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.

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Transitioning Between Undergraduate and Postgraduate Studies

2. October 2013

Yaseera Ismail

Life is full of transitions, and starting a career in science is no exception. One of the major shifts that I faced was moving from my undergraduate to postgraduate studies, and this period was not without its difficulties. Below, I’ll share some advice that will hopefully make the change smoother for others on the same path.


Be adaptable. I was first exposed to a research environment when I worked at the CSIR-National Laser Centre during my honors year. This was quite an eye-opening experience for me, as it was the first time I was at an institution whose primary objective was research output. As a result, I had to change my way of thinking. During my undergraduate studies, I was provided with a detailed, step- by-step syllabus. There is no such spoon-feeding as a postgrad student. This may seem daunting at first, but, as with any job, you adapt to the demands of your new situation.


Spending time in a laboratory also taught me that methodology is rarely set in stone. You try, you fail, and you come up with a new idea. Many postgrad students waste precious time fixating on a method that is not working. This is because, as undergraduates, we are conditioned to assume that our initial plan will not fail as long as it is approved by our supervisors. In graduate school, our supervisors are conducting the research alongside us, and therefore they do not already have the answers.


Manage your time. Cramming at the eleventh hour may work for undergraduates, but it won’t in graduate school. Postgraduate studies demand discipline. Procrastination is a crime that we are all guilty of, but it is critical to work diligently to finish your thesis on time. You should set short-term goals for each day so that you are never stagnant. It is difficult to keep your enthusiasm up at all times, and without a stringent supervisor to encourage you to meet deadlines, you may find yourself taking many a three-week break. Bear in mind that a Ph.D. thesis cannot be completed the week before the due date. Slow and steady wins the race!


Network. In the world of research, networking is a useful way to advance your career. Whenever attending a conference or public lecture, mingle with researchers and fellow students. Try to discover everyone's areas of interest and get their opinions on your work. A simple conversation over coffee can lead to helpful collaboration. I find it intimidating to speak to someone who is much more senior in my field, so I break the ice with a topic that is not related to my research and gradually direct the conversation towards the topic I want to discuss.


Be curious and open. Postgrad studies require initiative, determination and the desire to learn. You can choose what you want to learn and use that information to make something new. Don’t work in isolation. Instead, try to learn from everyone around you. There is a vast range of resources available, so make use of every opportunity on your way to success.


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.

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