it, and sent it in (somewhat late) for ethics approval - all done in a hurried and frantic manner, of course…”
Indeed, each one’s PhD journey is a unique one that is not be underestimated as is likely to put to test the candidate in totality rather than solely at an academic level. The implication is the need for some consideration of support systems that consider the PhD experience in a more broadly encompassing manner.
As Carmen Späth, a BRIDGES postdoctoral research fellow, aptly notes: “Through their PhD studies, fellows are tasked with telling a unique story, a process that is affected by various factors that may shape how this story is told and produced (when possible). People differ, and the PhD experience may be shaped by a myriad of individual and external demands affecting the mental, physical, and social welfare of fellows. Some fellows have the personal, social, and economic resources to cope with these demands and have an overall positive PhD-experience. Yet, it is common to hear about PhD fellows experiencing anxiety and depression, while also feeling isolated and ‘alone’ when encountering academic issues. In terms of managing these academic challenges, perhaps it would be beneficial for PhD programs to encourage individual mentoring that may benefit fellows (it is not necessarily easy to inform an academic supervisor about the reasons why you are not making progress). Mentors understand the challenges of the academic world, and they can reinforce to fellows that it is not unusual for ‘normal’ life to interfere with PhD progress. Again, people differ, and it is not a given that fellows would be comfortable to share their thoughts and experiences with their mentors, however it may very well be beneficial for some and in this case, it may be worth considering. Perhaps PhD programs that consider the holistic welfare of fellows from the time they initiate their studies may be beneficial for enabling them to cross the bridge from ideas towards making a significant knowledge-contribution. Among other aspects, the addition of certain academic courses and individual mentoring may be some important additions to more traditional [dissertation only] PhD programs.”
As a faculty member and BRIDGES program manager, I have been privileged to walk closely with our BRIDGES Fellows and had a rare opportunity to witness the unique unfolding of each one’s journey, while often reflecting on my own positionality in the process. As our Fellows reflected on the past year, I too reflected on the year and what motivated me to join the BRIDGES Team in the first place. In my motivation letter - as I applied to join BRIDGES - I was clear that “I am enthusiastic about being part of the BRIDGES Program as we have a common interest in transforming scholarship in Africa”. In my rather long-winded letter, I proposed that such transformation entails two key aspects. Firstly, a shift from degree-driven ‘solely academic’ programs to ones that incorporate a mentoring component, adding that “mentoring implies grooming students to become leading scholars by motivating them to be the very best they can be.” Secondly, transformation suggests a radical shift from exclusive scholarship, where top ranks in academia are reserved for the few ‘crème de la crème’ scholars and where expertise is ‘contained’ within disciplines with little room or time for collaborative inter-disciplinary work. “In this regard, inclusivity challenges status quo as mentors challenges their ‘mentees’ to ‘dare to dream’, as we lead by example.” One year later, renditions of BRIDGES Fellows’ journeys resound the chorus of hope, possibility and perhaps, transformation in progress.
Tsidiso Tolla holds Master of Public Health degree from the University of Cape Town and has been based at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), Human and Social Development Unit, for the last three years. Her doctoral research examines the role of romantic relationships on adolescent boys’ sexual and reproductive health.
Namhla Sicwebu is a social scientist with a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Cape Town. Her doctoral research is an ethnography of adolescent food practice in urban households of Cape Town.
Chantal Fowler is a clinical psychologist in private practice with a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and Community Counselling from Stellenbosch University. Her doctoral research explores Theory of Change in intervention design and implementation based on the perspectives and experiences of role-players in a combination HIV intervention program for Adolescent Girls and Young Women in South Africa.
Laing de Villiers, a part time research administrator for BRIDGES, obtained his master’s degree in Psychology from Stellenbosch University where he is currently a PhD candidate. His doctoral research, based on the South African section of the HPTN071 (PopART) trial, explores gender identity among transgender and gender diverse people in the Western Cape, South Africa, and implications for HIV and Health Services.
Shehani Perera is a registered Social Worker with a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Cape Town. Her doctoral research is a qualitative study of providers’ and female patients’ perceptions and experiences of assisted partner notification.
Carmen Späth is a postdoctoral research fellow with a PhD in Psychology from Stellenbosch University. Her postdoctoral research explores the role of social support in the lives of youth who experience symptoms of depression, are living with HIV, and who reside in scarce-resource contexts.
Jennifer Githaiga is a faculty member in the Division of Social and Behavioural Sciences in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine, University of Cape Town and manages the Bridges Program.
Division of Social and Behavioural Sciences
School of Public Health and Family Medicine
Level 3 Falmouth Building
University of Cape Town