Postgraduate venture can be a lonely road

We are relational beings and our studies can sometimes take that relational aspect away from us.
A certain Dr in my department once warned his students that “being a postgraduate student is a very lonely place to be”, for some reason, I thought he must be out of his mind. This is more reason to celebrate not having to be in classes at a certain time, no assignments and tutorials. Heck! I anticipated that it would be heavenly working in solitude. Numerous times we are advised to take time out and be on our own because we exist in a busy and a very loud world as human beings. Of course by now we have learned that life is only perfected when we exist betwixt the contradictions, the opposites, so loudness has to be counteracted with quietness, distance with closeness etc however that balance is hard to keep.
I was convinced that loneliness was going to be exactly what I needed. But nothing prepared me for the real loneliness, where I had to face the nothingness, living only in my mind. I made time for friends but I wasn’t the same everything was always time controlled, anxiety and depression kicked in, and for some odd reason I had lost my balance. Life was dull not only that but I became more unproductive and wasted so much time keeping to my discipline.
See the problem was, I was not even aware that I was fading away to antisocialism until I was deep in it. With the help of google, I diagnosed myself using the symptoms I was already experiencing and discovered that I was so right deep in it “stressed” because I had cut myself away from being relational. But eventually when I snapped out of it I knew I had to change the way things were going. First I had to admit that it was lonely, I did not have conversation partners to discuss my thesis with, I saw my friends once in a lifetime only when I felt there was time, well, the love department was the worst. The journey of seeking information can pull you in so deep that you can easily lose your flow, and more especially feel yourself slipping away from what makes you real and human.
So after having gone through this experience, I could better advice my fellow postgrads to make time for fun, you need it to stay in touch with life n everything around you. Make time for love, love is the closest thing to God and it nurtures ours souls, make time for friends, because friends serve as motivation and inspiration they breathe life back into us when we are low, lastly make time for brainstorming with great minds who are willing to engage you and challenge your topic so that you cover the blind spots in your research project

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The Light at the End


July has come to an end and for many of us, this is quite a frightening time during which we have to finish up, make the last changes and keep every finger, toe and limb crossed for the acceptance of our final submissions. I am still busy writing the last chapter of my thesis and as stressful, hopeless and ultimately nerve-wracking as it may feel, I have learnt an extremely valuable lesson which I would like to share: always (and I mean always) have something to look forward to. It might be meeting with a friend later in the week or fixing yourself a healthy and appetising snake OR (ultimately) crawling into bed after finishing your thesis goal for the day. No matter how small or insignificant it may seem, make sure there is something to look forward each day and work towards it. By no means am I suggesting that you should get tied up making excuses not to work or devise intricate strategies of procrastination. Keep on working, but when it feels overwhelming, find something exciting or worthwhile to keep you motivated. It will keep you sane during the tough parts of this process. And if all else fails, keep your submission date in mind as your final end goal.

Keep in mind, “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire”.

This post was created by Marijke

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“The fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself… no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.” Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

The alchemist is a fable of a boy who endures immense misfortune and discomfort to pursue his dream. This is one of the most beautiful qualities of the millennial generation (1981-onwards). This is a generation who will not tolerate meaningless actions and a stoic mindset to work ethics. This is a generation who drops certainty, stability and comfort of a partner, just any job, 2.5 children and a house.

Sometimes this generation is described as lazy and less hardworking than the boomers. I disagree. I think that this generation is one that follows the misty, opaque and difficult path of dreams. Not the shared collective dreams of  the boomers that wanted the average humdrum life, but their own unique dream. Millennials can become listless if they don’t know what their dream is, because This generation wants more than survival, it wants to live.

In South Africa I think that there may be more difficulty attaining this dream, maybe a bit more sacrifice. Many of my friends, work more than one job, often work that they abhor in order to work towards their dream. I met a man that dreams of being a rapper who works in a kitchen as a pizza chef. He raps in the community hall and at small events to keep his dream alive. I know a person who works as a waiter, a research assistant and studies their undergraduate in psychology to some day become one. I know of a person who walks 15-20km every day to both work and studies an online diploma to become an entrepreneur. I, myself work several jobs and am studying an MA degree for my dream.

Millenials are not lazy when they find themselves hunting their dream. I’m not saying sometimes studying or working is not tiring, frustrating and difficult or that sometimes we feel overwhelmed by it all. I’m saying that it’s worth it, because it will get us there.

