How to complete your doctorate while serving in the Cabinet

(John McCann/M&G)

(John McCann/M&G)

Naledi Pandor, the minister of international relations and co-operation and previously the minister of higher education, reflects on her journey of getting her PhD in education as a mature student ­— and offers prospective doctoral students encouragement and practical tips

I have been overwhelmed by the many people who have congratulated me for completing doctoral studies and expressed their commitment to follow suit. I am thrilled that, of these, the larger number have been people under the age of 30. If they do act on this commitment, then the four years of little sleep, no weekends and missed meals will have been worth it.

When I decided to act on my long-held intention to pursue doctoral studies in 2014, I had just turned 60.
I said to myself: “If you don’t do it now, you never will.” I had found the rhythm of my work life and believed I could weave the needs of my intended studies into that rhythm. Being somewhat of a control addict, my belief was: “I can do this.”

I am writing this piece rather reluctantly but I suspect it may become one of a few on my journey. I found that all doctoral students I spoke to in our group, as well as several of the professors, referred to the PhD studies as a “journey”.

Some said it with a sigh, others with a brief chuckle, but they all seemed to mean it. I should indicate you will feel exhausted more often than not; you will feel discouraged at times, but if you keep on making the effort, you will do it.

Before deciding to apply I spoke to several colleagues and academics whom I held in high regard; people I knew would tell me whether I had the ability and emerging ideas that would make it rational to apply to a university. I set out my interest in developing a deeper understanding of higher education and the issues confronting South Africa. I wrote out pages on my initial thoughts and they kindly read these seriously.

Some of those I spoke to tried to dissuade me. “You don’t need a PhD” and “You are so busy,” they said. But I wanted to do this because I had a bug that required my response. To those who may be feeling the same way, my advice to you is: “Don’t be denied an incredible learning experience such as this one. It’s tough but you will feel so fulfilled.”

One of the professors who gave me real time was Mokubung Nkomo, who, at the time, was at Unisa as an ombudsman for the institution. He said he would think about my ideas and who might be a suitable supervisor. His feedback was invaluable and led me to the University of Pretoria (UP) and Professor Chika Sehoole. I applied and registered in 2015. At the time I thought I would get the research done in three years. I hadn’t learnt about the journey then.

Pursuing a PhD is tough. It is akin to a solemn undertaking and you will know you are really serious when you begin to do all of the following. You have to remember, at this point I was 61 in a postgraduate group of really sharp, recent master’s graduates.

Begin by reading a few serious books and articles that focus on your specific field to gauge your level of interest. Resolve to absorb lots of turgid readings and decode them. When you initially apply, you have to provide a reasonable outline of your previous work and current interests. Write this with due care, because it initiates your entry to this journey.

I knew my weak points were inadequacy of research-methodology concepts and processes, and limited practice in writing long, coherent narratives and reports. I visited libraries wherever I could and asked librarians to guide me.

There are also many popular books on research methods for PhD study. I bought several and borrowed some from colleagues I had told of my intention to study. I told only two ministerial colleagues because I did not want many people to know, in case I flopped or gave up.

When I had begun handing a few chapters in I told the president, who was then deputy president, just so that I could explain my fatigued look.

UP offers amazing support to postgraduate students. I had decided I would be a proper student and experience the entire process of doing a PhD. I joined the registration queue each January and withstood the amazed stares. I paid my fees and walked to lecture rooms with my loaded briefcase. Students and staff looked, but few approached me because they thought the person they were seeing must be a relative of mine.

The faculty of education has a series of contact sessions that are presented over three to four days with incredible lecturers, advice and discussion. They are a must-attend. It was here that I first met new PhD students such as myself, as well as a few master’s students.

On the first day of these sessions I walked in and the room went eerily silent. I found a seat, greeted a few students, took out my notebook and got ready to learn. After two days everyone knew I was not attending to give a talk but was a student, just like all of them.

Some were in the second year of their research and used the contact sessions to brush up. I chatted with them, seeking tips, reassurance and guidelines. I soon learned we were all as nervous as each other and much as they would talk to you, they were not keen to go into detailed discussion about their work. This is your journey and it can be lonely, so be sure you wish to pursue it.

The contact sessions include a session in which you present your intended topic and discuss it with other students, lecturers and your supervisor. That was a scary moment. All these bright people who have been presenting in the sessions are listening to your as-yet-unformed thinking and probing your proposed topic and ideas.

One lecturer, who I had noted as a very astute and confident scholar, questioned me on my topic, asking what the intended outcome was. I was mortified when he hinted I had not done enough or was not convincing. He caused me to think again. So, in my individual session with my supervisor, we went over that discussion and formulated an amended topic.

These were humbling experiences. I think I was a little shallow initially but I soon came to realise that depth is critical in this process. Listen and be ready to alter your ideas and to learn from your peers and the university staff.

The library staff were amazing. To a degree, they treat PhD students with modest reverence, suggesting you are a precious resource for the institution. I sometimes went there just for solace.

One of my regrets is that because of my work schedule I did not get to sit in the library as often as I wished — I plan to remedy that sometime. The staff taught us how to find journals and academic websites and introduced us to the wealth of information available.

The initial contact sessions ease you into postgraduate studies, then the later sessions begin demanding more of you. One of the huge tasks is writing your proposal. The professors and supervisor advised that you must do some substantial reading and thinking before writing your proposal, because it should provide insights into your intended research, your approach and the processes you plan to follow. It must also include the research questions you seek answers to, your planned timetable and some detail on the rationale for your study.

When they directed us to begin preparing this document of 30 to 40 pages, I and some fellow students thought this was eminently doable. I thought six weeks would be ample time. Was I wrong.

Another lesson: don’t assume you know it all. As PhD students we often have work or other experience and may believe we understand our field of expertise well, so we can perform critical tasks easily.

