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It’s okay to get help—you don’t have to journey on this alone

By Hafeni Mthoko

When I started out on my masters journey, which morphed into the PhD I was overwhelmed by the myriad of possibilities on what this journey could look like. I knew I had more to learn and more to give but wasn’t too clear on how I would go about it. I eventually met with my supervisor, and we started talking about potential topics and I finally settled on one – off we go, let the journey begin. I thought…I’m now officially a research candidate, I’m going to solve a world problem and make an impact in the world. I got this, it’s my process, my journey so I need to take responsibility. Much like my undergraduate years I felt to some extent that I needed to go on this journey on my own, and that the only other person part of this process with me was my supervisor. I needed to have it all together and have all the answers, and if not, then my supervisor definitely should have all the answers. I quickly started becoming boxed in by my research and fully consumed by the PhD, while realising how lonely the journey could get. I started to question whether there was more to this PhD world beyond the lonely path I was clearly going down on.

My PhD world started to open up when I met my dear friend Sirkka and she invited me to a research seminar in their department – completely different department, different field, and different area of interest. I was in Information Systems, and she was in Environmental Education. But somehow, I was able to relate and connect to the discussions that were being had. I felt like I entered into a new PhD world where there were questions I wasn’t asking, there were considerations I hadn’t even given a ounce of thought, yet were crucial to my own growth and the refining of my thesis. Ever since that initial workshop I was hooked and started seeking out other workshop/seminar opportunities; I started to talk a bit more about my research with different people (beyond my supervisor) and slowly becoming a bit more confident in what I knew and what I was yet to understand that could help me in my journey.

I also began to realise that there were other research support opportunities out there that I wasn’t aware of and I signed up for EVERYTHING, I mean EVERYTHING. I wanted to get this PhD thing right. I was tired of being confused, tired of not knowing what to do, tired of doubting whether I was making any meaningful contribution (gosh that dreaded “what’s your contribution” question).

Things got a bit crazy trying to consume everything out there.

"Information overload is a real thing."

But it was refreshing to know that I wasn’t alone and I don’t have to go about the process alone – that the journey extends beyond me and my supervisor. Who would have thought that allowing myself to look beyond my little boxed in world I could see my PhD from new and fresh perspectives – that there is so much more about the PhD than the argument I’m trying to make or merely submitting that thesis.

It took a while, but I came to terms with the fact that I shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for help and make connections. I shouldn’t be afraid to ‘see’ the opportunities all around me that I can leverage and work in my favour to thrive in the PhD. There were different avenues that I was slowly starting to appreciate.

  • Lean onto family: Even though my family didn’t quite understand what was taking soo long to just “write” some words on “some” couple of pages and submit; they were a good reminder that there is more to life than the eat-drink-sleep thesis mode I found myself in a few times 😊

  • Hang out with like-minded and not so like-minded friends: In a way it was therapeutic to rant and talk to friends who were also working on a thesis and just talk to people who got me. But at the same time it was good to be around people who had no idea what being Piled Higher and Deeper was like (credit to PhD comics) who could challenge me in whole new ways and also just bring a breathe of fresh air to my PhD world.

  • Research communities: Tapping into different research communities was a game changer; I got to meet new people, come across very interesting research work that I could incorporate in my research process or was just fun to know. I also got exposed to further training on being and becoming a researcher.

  • Loosen up: Sometimes just letting go and learning to REST can go a long way. On those days where I questioned my sanity for even enrolling in a PhD I would scroll through comics on PhD Comics and just have a good laugh, which was always a good reminder that I need not be so serious all the time.

  • Get a mentor: Mentors come in different forms and it’s a worthwhile investment in oneself and one’s journey.

So get connected because this process is so much better done together rather than on your own.

What has helped you stay connected? What avenues are you tapping into in order to thrive during the PhD rather than just surviving the PhD?

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