“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight.”

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

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“Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life.”

Some times, just some times, all you need is poetry. This particular piece gets me going, it gives me 40/40 vision about many a thing in life. It is from this minute fountain i ask you to drink from and it is a poem by St Francis of Assisi!

Poetry  is all that is worth remembering in life.


Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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We are not machines

Studying the science of life can become quite troublesome at times. The more you discover about its molecular underpinnings, the less of one you seem to have. This gets complicated even further when you do pathology based research, i.e. you realise everything can give you cancer. Therefore, many molecular biologists are forever trapped in a complex universe of experimental procedure and paranoia. One can easily start to prioritise the agonising hours of grunt work over writing up a coherent thesis or collaborating with more experienced researchers, leading to a continuous spiral of optimisation rather than a journey of novel discovery.

Currently, science postgraduates are heavily plagued by the skill requirements for industry jobs or grant approvals. So much so that their quest for knowledge is replaced with the development of new techniques or analysis tools that only enhance experimental procedure. Which is great for both data output and industry, although in my experience, such development is often done more for the sake of one’s CV than it is for saving mankind. As a result, the actual writing and integration component of research seems to be lost. Article writing has become replaced with mere data reporting and subsequently, the development of a potential cure for disease becomes synonymous with becoming a human cyborg.

Given that many of our once valued human abilities have become automated –from computation (thanks Turning), to driving (thanks Google), to even article writing (thanks but no thanks Auto Writer) – one can imagine that becoming more robot-like might be the dream of many a researcher. More quality data produced in less time equals a more prestigious career. When taking into account the surplus of PhDs and Postdocs for the actual amount of research jobs available, the environment becomes cut-throat[1]. Adding to this dilemma is that, over time, cyborgs lose the ability to feel. Changing the environment from cut-throat to apocalyptic.

Taking all of this over exaggeration into account, it becomes quite apparent why scientific journal articles -and scientists themselves, for that matter- are often described as cold and blunt. Conveying statistical significance is not exactly something one does with great poetic flurry, especially when you are competing with machines for deadlines. So, seeing as technology is here to stay, what can one do to prosper in such a rigorous atmosphere? With no offence to Darwin, adaption nowadays is fairly easy. Simply right some code and survive. However, making a legitimate novel contribution to your field and becoming successful takes something beyond the binary.

As early as 1878, J.H. van’t Hoff, who would later become the first Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry in 1901, stated that scientific imagination is directly dependent on creative activities outside of science. Many know about Einstein’s love for the violin, yet this held true for many other Nobel laureates, such as Wilhelm Ostwald (1909) and Ramon y Cajal (1951) [2]. Even the late celebrity scientist Carl Sagan, when asked why he included a music record on the Voyager 1 space probe in 1977, was quoted on saying that we are feeling creatures. Which was made quite evident by Richard Feynman’s constant bongo playing. Upon further investigation, this trend seems to stay constant for scientists who haven’t made the headlines (yet). It turns out that the National Institute of Health, better known for their cutting edge medical research, realised it had so many musically gifted staff-scientists that they formed their own philharmonic orchestra in 2005 [3].

It seems as though the secret to being an exceptional scientist is to invest more time one’s ability to feel. Be it through music, art or dancing. It has been well established that playing a musical instrument relieves stress and enhances neuronal plasticity, which can enhance problem solving skills and make a person more efficient when working under pressure[4].

So, next time you feel like giving up and letting the machines take over, pick up that old guitar in your friend’s living room. Join a choir on campus (we have about five of them). Graffiti inspirational quotes on your bedroom wall. Start writing a blog. Anything that will keep your creativity alive. And before you know it, you’re thesis might just become a bit more bearable. You might even make a breakthrough. All through being more human.

 “The greatest scientists are artists as well.”-Albert Einstein

1) Powel, K. (2015). The future of the postdoc. Nature News Feature. 520, 144-147.
2) Root-Bernstein et al. (2008). Arts foster scientific success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society and Sigma Xi Members. Journal of Psychology of Science and Technolgoy 1(2), 51-63.
4) Wan, C.K. and Schlaug, G. Music Making as a Tool for Promoting Brain Plasticity across the Life Span. The Neuroscientist. 16(5), 566–577.

