Interview with Chemical Engineering PhD Student Thulani Nyathi

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interview with chemical engineering PhD Candidate Thulani Nyathi - south african success stories
Interview with Thulani Nyathi, a South African boy genius

1. Tell us a little about yourself and what made you choose to major in science

I was born and raised in Umlazi, a township in Durban. I received my primary and high school education within the Durban area as well. In high school I did science subjects i.e., Maths, Physical Sciences, Life Sciences and Computer studies. I enjoyed Physical Sciences, more specifically, Chemistry. So choosing to major in Chemistry was the next natural step to take.      

2. What where the major challenges and how did you overcome them?

    First year of undergrad was the toughest year for me. Not just academically, but socially as well. UCT is a very diverse community with people with different backgrounds and on top of that, as an individual, you still need to try and get used to the way teaching is done at varsity as compared to High school. So I had to adapt to a lot of things and I had to do this quickly because all these factors can hinder one from completing their studies. So I pretty-much had to adapt on my own and make myself comfortable in my new “home away from home”. There were a lot of good moments that followed, I met a lot of cool people along the way and they helped a lot in making me feel comfortable in this place.

3. You were on the deans list during your undergraduate studies. What advice would you give top matriculants out of high school who want to maintain their performance in university?

    Firstly, it is important to realize that between University and high school, there is quite a significant gap. Unfortunately, this is the current situation here in South Africa. I found it a bit challenging to adapt to the whole set-up of lectures, tutorials and lab practicals and managing the time for all these activities for all the different courses I had to do. This is obviously different from what a person coming from a SA high school is used to. Also, the expectation at University is that you should be able to fulfill all the requirements of all your courses almost independently – which is something very few people can do. So my advice would be to quickly acknowledge that high school and varsity are different and devise a way to adapt adequately to the new “academic lifestyle”. In some cases, this could mean that your high school studying method would have to change but if that happens, still find a method that won’t exhaust you and not enable you to have a social life. Trust me, you need a social life. 

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4. Can people have fun in university and still do well? If yes, How?

       My response here will be related the one in 3)… Time-management and finding a studying method that works for you are both key. We all need to have fun outside varsity and to be honest, the most fun you can ever have is during the time you are in varsity. Even people who are employed now say the same. During this time you also learn a lot about yourself i.e., your strengths, weakness, likes, dislikes etc. The important thing though is to not lose focus and get lost in the fun. You need to constantly remind yourself why you enrolled into varsity. I also found having friends who share similar goals as you also helpful.

5. You are one of a few young black South Africans pursuing a PhD in Engineering, what made you decide to study further and not go to the job market?

    I enjoy doing research, which is something I realised in my 3rd year of Undergrad. At the time, I also had a sponsor that strongly recommended that I at least get a Master’s degree before taking up a job with them. Anyway, I just didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of ending things off at Honours level. The country is in great need of black South African Masters and PhD graduates with expertise in various engineering and scientific fields. With this also comes a great number of funding sources which black South African undergraduates could tap into. So with the passion and the availability of funding, it made sense for me to go beyond Honours. 

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