Postgrad study key to development

Much has been written about South Africa as a developmental state, but often missing from the conversation is a sense of the human capacity required to achieve developmental goals.

The goal of our developmental agenda is to attain a society in which the greatest number of people are intellectually, socially, economically and politically empowered. To achieve this, we require that the greatest possible number of people are educated at all levels.

Lessons drawn from my experience as a supervisor of 19 doctoral and 46 master’s students identify key strategies that help to educate postgraduate students.
They came from diverse backgrounds in terms of religion, nationality, gender and academia. They came from 10 different countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, and they were from different religious backgrounds.

Why is it important to educate our people at the postgraduate level?

There is a relationship between the number of master’s and doctoral graduates and the number of innovative products emerging, as measured by the number of patents and industrial designs. This is a causal relation.

Given that postgraduate graduation is a necessary condition for innovation and industrialisation, it is important to explore how one can design mechanisms that will increase and capacitate postgraduate graduates.

Identify potential postgraduate students early, when they are still at undergraduate level, and employ them as research assistants so that they experience what a research career is all about. They should participate in postgraduate seminars and be involved in aspects of research work, even if it is at a small scale such as taking readings in a research experiment. At this stage, introduce them to the research community by sending them to conferences, even if these are local.

Nurture diversity
A strategy to capacitate postgraduate students is to create a diverse team in terms of nationality, race, gender, academic backgrounds and religion. This will open students’ minds and promote innovation. It will enable the students to see the world through multidimensional lenses and thus empower students with skills to confront problems with diverse strategies.

How does a supervisor build such a diverse group of students?

First, it is important to be open to new ideas and be willing to recruit students not only domestically but also internationally. Second, the supervisor must be willing to collaborate with other researchers, especially internationally. Third, the supervisor should transcend disciplinary boundaries to create a multidisciplinary team. For example, it is often beneficial to have a mathematician on a team of engineering students. Of course, certain disciplines such as artificial intelligence, which involve computer science, psychology and biological sciences, are better aligned to building multidisciplinary teams than others such as mathematics. 

Building research student teams requires financial resources because the team not only needs to be paid a stipend, but also requires well-equipped laboratories, running costs and to attend conferences. Research students also require financial resources to make postgraduate studies successful.

Science councils such as the National Research Foundation and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research have research grants that are open to academics. It is also important for academics to get grants in the private sector and internationally.

Getting access to grants requires that the research to be conducted is in line with the companies’ objectives. In this regard, academics should spend time in industry trying to understand what it needs and use this information to apply for grants that will be used to support postgraduate students and research projects.

Offer students internal experience, which can be achieved by making them participate in international conferences. Participation in these is best done after students have conducted a substantial body of work that can be presented. This is because it is generally fruitless to send postgraduate students to international conferences if they do not have papers to present.

International experience
Another mechanism of giving students international experience is to put them on exchange programmes where an overseas students come to laboratories at South African universities and local students to go to overseas laboratories. I have often found that this is best done if there are ongoing collaboration relationships between academics from different countries.

The National Research Foundation has bilateral agreements with sister institutions overseas to promote mobility of students and staff.

Conducting research that matters is a good way to attract excellent students. For example, problems that define our times, such as big data, the internet of things, climate change or poverty, seem to attract students.

Documents such as the Millennium Development Goals and World Economic Forum reports are also good reference sources about the issues. One can even use technologies such as topic identification software to identify problems that are attracting attention and thus have potential to mobilise resources, though this should perhaps be treated with caution because we cannot know in advance which research will actually matter in the future.

Despite all these strategies, the most important instrument to attract good postgraduate students is actually to do good research. 

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the deputy vice-chancellor of research, innovation, postgraduate studies and the library of the University of Johannesburg. He recently received the Champion of Research Capacity Development and Transformation at South African Higher Education Institutions award from the National Research Foundation

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