/ 4 October 2011

Zuma, my PhD and me


Getting a PhD is much harder than I’d expected, but there are rewards and the climax was something I could not have anticipated in my wildest dreams: President Jacob Zuma’s presence at my graduation in July, twitching and licking his lips as my topic was read out.

Last year I wrote in these pages about how much I was enjoying being alone in my study for long hours, getting immersed in my research and writing, and how passionate I was about my topic (Getting Ahead, “Having a midlife focus“, February 19 2010). I did love it but it wasn’t entirely a breeze.

Handling such a big project can feel overwhelming. There’s also much uncertainty about how deeply you should go into theory, how accessible your work will be if you do and the worry that, if you theorise too much, you yourself might not understand what you are doing. Then there’s the loneliness of it all and periods of insecurity about whether you’re good enough.

But I finished my thesis in the required minimum of three years, in fact just under, and submitted it in December last year. There was one vicious marker out of three. I then had some corrections to do and graduated in July.

I wasn’t expecting the graduation ceremony itself to be the cherry on the top of the hard work that it turned out to be. But it was, not so much because of the pomp and ceremony — as a journalist, that’s not really my scene — but because of the pointed irony, or synchronicity, that Zuma was present to hear my PhD title read out — “The Role of the Media in a Democracy: Unravelling the Politics between the Media and the ANC in South Africa”.

Five minutes before I entered Wits University’s Great Hall for the ceremony, people were being searched and the atmosphere seemed skittish. Apparently the president was there as a dad to attend his daughter’s graduation — and there he was sitting in the front row with his twin children, Duduzile and Duduzane.

Stage trivia
The day’s doctoral graduates were the first to be read out and there was just one graduate called up to the stage before me — not enough for me to study and then imitate what one is supposed to do up there. So I wasn’t reflecting on Zuma’s unexpected presence: I was more concerned about tripping over my red gown, which was big, and about all the protocol — which way you’re meant to face and whether you’re meant to bow (oh no). Why does nobody tell you what you’re meant to do?

But I forgot all those trivia once I got up on the stage. The dean of humanities, Professor Tawana Kupe, read out my topic about the ANC and the media, followed by a fairly hard-hitting citation on the ANC’s intrusion into the free space of the media.

I had to make a decision in what seemed like a split second: Did I pretend Zuma wasn’t there, or look him confidently in the face? Images of the showerhead floated into my consciousness — there’s a chapter on Zapiro and Zuma in my thesis — as I turned around and looked at him directly from the stage.

Zuma started giggling so I decided he had a sense of humour and smiled at him. Then everyone started laughing — at the irony, I’m guessing. Then Zuma stopped giggling and instead licked and bit his lips — one of his idiosyncratic traits, as much as his pausing in the wrong places when he gives speeches and pushing up his glasses when they are already up. So my graduation left with me the fantasy that Zuma was nervous of me.

The graduation was fun but two stages during the research were crushing: first, my presentation three years ago of the topic I was proposing, and then the marking at the end. Both these times, I nearly gave up, thinking “I don’t need this in my life”.

Some academics prop themselves up by being as humiliating, brutal and unkind as possible. One, for instance, objected that I was undertaking research on the media but was myself a practising journalist. How odd.

At emotionally difficult times, I felt that doing a PhD was more a test of character and personality than anything else. When I told other PhD students with whom I’d become friendly along the way what I’d experienced from some academics, their response stunned me: compared with what they’d encountered, I’d had a “breeze” and a “walk in the park”, they said.

I now supervise an MA student in the Wits journalism school and try never to be brutal. And my own supervisor, Professor Sheila Meintjes, was not one of those I’m recalling — on the contrary, there was never a cross, or dull, moment between us.

In the end, it was easy to solve the apparent problem posed by being a journalist researching the media in a democracy. Meintjes advised me to state upfront in my thesis that the work was not detached and did not pretend to be: it took a position from the start — that independent journalism plays an important role in democracy, albeit an imperfect one.

Glenda Daniels is advocacy co-ordinator at amaBhungane, the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism.

Do’s and don’ts to make the grade
Would I do the PhD all over again, given the difficulties? Yes, it’s rewarding. But there are pitfalls and it can be almost soul destroying — I find journalism gentle by comparison.

So here’s some advice derived from my experience:

  • Choose a supervisor carefully — one with whom you have a rapport with and who is supportive of your line of research;
  • Be organised about meetings with your supervisor. At the very least make notes beforehand: don’t just go in empty-handed and waste time with generalities;
  • Take control of the process and don’t expect to be chased for your work. Chase yourself;
  • Make a project plan — set deadlines and stick to them;
  • Don’t wait for your proposal to be passed before you get going with the research;
  • Don’t wait until all your research is over before you start writing: do both simultaneously;
  • It’s lonely. To stop yourself talking too much to yourself, get out and have coffee with friends;
  • Try not to get too obsessed with your work. On the other hand, don’t undertake it if you’re not passionate about a particular area of research: motivation problems are a major cause of non-completion; and
  • Most importantly, it’s hard work. So if it’s just an intellectual exercise for you, with no emotional attachment, you could be wasting your time.

Glenda Daniels