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Author: Puleng Motshoane 

This article first appeared on The Hidden Curriculum in Doctoral Education blog. Puleng Motshoane is a PhD Researcher at Rhodes University, and an academic staff member at the University of Johannesburg.


This blog is an expression of my personal experience as a mature woman and a part-time doctoral candidate, with a full-time job and other social and cultural responsibilities. Being a part-time student means consciously managing time and energy, and in South Africa 60-70% of PhD students who study part-time do not complete their studies (Cloete et al., 2015). The national lockdown brought further anxieties, but on a positive note it has helped me to sit back and reflect on how it is essential to seek support to thrive as a part-time candidate, as part of our learning from the hidden curriculum. Below are my suggestions:

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Create support structures


My supervisor was supportive during the lockdown and brought structure to the week. She held two hours of Zoom writing meetings on Mondays and Fridays, using the Pomodoro technique and creating a shared collaborative writing space. Scheduled sessions helped us be accountable and limited our personal conversations to the breaks between focussed writing sessions. I now use the Pomodoro technique for almost all my work activities.

Secondly, we had mindfulness sessions on Wednesdays, which were very helpful as most of us had never experienced a pandemic before. I benefited a lot from these sessions as I can now manage my anxiety attacks. The mindfulness sessions were followed by the writing circles, which supported us to approach writing in a calm way.

Thirdly, there were guest lecturers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All the sessions took place in the afternoons as most of the students are part-time and working full-time from home.

Lastly, there were small groups of people who needed to talk more about those challenges. These groups were facilitated by students who are studying towards psychology, and the sessions formed part of institutional support.


Join a writing community


I learn better in a group because I believe that learning is a social activity (Motshoane, Chapter 16 in Frick et al, 2016) and alone I often lack discipline and feel despondent. Hence, the positive energy of the group aided me to keep to my routine and utilize the time effectively.

I have also learned to reach out for help because I dread failure. I came across several seminars during the lockdown and attended as many as I could. I followed the #past3amSquad on Twitter, which is led by Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng from the University of Cape Town. She offers valuable postgraduate advice on Sunday afternoons and it was from one of these sessions that I connected with someone who encouraged me to take advantage of Coursera. I enrolled for an academic writing course, and I wish I had known about it earlier.

I also learned about Focusmate (a virtual buddying system), and I immediately checked it out and signed up. The application requires you to set your goals for a ‘session’. You then book a meeting at a time convenient for you, and it will match you to someone available at the same time. You both start by telling each other your intended goals and work together for fifty minutes with your videos on. At the end of the session, you report back to each about your progress. Focusmate holds you accountable to a stranger, because you both want to achieve something.

Furthermore, I am always encouraged that we, as a group, are in the same storm with different boats. Focusmate also has a Facebook page, which I followed and found another group within the group. You can read more about Focusmate from what Catherine Pope (the founder of PhD progress), recently wrote here.


Be careful of setting unrealistic goals


I have often made the mistake of setting unrealistic goals for myself. It took me a while to realize that I was being hard on myself because I was not accomplishing any of my unrealistic goals. I was often disheartened. I had to learn to be realistic with my goals and acknowledge that not all days are the same. Some days I am productive with my writing, and some days work can be hectic. Therefore, I had to make peace with ‘unproductive’ days. 


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Balance your mind, body, and soul


Be aware of the balance that is needed across the mind, body, and soul. You must listen to all three and respond accordingly, because your health is important. I learnt this due to my own ill-health, and in navigating other life challenges that I have encountered. Remember that no matter how busy you are, you must eat for nourishment, feed your soul with fulfilling things, move your body, and relax your mind. 

Stress causes fatigue and makes writing difficult. Do not feel bad if your body, mind, or soul does not allow you to work on your studies. The pandemic is emotionally challenging, hence we need to take control of what we can, our well-being. When you hit a rock, slow down, step away, give yourself time to think. Engage yourself in mindfulness exercises to help you calm down. 

How do you go about connecting with other scholars? Do you prefer a face-to-face or virtual collaboration? Share your tips in the comments section.

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