Friday 9 December 2011

Eleven ideas to get full value from your PhD at University

Written for thrifty, value-minded, South African PhD students and HUMA, UCT.

To do a PhD full-time often involves financial sacrifice, especially if moving from a full-time job. Below are eleven ideas to help South African PhDs get the most value from their tuition and student status:

1. Regular supervisor access and feedback.
Since regular contact and advice from your supervisor is key to progressing on the right track and finishing your PhD, it's important to gauge his or her interest and availability. At best, your contact and feedback expectations should be documented in a PhD memorandum of understanding. This will assist in three years of tuition fees not turning into four or more...

2. Links to leading researchers in your field of interest.
If your Faculty or Department offers opportunities to meet leading researchers in the field of your interest, this is valuable not only to learn but also as a sound-board for your research thinking. Particularly if they have potential to be your external examiner!

3. Research group participation.
The opportunity to regularly present one's work to others within one's Department or Faculty is also a useful motivator. It is also worthwhile to participate in research groups at other academic institutions; one is likely to be exposed to different teaching styles, research methods and learn to explain one's research better to strangers.

4. Access to research funding.
A benefit of studying locally is that there are often far more funding opportunities for South Africans than at overseas universities (which are mostly reserved for locals, too). You should chat to your supervisor about grant application opportunities. At UCT, you can also approach  the Postgraduate Funding Office.

5. Opportunities to do research work.
Another opportunity to earn money is through tutoring, supervising, being a research assistant or subject. It is also useful to discuss these opportunities with your supervisor and network within the university to understand your part-time work possibilities.

6. "Brand You" freelance activities.
If you are a full-time student, you should also take advantage of opportunities to do self-development work; from developing an online voice that reflects your freelance interests to attending the free entrepreneurial workshops or using the career advice services that your university affords.

7. Conference attendance.
Find out from your supervisor whether travel and event funding is available for local (and even international conference attendance). This can be an important motivator to write as funding is often linked to presenting a paper or poster for your university.

8. Postgraduate facilities.
It is useful to know which areas at your university are dedicated for use by PhDs. This is particularly useful for those needing a readily accessible space to work and free internet access on campus. At UCT, an example of this space is its library's Research Commons, whose popularity is proving a problem for access!

9. Research writing support.
Your university may offer support services to improve your research and writing skills.
At UCT, HUMA and the Writing Centre have helpful staff and useful resources and courses to help you.

10. Student discounts.
The recent student laptop initiative is a good example of a student discount. These are seldom well promoted, so its up to you to do the research and be keen to ask. In my case, I have benefitted from Digicape's discount offers on select Apple Macs and the Learning Curve  steep discount on select Mac software and peripherals.

11. Free, legal software.
You should also research whether your university offers any free software. For example, at
UCT, students can download free, anti-virus software. UCT's ICTS also offers speedy access to 
software updates for the Windows, Mac or Linux operating system; as well as Adobe and Microsoft Office software updates.

If you have any other suggestions, please add them as a comment below. Thanks!

N.B. This post was written as part of my advocacy to the University of Cape Town regarding the need for a systematic, general email communication plan to its PhD students. In discussion with Professor Deborah Posel and fellow Humanities PhD students I was asked to contribute content to HUMA as an example of general communications that should be of value. Hopefully this post and its re-use generates discussion at UCT to assist such a communication plan's realisation. 

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