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Sleep on it!


sleeping person

“Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”—Thomas Dekker

A good night’s sleep is often considered a luxury rather than a necessity, especially in when there are deadlines to meet or a TV series to catch up on. However, getting enough sleep is an essential for your emotional, psychological, and physical well-being—even more important than the food you eat [1]. Amnesty International recognizes sleep deprivation as a form of torture [1]—yet many of us subject ourselves to this without a second thought.

Why do we need sleep?

Sleep allows our bodies to restore, rebuild, or replace that which we burned up during the day. Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, explains that numerous of genes associated with restoration and metabolic pathways have been shown to be turned on only during sleep [2]. A lack of sleep, conversely, affects our mood , our cognitive capacity, and our productivity—all for the worse [3]. In fact, Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson found that top performers (in this case violinists) slept an average of 8 ½ hours a day and reported that sleep was the second most important factor in improving their skills (deliberate practice still takes first place) [1]. Thus getting enough sleep translates into greater productivity: it restores your cognitive functions, helps you be less stressed and fatigued (which greatly impairs productivity), and puts you in a better mood :)

Getting enough sleep?

A good sign that you’re not getting enough sleep is the when you find it difficult to get up in the mornings, rely on stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine to help wake up, or if you find that you are generally grumpy and irritable in mornings [3].

A few things you can do to ensure that you enough sleep is [1][2][3]:

  1. Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark—this helps your brain and body adjust and prepare for sleep.
  2. Limit stimulants (such as caffeine and nicotine) late in day as this will interrupt your sleep cycle
  3. Limit the use of electronics at least ½ hour before going to bed (it has the same effects as stimulants).
  4. Start winding down at least 45 minutes before you go to sleep.


[1] Schwartz, T. (2011, March 3). Sleep is more important than food. Harvard Business Review

[2] Foster, R. (2013, June) Why do we sleep?. TEDGlobal 2013.

[3] Fryer, B. (2006, October). Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer. Harvard Business Review.

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How to find a balance as a Post-Grad

Not many students who do Post-graduate degree can find the necessary balance in their life. This can be due to numerous reasons, a few being having to work while doing a post grad, having an extremely demanding post grad and finding the flexi-time seems to leak into your off time.

I find my degree to be less demanding than some of the other Post-grad courses, but I have to work to pay for all my living costs and to cover the cost of my degree. Last year I experienced burn out for the second time in my life. This is not something that suddenly appears and slaps you in the face. One day there will be an almost imperceptible difference in energy and motivation, and then days pass and weeks pass you by and you seem to find difficulty getting out of bed. The idea of work makes you feel needles of distress and fatigue prickle your skull and your neck.

When you do manage to get out of bed, you sometimes feel assaulted with lightheadedness and dizziness. When you finally find yourself in front of a computer to type your thesis or when you need to do work related to your job, you find your focus so poor it’s like grasping at a lathered up bar of soap, the harder you try focus and tighten your mental grip, the faster you loose your focus. You feel like you’re hopelessly floundering at tasks that were so simple before, and you long for the respite of sleep, which you secretly hope might just transform into a coma.

