The PhD: Don’t fake it, just be it

Graphic: John McCann

Graphic: John McCann


While travelling on a Sunday morning flight from East London to Cape Town a while ago, I sat next to an elderly woman whose age appeared to make her open to pleasant conversation.

Noticing I was reading a student’s thesis chapter was, I guess, what intrigued her to ask me about what I do. I confidently declared what I do, stemming from my passion and conviction that my work as an academic is a calling – despite the teething problems that come with the profession. After I’d driven my mast into the ground, with my colours flying high, she asked rather curiously if I had a PhD.
Unashamedly, I responded with an unequivocal “yes” and even nodded in response.

Up to this point I had fielded all the questions with ease. But then she said something that led me to write this article: “So do you have a real PhD or are you one of those who prefer to fake it rather than be it?”

Very profound, that: faking it or being it. I had hoped my sincerity and conviction in our discussion would prove to her that I am “it”. Then I decided to tell her how I became the real thing.

The initial steps, including the decision to study for a PhD, can be extremely complex and confusing for most. Part of the challenge is a mindset: Should I or should I not? Then the thought of exposing yourself through your research idea, and the effects of this, that can come through varying responses from different stakeholders. So, before the journey even starts, a struggle ensues internally (and externally).

Then there is the difficulty of trying to identify and match the right supervisor to the topic and to the interests of the potential candidate. It’s like going on a blind date blind-folded and hoping that, by the end of the date, all will have gone well. Much of the discussion happens by email, with no direct contact between the potential supervisor and the student – another difficult, twisting and turning meander to navigate.

Rejection then comes into the picture. Often you get a nice flowery email that applauds you for the journey you want to embark on – and then the word “unfortunately” notably changes the tone of the email. I remember writing to more than 15 universities, both local and international, trying to identify a potential supervisor. I got about 10 “we regret” communications in reply.

Back to the drawing-board
Try to stomach that! When interest is there, funding problems also serve as obstinate challenges on the path – so it’s again back to the drawing-board and more hard work.

You then strike gold and hope flickers: an institution shows interest in your research topic and is willing to fund you. I met my three potential supervisors and had to convince them of my thesis idea.

I soon realised each of the three interpreted the idea through a different lens. There was need to reach a compromise and find the most viable option among the myriad opinions. To break the deadlock, I had to engage in “issue selling” and compromise, as well as be firm, at times, even though the potential supervisors weren’t agreeing. Then came the acceptance letter and the flood of joy that followed it – but the realisation too: do not celebrate yet, there is the visa, the flight bookings and saying goodbye to loved ones.

I took a flight to the United Kingdom and the town of Milton Keynes, which was to be my home for three years. I arrived in the cold British winter, having left the warmth of African skies to contend with such environmental barriers. The British accent was sometimes difficult to understand, especially when I visited places like Coventry and Yorkshire. Another difficulty was working around the fact that the sun set by 4pm in winter, adding to the related challenges of adjusting to time zones.

Then there was the hurdle of making new friends, and usually answering questions that revealed a myopic and stereotypical view of what I was about: for instance, generalisations about Africa being a homogenous country whose inhabitants “speak African” or the thinking that all Africa is glued together by ubuntu were dominantly prevailing thoughts I encountered – and tried to deal with.

I often had to reveal a selfish and maybe individualistic side of myself, and wanted to be alone just to avoid dealing with such myopia. Somehow this collective community view of Africa was anathema; I was struggling and needed to adjust to my new surroundings. At best, I was crying out aloud and no one could hear me.

Cultural experiment
Serves me right: pursuing a qualification is not so much about the learning inside the classroom but also the reality that you are part of a cultural experiment, learning about others and letting them also learn about you. It’s an arduous process en route to attaining a PhD.

To make up for my lack of cultural adaptation, I decided that my first write-up to my supervisors should be one that blew them away. Five weeks of attempting a chapter followed, characterised by my routine of sitting behind a laptop and drinking lots of herbal tea.

I became a bit liberal and even started trying out snacks, just to munch my worries away. Weight gain followed, all because of this sedentary lifestyle. Feedback came and it was not good. I was the one blown away. More rewriting and reworking of the idea was needed – and I was not amused at all.

Fast forward the clock to negotiating research access and doing the actual research: more difficulties there. Then there was the research viva, a defence of my work to esteemed colleagues all listening to this young whippersnapper.

The result of all this? Make more changes to your thesis, and you have six months to do all that. Then the letter comes alerting you that you will be graduating.

At this point you are elated and appreciate that all the struggles you went through were part of the experience of getting a qualification.

After I’d narrated all these experiences, the older woman on the Cape Town flight appeared to have understood why I am proudly “it”. Her next question was: “So what do you think of people who fake it?”

Honest conversation
I think society needs a broad, honest conversation about this – partly involving an open appreciation of the difficulties that accompany pursuing and attaining any qualification. There is no such thing as an easy qualification, given the demands attaining one has on an individual, mentally, physically, financially, emotionally and spiritually.

Let’s appreciate and celebrate how the human spirit conquers in the midst of difficulty. It’s not so much about the qualification and the potential doors it opens, but rather the transforming nature of the experiences gained that lead to the qualification and its subsequent impacts.

I make this clear to my students: the struggles you experience are all part of the process of attaining the qualification. We also need to condemn, even if necessary by punishing, those who make light of serious academic endeavour through fraud and misrepresentation of the acute difficulties that accompany pursuing and attaining a qualification.

Let’s make examples of those found to be in the wrong concerning this matter. We owe it to future generations to know that hard work pays and that anything else deserves to be condemned.

Don’t fake it, please just be it.

Dr Willie Tafadzwa Chinyamurindi is a senior lecturer in the department of business management at the University of Fort Hare. He writes here in his personal capacity. This article is partly based on a reflective chapter in his PhD thesis

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