I should have noted earlier in this piece that you should select your supervisor carefully: they are an extremely valuable companion on this journey. Some postgraduate students report harrowing experiences with their supervisors. Some tell you of critiques of their work that simply humiliate rather than assist them to produce a quality product.

I had a great supervisor. He came highly recommended too. When we first met he kept calling me “minister” and I told him: “You are my supervisor, I am your PhD student and my name is Naledi.”

I had read a few books on how to pursue and complete PhD studies successfully. Such books are helpful but your reality will be your reality. I chatted to my supervisor and gauged whether he would be accommodating of my work obligations, my strange working hours of early morning and really late at night, my penchant for long text messages and likely delays in submissions.

He indicated awareness of these issues and said he would be able to guide and push me; that deadlines would be set and quality work was expected. I liked that he expected the best from me and insisted on it by making me rewrite more than once. The critiques were tough. I remember my disappointment when he did not approve of my chapter four — even draft nine did not make the cut.

I am straying from the research proposal part of my journey. It did not take me six weeks: it was nearly eight months of writing, rewriting and submitting. By then the topic had been refined with commentary from some of Sehoole’s colleagues in the education faculty, as well as other academics in the field. I remember one professor in the contact sessions saying: “I would not be happy to see your proposal if you have not read, at minimum, a hundred articles.” Well, I tried but that proved too tall an order in that first year.

By July I was panicking about my proposal. One of the most challenging tasks was deciding on the research questions.

One needs to give careful thought to these, because they play a critical role in shaping your research work and influence the content and shape of your thesis. They are not as easy to draft as a set of interview questions; they are a substantive reflection of that which you plan to investigate.

A useful tip is to read theses in the library: they tell you what has been studied and which issues need further exploration. I handed in my proposal in early November and discovered I would have to present it to a panel of professors, who would give the final stamp of approval.

We were invited to sit in on the presentations by other doctoral students. I still felt unsure of my knowledge of methodology and regretted sitting in for a presentation by one really fantastic student, who rattled off quantitative and qualitative distinctions and outlined his chosen data-gathering process and extensive reading on interpretive approaches. Yoh, I almost ran from the room.

Fortunately, there were two more students presenting before me, so I calmed down. The members of the panel took their role seriously and asked tough questions — even of that really good student.

Nevertheless, I presented my proposal and spoke about my slides. I indicated upfront that I still needed to bed down my research methods and relevant detail but was able to set out the topic and all relevant aspects adequately.

In posing questions, the panel members also made suggestions as to how I should approach aspects of my research and proposed additional elements.

There were some ideas I really disagreed with, but I must confess I did not robustly defend my ideas or express my disagreement. I said I would consider the panel’s suggestions, because I was feeling a need to be judicious at that point. I got through the process with a few changes that needed to be effected. I was so happy.

After the panel I had a meeting with my supervisor. He asked me: “Naledi, do you believe in your study topic?” I said: “Yes, I do, professor.” He then said: “Don’t let others dictate to you; defend your work.”

I made sure I stood up for my thoughts and ideas in future deliberations. He empowered me, not to stubbornly hold on, but to have prepared sufficiently so that I asserted my thinking.

Following the approval of the proposal, I proceeded to prepare to conduct my research and began writing up towards the beginning of 2016. There were many months of hard work. I gathered data through interviews and used secondary sources. On the subject of interviews: if you use your cellphone, remember to press record. I forgot once — and it was a great interview. Fortunately, I did follow a tip from one of my doctoral guide books and took notes in every interview. That saved me. Also, choose interview venues and times carefully. Don’t repeat my mistakes of selecting a noisy corner in a hotel lounge, or an office where everyone wants a selfie.

Some of my interviewees did not think I was really conducting serious research, so they would be quite casual when answering the first two questions but they soon realised that I was a serious student and was gathering data. Also, I knew many of the people I interviewed, so I had to explain my position before getting into the work and assured them they must be frank and detailed.

I have amazing data for more work down the line, thanks to one of my dearest support providers encouraging me to record as much as I could, including my invaluable discussions with my supervisor. I would listen to our exchanges whenever I was uncertain and get some inspiration.

It was not plain sailing and I confess to feeling exhausted as I recall much of it here. Like that Sunday when I had freed my whole day for writing and asked my husband to take care of preparing lunch. But in the pile of all my articles it took me three whole hours to find the one I needed desperately.

I had neglected my father’s advice, given to me a long time ago: “Naledi, get a box of index cards and note author, title, et cetera in alphabetical order by subject so you can [search] with ease.”

I improved my filing after that Sunday.

Also, there were those times when my work schedule stopped my writing. My supervisor sent reminders of dates and even accepted early drafts to assess whether I was on track. Don’t give up, I learnt. Then there is the fatigue of constant work and dips in eagerness. “Just picture that day [of graduation],” said some new PhD graduates in encouragement.

I handed in my thesis in November 2018, four years later. I felt that I was not quite competent because I had gone well beyond my planned three years. I take comfort from those who say four years is still good.

But handing in is not the end: the dreaded unknown editor makes an entrance. I thought I was a credible writer until my editor’s comments arrived. It felt like writing parts of the thesis again. But I made the corrections and submitted my thesis. I told the president that I, known as chief editor in Cabinet, had been humbled by the editor.

Then it was time to submit it to three external examiners. These twists and turns test you but they are worth all that effort. Hats off to my supervisor, the entire team at the faculty of education and everyone at the University of Pretoria — even the canteen staff, who would make a lovely flower on the foam of my cappuccino.

I won’t forget that day in late 2018 when I told the security guard outside the education faculty: “Ntate, re tla kopana ha ke ya graduation [Sir, we’ll meet at the graduation].”

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