Pursuing Science in South Africa

19. June 2014

Yaseera Ismail

I have worked and studied at South African universities since beginning my undergraduate degree. I started my research career at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which is one of 10 national research facilities, and I am currently based in the Quantum Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Here, I will reflect on some of my experiences studying in South Africa.

Freedom of choice

One benefit of attending university in South Africa is the unique structure of the degree system. The arrangement is unusual in that there are four exit points during the completion of three degrees. We start off with a three-year Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree, followed by a year of honors studies. The masters and doctoral degrees begin after the honors year. If you are not pursuing a career in research, you have the option of completing your education after earning a B.Sc. This allows students to tailor our honors year material to the research area we wish to pursue during our M.Sc. and Ph.D., and so we are more prepared and focused when beginning those higher-level degrees.

Availability of resources and funding

South Africa has a growing scientific community, but the opportunities for collaboration and networking are still limited. This can impact the level of research and the growth of facilities taking place in the country. If you are trying to build a research group, it may take more effort and time than other places. However, the lack of certain resources encourages us to look elsewhere for necessary expertise. This helps us build relationships with researchers across the globe. There is also funding available to promote and host national and international conferences, and there are extensive online resources to help fill any gaps.

A prerequisite for registering for a M.Sc. or Ph.D. degree at any South African university is a source of funding for the duration of your studies. Most candidates are awarded a scholarship either by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation or national facilities such as the CSIR. The South African government recently set a target of spending 1.5 percent of its budget on research and development by 2018. Funding is also provided by universities such as UKZN, which has its own scholarship program.

Networking opportunities

I have been fortunate enough to attend 22 academic conferences since completing my M.Sc. Conferences are excellent platforms to grow within your field and expand your network of colleagues and friends. There is one major national physics conference in South Africa, known as the South African Institute of Physics Conference. It is hosted annually by various institutes and is currently in its 59th year. My research group also hosts the Quantum Information Processing Communication and Control (QIPCC) Conference each year. This meeting is focused on quantum optics and information science, and is an initiative of the South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication.

Joining professional associations is also a great way to network, and there are several options in South Africa. The South African Institute of Physics is a prominent association for researchers. It has student memberships and provides discounts for student conferences. There are also three OSA Student Chapters: Durban, Pretoria and Stellenbosch. I am part of the newly formed Student Chapter at the UKZN, Durban. Since we joined OSA, we have had numerous avenues opened to us. I recently attended an IONS conference in Montreal, Canada, which was a wonderful experience for me and gave me lots of ideas for growing our Chapter at UKZN.

As a South African student, networking opportunities and the increasing availability of resources have played a major role in expanding my opportunities as a young researcher. I am happy to be contributing to the developing community of scientists in my country.

Yaseera Ismail completed her masters at the CSIR-National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, where her research focused on novel laser beam shaping for optical trapping and tweezing. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in quantum communication within the Quantum Research Group based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

Academic careers, Career, Conferences, Graduate school, International careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , ,

Making the Most of Your Ph.D. Experience in a Developing Country

9. April 2013

Angela Dudley

I like being different. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to pursue a career in physics is that there are very few scientists in South Africa, and even fewer female scientists. My thinking was that fewer people in the game meant less competition and more opportunities. Each year, there are only about 23 Ph.D. graduates produced per million South African citizens (and this encompasses all academic disciplines, not just the sciences.) Here, I provide a few tips for getting your Ph.D. in a country where high-level degrees are not the norm.  

Find a dynamic mentor.
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I chose the topic of my research project based not only on my interests, but also on the potential supervisors with whom it would put me in contact. Having a helpful ally is important for any graduate student, but even more so for those in a country that has fewer resources available for Ph.D. students. I had a checklist for the mentor I wanted. He or she needed to be:

• Available and approachable
• Able to provide me with the opportunity to attend and present at conferences (even if they were only local ones)
• Good at sourcing funding, and
• Well-connected in the South African science community.

While on vacation from university, I got a short-term position at the CSIR’s National Laser Centre that enabled me to test the waters for future opportunities. This was the ideal interview process: I got to see if I enjoyed the environment and the research, and my future Ph.D. supervisor was able to assess if I was a good fit for the group.

During this time, I saw that my mentor was ambitious and dynamic. He had an impeccable track record at securing funding and many local and international contacts. I could tell that, if I wanted to distinguish myself in my field, he could teach me how to do exactly that.

Be proactive. 
Where networks don’t exist, you must create them. Our student body formed local OSA and SPIE student chapters, which opened up many opportunities for me and other students, including travel grants, funds to bring in world-renowned lecturers, the possibility of hosting our own student conference (IONS) and discounts on publications. The OSA Recent Graduates program will also provide you with volunteer opportunities, so that you can gain experience and showcase your potential to science and business leaders from around the world.

Return the favor.
Admittedly, I pursued this field in part because I knew I would be a minority. But I hope this will not always be the case. I would like to encourage young people in South Africa and other developing nations to take advantage of the opportunities in the sciences and use their influence to help others along the same path. I intend to give back to the community by becoming as effective a teacher as my mentors have been for me.

Angela Dudley (ADudley@csir.co.za) conducted her Ph.D. research at the CSIR National Laser Centre based in Pretoria, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in June 2012 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and subsequently commenced her current position of Postdoctoral Fellow within the Mathematical Optics group at the CSIR National Laser Centre.

Academic careers, Career, Graduate school, International careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives, Women in Science , , , , , ,