How I brought back balance in my life in seven very doable steps

  1. I made getting enough sleep the rule, rather than the exception- I won’t tell you to get 8 hours, you know your body best and what your body finds as the best amount to feel fully rested.
  2. I made sure that I had a day off every week. (Sunday) A day off means, no cooking, no cleaning and absolutely no work. This is your day, do things that you find relaxing. It also helps you to push through, by something to look forward to, when you’re having a bad day.
  3. Take up a healthy diet. I’m not saying don’t eat junk food ever. I’m saying eat healthy 5 out of 7 times a week. Eat green vegetables as a preventative to colds. Eat carbohydrates to maintain energy during the day. Eat sugar (fruit) so that your sugar levels don’t dip too low.
  4. Exercise about three times a week. I often found that if I had difficulty with a problem in my thesis, I could sit in front of my laptop the entire day and still not have enough mental energy to engage in it. After taking a jog I would feel mentally refreshed and would find the solution much quicker than if I had just sat, chastised myself for being unproductive and wallowed in my guilt. Even though you are taking time away from your work, it speeds up production time and you feel energized afterwards.
  5. Take about 30 minutes every day and just exist. I prefer doing this in the morning with coffee. Don’t frantically look at your schedule and start mentally going through your to do list. This tires you out before you even started on your day. Sit in bed, sip on coffee, or tea, and just be. I sometimes read a bit of Terry Pratchett at this time, but do something that you find relaxing, that doesn’t involve thought.
  6. If you have a full time job and are studying or doing many part time jobs and studying (I’ve experienced both) learn how to schedule a month in advance. I can’t stress how important this is to do. It leads to less stress knowing that you have everything scheduled in. Also you don’t waste your time on the first day of every week, thinking about how exactly you are going to fit all the things you need to do in. There is also a tendency for things to sneak up on you and then you end up with an impossible week and feel worse for not being able to do everything that we needed to do, or seem, to your boss, like a person who shirks their responsibilities.
  7. Forgive yourself, and accept that you are human. We are conscious and resilient beings, capable of amazing feats. We are also flawed. We get tired for no reason sometimes,we get sick, we get bored, we get stuck, we just don’t feel like it and we wallow in self pity. When you feel any one of those days come up and end up being extremely unproductive. As a result of doing less than you should you may feel the guilt start swelling up inside you, just forgive yourself and accept that just like all those people who seem to be perfect have their off days as well.
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‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’ – Winston Churchill Using Post-Graduate Work as a Distraction

Having recently received upsetting news, I feel quite dark about the future. Although I’m trying to put my situation in perspective by using those tedious tricks of reminding myself that my life is far easier than many others’, I still sit with the overbearing weight of disappointment. As I’m struggling to write this, I am realising that my research is what’s keeping me going. If ever life hits you like a mallet in the face, give yourself the time and space to wallow, cry and sulk, but try not to let the darkness envelope your light. In order to prevent this from happening, distract yourself with your work. Use your emotions and anger to channel your intellectual capabilities and grind the coarse and uneven plains of your mind. By doing this, you might just realise the exciting possibilities and routes in which your research could direct you.

If ever you feel uncomfortable with writing about a section of your work, remember to wear your ‘disciplinary goggles’ and write from your own perspective. Take your past experiences, knowledge and write from the heart (please excuse the excessive corniness of the phrase but accept it for what it is). By doing this, you will abstain from losing your voice which will prevent you falling into the comfortable pattern of regurgitating awkward academic jargon which neither you nor the reader/examiner might understand.

What I’m trying to get at is that you should embrace this thesis of yours in such a way that it forms part of not only your intellectual life, but your emotional and social experiences. Speak about your work to close friends and family. Try not to overdo it as you might lose friends and alienate people, but include others in your research. They might just add interesting perspectives on that which you’re focusing most of your brain capacity on. Placing your academic work in layman’s terms is another valuable skill to acquire, so be bold and invite others to share in the excitement of your work. Even if you’re feeling lost and frustrated, speak to a good, intelligent and inspiring friend. They might share some fresh perspectives on your academic crisis which could just uplift you from your dire situation* (*this too has saved me from quitting my studies).

In order to conclude this post, I will share the realisation which has just dawned on me. Writing out your emotions and placing your situation in a positive light (i.e. finding realistic solutions to and reasons for the crisis) speeds up the emotional recovery process. Another way of dealing with a tough time is by extending your help to others. Make sure to pay close attention to the needs and emotions of those you. Life works in mysterious ways and will provide you with the means to escape your strife – you just have to open your eyes, mind and heart to the opportunities to aid others. And if ever you feel as if life is being overly greedy with its toll, keep the wise words of Winston Churchill in the forefront of your mind and keep on keeping on. Once you have the chance to look back at a tough time and how you pushed through it, nothing can replace that pride and feeling of satisfaction.

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My Masters Degree, the consequence of my existential crisis

“To live is to suffer, to find meaning in life is to find meaning in suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying.” Viktor Frankl 

I have always related well to the concepts of existentialism. The belief that life is meaningless and empty. People choose to see the negativity in this theory, but it illuminates the darkness and lights a shallow candle, in the path of knowledge for me. I find it extremely liberating being confronted with meaninglessness and having to create a unique meaning in my life.

