Navigating Doctoral Challenges as a Multitasking Scholar

From juggling roles as a mother, wife, and professional to overcoming social stress and isolation, Dr. Mmabaledi K. Seeletso shares her remarkable experience as a multitasking Ph.D. candidate. Her narrative offers valuable insights for both supervisors and doctoral students, emphasizing the importance of understanding and supporting the multifaceted lives of scholars.

Illustration by Elham Ghaedi

I recount my journey as a doctoral student at the University of Pretoria in the Republic of South Africa, and subsequently, my role as a postgraduate research supervisor. My PhD journey started in mid-2011 and ended in April 2016 when I graduated. In this brief I discuss the challenges I faced as a PhD student, mother, wife, daughter, cousin, sibling, and worker, among others. My multifaceted roles presented numerous challenges that I needed to overcome. Using my lived experiences, I share the challenges and possibilities I faced in pursuing my doctoral study. I foreground social stress and isolation, family support, academic support, and professional development and motivation that resulted from my own experiences in my doctoral journey. I also share with my readers my value add to the nation, as well as what they can learn from my experiences; both as supervisors and as doctoral students.

The emphasis on continuous learning and the impact of a positive supervisor-student relationship adds depth to the narrative. A commendable contribution to discussions on humanizing doctoral supervision.

My doctoral journey started in 2011. I was assigned a supervisor who became my partner in my academic journey for the duration of my studies at the University of Pretoria (UP), Groenkloof campus. My studies were a mix of hardships, frustrations and most of the time stress as I was a lone figure – studying through the distance mode of delivery and with no study mates around.

My pursuit of a PhD as a woman aligned with sustainable development goals (SDGs) focusing on gender equality and empowerment. My studies also connected well with the Salamanca statement (1994) which advocates for equal opportunities for all people. I have also always linked my success to the fact that I wanted to comply with the African Union Agenda 2063 (2015) which talks of the “Africa we Want” (by 2063). In addition to international agreements and protocols, it is noteworthy that many institutions have policies and initiatives aimed at equalizing PhD acquisition between genders. However, other variables such as social norms continue to create challenges for women. In this brief, I use “challenges” to refer to all factors and conditions that hindered and delayed my progress during my studies.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Multi-tasking role

When I started my doctoral studies, I was already a multi-tasker; – a wife, daughter, niece, sister, cousin – above all, a mother. I was also employed full-time and had just started a new department that I was a head of. In 2014 I introduced a new Master’s programme in my department. This meant that I had to divide my time between studies, parenting, and work commitments without compromising either one. I had to make effort to strike a balance and prevent my studies from conflicting with my other responsibilities and work demands. In our traditional context, a “good mother” and a “good wife” are often expected to be present most of the time to fulfil their societal roles. So, as a student, mother and employee, I had competing expectations, and this created a layered life for me. It was not at all easy balancing personal and academic life, and I could not give those in my circles the “attention” I used to give them before enrolling for my PhD studies.

When I started my studies my two sons were aged seven and seventeen years respectively. The elder one was preparing for his final secondary school leaving examinations while the younger one had just started his primary schooling. I had to make sure that I was there for both of them, especially to guide the teenager from negative peer pressure. The younger boy had to be helped adjust and adapt to primary school. All these needed my undivided attention. My main challenge was lack of time to manage my studies and parenting roles. Throughout my studies, I frequently experienced both physical and mental fatigue due to juggling my studies with other social responsibilities.

Apart from the challenges I had support from my family. Spending less time with my family prompted me to establish designated “family time.” For instance, during December holidays we would go out together for a week or two to reconnect. This allowed me time with my family, but also provided some space to attend to my school work when they had gone on their leisure activities of interest.

The University of Pretoria offered a very good orientation session for beginners. During these orientation sessions facilitators shared challenges students were likely to face, as well as their roles as students. The roles of supervisors were also explained. Upon enrolling at UP, I had a very good supervisor. She kind of filled the void that I felt when I was away back home as I only came to campus one week every 3 months for support sessions, including meeting with the supervisor. I often felt like she was empathising too much! She would offer to discuss some of the issues with me over the phone as she thought waiting for the scheduled meeting was too much. My supervisor and I had a very cordial and warm relationship. She really believed and trusted that I was one of her good students and as such, always created time for me. In addition to her roles as a supervisor and mentor, she consistently encouraged me to give presentations at research colloquiums and university seminars. She coached me on presentation skills and public speaking in advance and would always make sure she attended my sessions. She would later on give me very positive feedback such that by the time I completed my studies and had to defend my thesis, I was on top of issues and even felt that examiners did not ask me enough questions! In other words, I was way too ready for the viva voce!

Professional development and motivation

The support I got from my family and supervisor made me trust myself. I worked extra hard so as not to disappoint them. Their encouragement helped me persevere to the end. I just told myself that no matter how long I take “down in the valley”, I will forge on to reach the “mountain top.” I remained motivated as my supervisor ensured that we remained in constant touch to avoid any feelings of isolation from my side. I would give her pieces of work as scheduled and she always provided timely and detailed feedback. I was impressed by the high level of commitment and professionalism my supervisor displayed, and this in turn made me do the same. My supervisor would also ask about the welfare of my family members, and would ask about my progress at work. I thought this was very kind of her, as she was providing the support I so much needed.

My supervisor always encouraged me to aim for nothing but the best. She instilled in me the sense of confidence and appreciation of oneself. This is something I also encourage my students to do; to always be confident and appreciate themselves. This has been a great source of motivation to me, and remains the same to my students.

Due to the very good support system I had from my supervisor, I did not only successfully complete my studies but had many other opportunities coming my way after graduation. A year after my graduation I won the prestigious Fulbright scholarship which took me to the United States of America (2017/18) as a visiting scholar at the University of Denver, in Colorado. I also won a Post-Doctoral Fellowship which was tenable at the University of South Africa (2019/20). These awards contributed immensely to my professional growth that had started when I was a PhD student at the University of Pretoria.


After completing my studies, a lot of people, especially colleagues and students, showed me respect that they did not show me before. I used this to encourage them to enroll for their PhD studies as well. Over and above the professional and personal growth and development I acquired from my doctoral studies, I also became grounded on scientific research. This will remain critical to my nation since I am now in a position to contribute to, and participate in informed debates taking place in my country. I am now able to collaborate with diverse think tanks and intellectuals especially those in my area of expertise as they look up to me as someone who can contribute to problem solving through dialogue and research in the country. Above all else, I am able to share with our nation transferable skills that I acquired through engaging with other colleagues in different forums. Being a PhD graduate has made me a lifelong learner due to continuous research I always engage in, as well as interactions and engagements with other scholars. Most of my students agreed to enroll and a few have already graduated. The greatest “take home” from my studies is that in life one can never have enough of learning. I learnt that as a supervisor one continues to learn from your students, especially those with strong personalities who are not afraid to challenge voices of authority. Supervisors and their protégés need to understand each other for successful doctoral supervision. These are human faces that make learning a life-long process, as long as there is “Ubuntu” where all people are treated with respect, and this can only happen when a healthy relationship exists among the team members. It is important for supervisors to appreciate that students have many responsibilities competing for their limited time. And as the saying goes; it takes two to tango!!!

Mmabaledi K. Seeletso

Botswana Open University

With my supervisor, Prof. Evans reading out my bio and abstract during graduation.

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