Ten university staff members at Stellenbosch University and the University of Fort Hare were selected to join the new doctoral training consortium launched with South African partners in 2021. Kurt Marais, a member of staff from Stellenbosch University, is a student on the programme and with support from University of Bath co-supervisors, Kurt is studying towards a PhD degree focusing on research in mathematical optimisation within the field of mental health and social network analysis in a South African context. These are Kurt's reflections after visiting Bath to work closely with his co-supervisor and continue his research.
There was an opportunity at the start of South Africa’s national University Staff Doctoral Programme (USDP) to communicate our proposed doctoral research to fellow members of the USDP cohort from the University of Fort Hare and Stellenbosch University, as well as our supervisory teams from these two institutions and from the University of Bath. I recall presenting on my research and including pictures from the last time that I had visited Bath in 2018 from atop the Bath Abbey, and I also recall mentioning, knowing that the opportunity to visit Bath as part of the USDP would be happening, that I was looking forward to being back. Two and a half years after that presentation, I was able to fulfil that desire by returning to the city of Bath.
The USDP aims to promote collaboration and entrench partnerships between institutions on a national and international level while supporting South African academic staff to achieve doctoral qualifications and enabling the development of supervisory capacity in universities. The purpose of the student mobility to Bath is to allow the USDP cohort the opportunity for research, writing and working with the Bath-based co-supervisors, with the added potential of building international connections and attending research seminars and skills development courses. I was fortunate to be one of the first members of our cohort of ten academics to embark on this mobility, which was made possible by Jaco Franken (Manager of the Graduate School of Economic and Management Sciences, Stellenbosch University), my colleagues at the Department of Logistics, my supervisors Lieschen Venter (Stellenbosch), Stephan Visagie (Stellenbosch) and Stephanie Merchant (Bath), and all the communications from Student Immigration Service and the Resident Life Team at the University of Bath.
The first few days after arriving were focused on acclimatising to the city that I would call home for six weeks which, despite having been in Bath before, was a different experience compared to when I was just visiting. Most of what I needed was in walking distance from the city student accommodation that I stayed in, Thornbank Gardens. I was able to navigate the bus system easily with the university online guides, got my library card very quickly after requesting one and was able to make sense of the layout of the campus after walking around and getting lost many times. In fact, the first half of my stay in Bath can be summed up by me turning into side streets and pathways that I did not mean to turn into, often overestimating my sense of direction. Be that as it may, I was able to find the campus, the City Accommodation Centre, the Virgil Building if I needed somewhere within walking distance from my residence to work at, and the two Boston Tea Party cafés where I had many a fry-up.
One of the biggest takeaways from this trip was to meet my co-supervisor, Stephanie Merchant, in person. She was able to dedicate a desk on campus for me to work at, introduced me to other doctoral candidates with similar interests, exposed me to many of the on-campus activities, workshops, seminars, and off-campus conferences that were taking place, and it was just great to meet face-to-face without the issue of video call latency. We were able to do necessary and important work together that would only have worked if facilitated in person, and it led to conversations and further understandings that would not have happened otherwise. The Department of Health also afforded me the opportunity to communicate my progress in my doctoral studies, which allowed me to meet other academics and students that were able to provide me with valuable insights. I want to extend my gratitude to the Department of Health for welcoming me into their space and allowing me to work there and for the resources that were made available to me.
The sun was shining for the entire six weeks that I was there, bar a few moments of drizzle. The campus was quiet as students were completing their exams, and so when the invitation to attend the Doctoral College’s Taster Week as part of their Doctoral Development was presented to me, I took the opportunity to attend as many as I could:
- Increasing our Productivity, presented in-person by Sarah Williment
- How to write the thing when you’re not writing the thing, presented online by Vikki Burns
- Supervising your supervisor and your PhD experience, presented in-person by Emma Denham and Aurelien Mondon
These workshops allowed for self-reflection and the opportunity to engage with students that are experiencing many shared concerns in their own research journeys. All of the workshops were quite revelatory for me and hope to be invited to participate in more workshops like this in future.
The parts that are not mentioned above — the moments that make up the majority of the time spent in Bath — were the most formative moments. This includes meandering through a throng of people wandering about the city almost every day, attempting to be more proficient with self-checkouts than I actually am, nights spent in my room listening to the Great Western Railway trains zoom by as I try to get myself to write more or run code, sneaking glances at my phone to track how many bus stops until my next destination and seeing all of the spots that all the blogs said to go see. It is difficult to put into words the impact that an opportunity like this has had on me in a personal and professional capacity, and I cannot even be sure that I fully comprehend that impact yet. I will say that, given that our entire cohort consists of working academics at our various institutions, this opportunity that holds space for us to focus on conducting our own research for our own development, with some respite from the day-to-day and all the responsibilities that come with being an academic, is an opportunity that I am grateful to have had. It has propelled me into a direction with a momentum that has yet to slow me down.