Secrets of postgrad success

Postgraduate study can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying and overwhelming. The statistics on postgraduate students who do not complete their degree, or who take longer than anticipated to do so, are alarming.

The government’s long-standing commitment to strengthening postgraduate study and research received a recent impetus from Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s summit on tertiary transformation in Cape Town in April. Among the summit’s recommendations was a specific focus on postgraduate study and research.

My own experience of postgraduate work, as a doctoral student in pharmacology during 2006 and 2007 at Rhodes University, after I upgraded my 2005 master’s research, was so positive that it motivated me to encourage others who might be considering enrolling for a higher degree.

You do need to consider such a step carefully because it is a big one, involving major investments of time and money, and other factors. But it can also be life-enhancing.

A student’s research supervisor, and the fit between student and supervisor, plays such a pivotal role in shaping the postgraduate experience for the student that it is a critical — and often difficult — first step. Other major considerations, such as funding, can come a little later in planning postgraduate study.


I have known students who changed universities and moved across the country so that they could work with supervisors they found inspirational. I was fortunate to have a supervisor who was not only a leading academic and researcher but also allowed me the time and space in which to develop my own research and working style.

He made a point of providing his students with great opportunities to collaborate with local and international research groups. Looking back, I think that much of the joy I experienced while working on my PhD emanated from the sense of purpose and passion for research that my supervisor imparted to me and members of the research group.

Despite sometimes experiencing difficulty in accessing adequate laboratory resources, we were highly motivated and committed to our research projects. I know of postgraduate students who did not have such a good fit with their supervisors and for whom the years of postgraduate study became a nightmare.

Personality clashes, poor understanding of mentoring and learning styles, differences in values, disagreements over research findings and conflicting motives contribute to a battle in which the student is always the more vulnerable party. There are times when an unsympathetic understanding of diversity, especially concerning race, gender and the needs of students with disabilities damages relations between students and supervisors and this may undermine research output.

Last year’s Soudien report on higher education argues that the sector is transforming rather slowly and that racism and other forms of discrimination still mar universities. The student-supervisor relationship always involves power dynamics and this can be exacerbated if any form of discrimination is present.

To prevent such conflict, and to manage it constructively if it does arise, it is important for there to be a clear memorandum of understanding or terms of reference between student and supervisor in which the rights and key responsibilities of each party are explicit and mechanisms of potential conflict resolution are clarified.

Many universities have such agreements, but sometimes these are mere paper exercises and there is no real buy-in from either party or from the institution as the overall custodian.

Funding
Lack of funding often deters students from embarking on postgraduate study. Although there are many local and international funders, potential students are not always aware of these resources. Students should cast their nets as widely as possible.

They must spend time on comprehensive internet searches and inquire early on in their investigations to the postgraduate financial aid offices at their own universities or — if they are thinking of returning to study some time after
their first degrees — at the universities to which they’re considering applying for postgraduate admission.

Students should think creatively about which organisations might offer funding. For my undergraduate pharmacy degree, for example, I received a bursary from Revlon after an aunt suggested that a beauty company might be interested in funding study in the pharmaceutical sciences.

Having identified a potential donor, it is important to research that organisation and understand its strategic aims and priorities, so that your application for funding can show clearly how your postgraduate research project will contribute towards the body meeting its goals. If there is no fit between the research project and the strategic aims or priorities of the donor, your application is unlikely to be successful.

In today’s competitive research environment the onus is on the student to sell his or her research project and to tailor the funding application so that the donor body can clearly see the benefit of the project to itself. Nevertheless, it is important that once funding is secured the funding agreement articulates clearly the boundaries of the relationship between the donor and the research project, so that inappropriate pressure, such as suppressing certain research findings, is not exerted on the student.

Often your supervisor — or even someone you’ve merely spoken to with a view to him or her supervising you — can play a helpful role in alerting you to possible funding bodies, types of funding options available and how to navigate the student-funder relationship. So can the heads of the academic departments in which your proposed research would be located.

Many postgraduate students have to balance the pressures of working, maintaining a family and studying and so additional funding concerns arise. As a full-time PhD student who was on a good scholarship, I could focus on my research with-out having to juggle any additional pressures.

But after my PhD, when I entered the world of work and decided to embark on an MBA, I struggled to find an optimal balance between the need to work and the need to spend sufficient time on my studies. I am sure that there are many working students (or employees who are studying) who have to perform this balancing act.

“Project manage” your study
Besides having upgraded my master’s work, one of the factors that allowed me to complete my PhD in less than the required time (submitting my thesis in August instead of at the end of the year) was, I think, the project-management approach that I adopted.

I had a clear timeline and schedule and broke down my research project into distinct portions that could each be mastered and completed timeously. At the beginning of my postgraduate study I decided that I would write up my thesis as I went along, doing so chapter by chapter as I concluded the experiments relevant to each.

Because of this strategy, which is perhaps more suited to some disciplines than others, I did not find myself with a large amount of writing to do in the months before submission of my thesis — a familiar source of stress for many students. I handed my supervisor a copy of each chapter as I finished writing it and he was excellent at providing prompt feedback.

I would immediately work on and then resubmit the revised chapter to him. This allowed both of us to keep a close eye on the systematic progression of my research and I was able to benefit from the wisdom of his guidance and feedback from the early stages of my studies.

I wrote up my literature review, a significant part of the thesis, in the first three months of postgraduate study, before I had even conducted any laboratory work. Of course, I revised and updated it constantly over the course of my PhD, but the bulk of it was written early on.

I know that many students leave writing the literature review to the end of the research process, which can be stressful and tedious. When you’re starting a postgraduate programme, your research project can take on mammoth proportions in your mind.

You might feel overwhelmed and the uncertainty generated by being new to the world of research and perhaps the different structure of a new degree can lead to a sense of insecurity and helplessness. But, with adequate guidance and support from your supervisor, you will develop a holistic view of your research project and — where appropriate to your discipline — understand its practical implications and significance.

I centred my own research on making a contribution that would enhance the quality of life of cancer patients. Such centring helps to provide a focal point and grounding that anchors you in difficult times — and there will be at least a few of these, as I will discuss in subsequent editions of Getting Ahead.

Dr Layla Cassim is a part-time senior lecturer in pharmacology at the University of Cape Town, a practising locum pharmacist and managing director of Layla Cassim ERS Consultants, specialising in facilitating academic and research development workshops

  • This is the first of her three-part series aimed at helping students considering postgraduate study. Parts two and three, to be published in the August and September editions of Getting Ahead respectively, will include her advice on research proposals, research design and methodology and thesis writing. She writes in her personal capacity and can be contacted on [email protected]

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