One of the precepts of existentialism is to find your personal meaning. At times it seems stoic to find a purpose and assiduously pursue it, but I would find happiness fleeting if it had no meaning, or wasn’t done for my greater purpose. As I am sure you deduced from this title that my meaning and purpose is my fervent pursuit of my MA degree. I won’t lie to you, dear reader, and pretend that it has been a smooth journey, with just laughter and ebullience. There have been times of exhalation, success and ecstasy, but countless are the tears, the hunched shoulders, the eye twitches and the pure sweat of labor.

Why then would I pursue and attempt to slay this elusive beast, because it is my existential calling and it is my meaning. I gave up a comfortable job and life to enter into the tough terrain of academia. I have returned to no funding and scraping and scrabbling about to cover ends.

There are times, I feel that I have been given a twig to fight a brawny, enormous and truly malicious troll,  yet I find there is no boundary to my happiness when I succeed with a chapter, or even a mere sentence.

Oh the melodramatic pitless depth of my sorrow when my supervisor sends me those red highlighted comments. Could my misery be any more complete? Perhaps… In those gap years I never felt with such ardor as I had when studying, and I would rather feel with the full passion and vigor of my youth, than live the grey monotony of wake up, work, eat, work, eat and sleep. This is the existential vacuum that my MA degree has saved me from, and perhaps if I’m a true protagonist, I will triumph and pass this journey; and then I will follow the yellow brick road (Phd) and just like Dorthy, I will have many adventures on the way (and perhaps come across bigger and meaner trolls)

“what then is man? He is a being who continuously decides what he is: a being who equally harbors the potential to descend to the level of a beast or to ascend to the life of a saint.” Viktor Frankl

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Through the Roof and Underground – How to Stay Afloat with Thesis Writing

Amidst all the student protests and the unhappiness expressed by people at universities across the country, one comes to realise two great privileges, being able to study and at that, do research on a post-graduate level. However, as best we may try to count our blessings every day, post-graduate work is no walk in the park and you have to keep your head above water despite the difficulty of juggling your work, doing general life admin, persevering with those tedious domestic duties, upholding pleasant and beneficial social interactions and paying attention to your hobbies (as to not lose your soul during the course of your research).

As a second year masters student, I have made two very important decisions: I will not easily ‘jump’ into a PhD (i.e. I will keep my distance as best I can) and I will enjoy myself during the last two years as a student (in my early twenties). To continue with the latter train of thought, I was quite ready to quit my studies last year in March as I felt like Atlas who just couldn’t get to shrug the world and its dirt off his shoulders. I had an ensuing argument with myself and the decision was made, to go to AfrikaBurn at the end of April for a period of 6 days. This might sound like the most cliché or rubbish story, but that week in the desert made me realise how very small and insignificant we all are.  I took that thought further and realised how small and insignificant my masters was in the bigger picture of life and that instead of considering it as this enormous challenge which will consume my final two years at Stellenbosch, I decided to take it in my stride and run with it as best I can.

So here I am in the second year of my masters, having finished my first chapter and starting with the second. I plan to go to AfrikaBurn once more this year to meet up with friends who have left Stellenbosch to pursue their studies and careers elsewhere. Furthermore, I try to attend as many interesting events and make plans to travel around the Western Cape as often as possible in order to keep my mind occupied with different thoughts and interactions. I am also busy branching out my research into the greater scope of my field (which is art theory/visual studies) as a means to extend my work past the narrow confines of the academic world.

Being a 7th year student I have bid most of my close friends adieu as they have consequently entered the world of work or taken the gap to travel to the far corners of the world (creating, for instance, Stellenbosch 2.0. in Hsinchu, Taiwan). Thus I am forced to step out of my (very cosy) comfort zone and try to make friends with the few post-grad students who haven’t slipped into the clandestine cracks of academic elitism (i.e. those who don’t take their age or their rank too seriously). As of late, that has been the most interesting and taxing experience of my masters. But I try take that challenge as a sign that this should (must/has to be) my last year in Stellenbosch (for now, haha).

The point which I am trying to make is that you should never force yourself into the dark corners of your mind (we all have them) and realise how amazing it is to be given the chance to do research on that which is of real interest and importance to you. You are given the time, space and opportunity to take 2 years (or more) to focus on something that really matters to you and/or that can benefit you in the long run. Make it yours as far as possible and please don’t forget to have fun. Use this time to your benefit and milk it for all it’s worth.

– “Be Bold and the Mighty Forces will Come to your Aid” – Goethe

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