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A PhD journey at WSG... what is it like?


Professor Pundy Pillay, WSG Research Director talks about the School's successful PhD programme and the challenging journey of completing this research degree.

The Wits School of Governance recently graduated 11 PhD students. What does it take to complete this degree? How do you stay inspired? Professor Pillay answers these questions and more. 

As research director and a supervisor, what makes WSG a big contributor to PhD graduates?

First, the PhD is one of our main programme offerings. We have approximately 70 PhD students, which is large in comparison to the rest of  the Commerce, Law and Management Faculty as well as the University in general.

Second, we are more selective now with regard to whom we admit. We admit students provisionally and their formal admission into the programme is dependent on attending the Social Theory course (which, amongst things, ensures greater familiarity with the academics and their research interests, as well providing them with guidance on developing their short proposal) and successfully defending their short proposal before an academic panel.

As this is such a difficult journey – what are some of the characteristics displayed by both students and staff that makes all of this possible?

In general, students are very committed to the intensive research and writing that are required. As many of them are doing this on a part-time basis, their work commitments (many are senior public servants) prevent them from spending as much time on their studies as they would like to. Also, a significant proportion of our PhD students are from outside South Africa, from the SADC region and beyond.

Very often these students are hamstrung by financial problems as they often have to find and pay for accommodation and associated costs. Some funding is available, but more often than not, they are excluded from such opportunities because they are foreigners.

WSG Staff who are supervising PhDs carry an extremely high supervision load. In addition to supervising PhDs, they also supervise 50% Masters reports and the Masters by dissertation. I would hazard a guess and suggest that the average supervision load on the part of WSG staff is probably around 4-5 PhDs and 10 Masters. Remember, also that they participate actively in the teaching components of the Masters courses and the Postgraduate Diploma in Public Development Management as well.

How do you encourage students to keep going when they want to give in or feel uninspired?

We ask them to remember why they came to WSG and why the PhD is such a valuable degree. We also ask PhD students to keep in touch with one another so they can share information on common challenges. We are planning this year to resuscitate our PhD forums where we bring together all PhD students for a week to discuss their research and how they are approaching the challenges in their own distinctive ways.

What is needed from a student and supervisor to create a healthy and strong working relationship?

There needs to be an excellent rapport between them. Sometimes this is almost immediate, but more often this is built over time. The student needs to convince the supervisor that s/he is committed, hardworking, and importantly, willing to be criticised.

The supervisor needs to be patient because often we are dealing with students from different educational and cultural backgrounds, and committed to the “long haul” which this journey is inevitably.

On the positive side, what makes these relationships work is a commitment on both sides to education despite the challenges and a desire to make a contribution to new knowledge which is what we demand from our PhD students.

The School must feel pride for the recent graduates, share your thoughts about them.

I think at least four of them were from outside SA, from Zimbabwe and Kenya. All of them were very highly committed and extremely hard working. Many of them started from a low base in terms of their quantitative and other skills. However, they worked extremely hard to overcome these challenges and did so in fine style at the end. We also appreciate the sterling efforts of WSG academics in getting them to graduation after both student and supervisor had walked a long and difficult path, in some cases, for many years.