I moved from South Africa to undertake PhD research at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. Like my blog description says, my research focuses on the South African context. A couple of people have asked me why I’m doing a PhD in the UK if I’m focusing on South Africa. A bit of a bizarre question on the surface, given the transnational nature of information today. But it is a legitimate query.
There are a couple of reasons why I chose to study here. On a pragmatic level I received funding to base myself at Sussex. I would have had to have been several degrees of stupid to turn this down.
On an idealistic level I appreciate the liberal and interdisciplinary history of Sussex, and I enjoy the youthful and socially-committed nature of research within the School of Media, Film and Music.
On an experiential level I felt it would be highly beneficial to gain a critically distanced perspective on the South Africa context. Although my field work will be immersive, I think that gaining insight from an institution (and country) with strong historical links to South Africa will be incredibly helpful. During research for my MA in South Africa I often felt that discourses of race overshadowed other issues of identity and consideration – completely to be expected, given how important discussions of race are in the South African context. However, for my PhD I want to remain critical of race as well as the intersection of other identities, subjectivities, and experiences.
Finally, on a personal level, I love the liberal, queer dynamic of Brighton and Sussex. And I’ve always wanted to live for an extended period in the UK and be able to explore some aspects of my heritage.
Shifting to the UK education system has been a bit of an adjustment. I studied my first MA here a few years ago, so I was prepared for most of it. But some aspects have taken me by surprise. For starters, a different emphasis is placed on a Masters degree. In South Africa a Masters (in the Humanities and Social Sciences) is usually a 60 000 word dissertation undertaken solo over an intense one-year or two-year period – it’s something akin to the MPhil in the UK, I think. Although it doesn’t qualify one to get a permanent full-time job as a lecturer, at some institutions one may apply for a position with a Masters and the intention to undertake a PhD. Certainly it is not uncommon for Masters students to lecture parts of or entire modules. I lectured on contract for 2.5 years with my Masters degrees – I designed the course outlines, set essays and exams, held consultations… Perhaps it is because the number of MA students here is much higher, but teaching assistant opportunities are only afforded to 2nd year PhD students and above. I also think, perhaps, it has to do with the fact that in SA an Honours degree is something quite different: it is a 1-year postgraduate degree, much like a taught MA in the UK, and is a prerequisite for being accepted to any Masters program. A Masters, in the UK, is the next step up from undergraduate.
I’m certainly not complaining, though: I would hardly feel equipped to teach here at this stage! Just an observation. I’m thoroughly looking forward to auditing a few undergrad classes this term to understand how things are taught here.
It speaks to another adjustment, though. Things are far more structured for postgraduate research. Which is fantastic – I enjoy structure. It’s easy to slip into the illusion of having time when it comes to a PhD, I think. Each term here has set research goals: this first term (September – January) had the goal of writing my research outline, which frames exactly what I’ll be doing over the next 3 years. This coming term has the goal of completing a research paper, which will effectively be a draft chapter. Each supervision requires me to type up a report, which is kept on file for future reference. There is an incredible amount of researcher support and development, and a strong network of postgraduate researchers.
Although I do not doubt that there will be stressful moments, and that there will be moments when I want to throw my computer out the window, I am going to try and refuse to allow myself to buy into the culture of being stressed as a PhD student. My very wise friend and role-model, Elizabeth Mills, shared this little tip. Everyone knows that the process is stressful at times, but at the same time I know what I’ve signed up for, and I enjoy the work, and am passionate about the social implications of my research. Being stressed at certain times and constantly performing stress, consciously or unconsciously, are two very different things. One acknowledges moments of difficulty to be overcome, the other speaks to a constant state of rush and anxiety which risks eliminating any joy that may be experienced in the actual process. So while there were moments of pressure this last term, I haven’t felt “so, so stressed”, like some of my friends.
This decision to not buy into stress culture sometimes makes me feel as if I’m doing something wrong: am I not working hard enough? Am I not intelligent enough to realise how difficult this is? Am I missing something? It takes a moment to stop myself and pause and remind myself that it’s okay to enjoy the work and to thrive under the pressure. Sure, I’m just starting, but I’m going to try to hang onto this attitude.