Plenty of room at the bottom

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Postgraduate study is as much about changing the system from below as about learning new skills.

So why do you want to do postgraduate studies? To have a few years more of fun and freedom? That is certainly part of it. But picture yourself five to 50 years from now, and ask yourself what the main issues are that you will have to confront — apart from trying to feed and educate your dependants, pay off your bond and find quality time for yourself and your dreams.

It's pretty well established that my generation has left a mess, with debt and data overloads. We have not done a great job in solving local and global problems. In fact, we have created most of them — some of which may appear intractable to you now while they are right in your face: endemic unemployment, global warming, unethical banking and finance structures, stifling ecosystem services, uncertain food and water security, punctuated energy delivery, runaway inequality, overt poverty, rampant corruption, suppression of indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage, accelerating populations of refugees, collapse of social services, growing scarcity of all sorts of resources, violations galore of human and animal rights, and sliding towards the brink of the sixth extinction. 

We could have fixed many of them if we had had the courage and conviction, but we didn't. Instead, we are passing the baton on to you. Yet, in doing so, we have also created an endless number of new opportunities for you.

This is my point in the headline on this article: "Plenty of room at the bottom" is adapted from the title of a famous paper by Richard Feynman of the United States, surely one of the most entertaining and ethical problem-solving theoretical physicists, with a keen interest in the humanities, of the past century. In this paper he provides the framework and the challenges, way before his time, of the whole new field of nanoscience and nanotechnology. 

In South Africa, Neville Alexander, with a keen eye on natural sciences and technology, attempted the same for the socioeconomic and political sciences — but for this a unified name and integrated research community still has to emerge.

You now live in the Anthropocene era, yet universities are still only beginning to comprehend how much radical rethinking they will need from you to understand the forces with which we are shaping and transforming the planet and how to best manage them. The scale of forces this time is planetary — the timescale a century or more, the stakes are what we might call civilisation — and it is all taking place at the headlong speed of self-accelerating human need, greed, technology and environmental turbulence. 

Almost all of Africa's (and the world's) most urgent problems require collective, integrative action during a transition to knowledge-based living and global governance. In short, the academy needs a new holistic approach to stimulate bottom-up inquisitiveness, self-motivation, creativity, confidence, knowledge retention, ethics and responsibility in a new cohort of postgraduate students. And there are signs that we have found a way to do so by moving out of the "ivory towers".

The bottom line today is that we have finally hammered the nail in the coffin of the Cartesian "universe of silos": everything is interconnected, everything is on the move and everything evolves. This is the age of exploring the real-time dynamics of interconnected systems, at all scales from atoms to the end of the universe; and you and your internet links are part of it. We have entered an era with a need to come to grips with complexity and evolving systems in order to solve critical issues to avoid the risk of catastrophic failure that will haunt you during your lifetime. 

You won't be able to hide from these complexities: understanding how systems emerge and how things fall apart is at the heart of the social, natural and engineering sciences today. They have been explored by inquisitive, motivated scientists, artists, engineers and writers in the past, such as Copernicus, Da Vinci, Edward Norton Lorenz and Chinua Achebe (among thousands that come to mind), but not resolved.

All that these brilliant minds have taught us is that we know next to nothing yet about how and why these systems are on the move and continue to evolve and interact; or what the real values of these inspiring systems are to our wellbeing. 

Last month I attended a conference titled The Life and Times of Neville Alexander, one-time soulmate and political sparring partner of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, where they exchanged their theories and applied their analytical minds to future system models of South Africa and beyond. Ask the average graduate student at any institution who Neville Alexander was and you'll be met with a blank — but he was working for decades at the global cutting edge of sociopolitical complexity, in theory and practice. He understood deeply the need to explore and come up with new system models for social engagement within an ever more integrated world of science and technology. 

He also understood that South Africa, as a microcosm of the world, continues to offer one of the world's most innovative and dynamic laboratories for a host of projects in the humanities crying out for solutions — new testable and fundamental hypotheses of local and global significance: why and how does poverty emerge; why can't human, natural and artificial capital find sustainable ways of harmonising. 

These are questions that have occupied people from the Ancient Greeks to Karl Marx, from Thomas Jefferson to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, but that surely were already under scrutiny long before that in Southern Africa among the Khoikhoi and San, and those before them living in Blombos Cave, 70 000 years ago, as anthropology and archaeology research by postgraduate students and their mentors reveal almost on a daily basis. 

In this rich tapestry of "Lab-oratory South Africa", you are well placed to come up with new leading theories for the social sciences, and to put them into practice. Come and build on Alexander's dream (and that of his sparring partner) and forge a new model of social unity and 

cohesion. With his formulation (E)nough = aF(east)2, Alexander has left the humanities in South Africa with the equivalent of Einstein's E=mc2 — a general relativity theory for the socioeconomic and political sciences, and surely a fundamental basis from which to explore renewed consensus and equity in the humanities. (Alexander's precise wording was: "Enough is as good as a feast". We can of course have a multitude of feasts, hence the power law.)

There is a rich career ahead of those who dig deeper along Alexander's path, and farther into Africa. Think about that as you apply for postgraduate study: you have already completed half your coursework by virtue of living in South Africa's infamous diversity: build on it and show your leadership with fresh ideas to the university and the world. Something new and valuable will come out of your research to form the basis for the rest of your career, and to open job opportunities galore.

All the other sciences too, right now, are moving at an exhilarating pace into new, exciting territories, from biology and chemistry to astrophysics, from environmental issues in economics to psychology, health and law, from geology and paleosciences to fine arts and history, and so forth. And in each one of these arenas, South Africa offers practical and natural laboratory space second to none: this is a paradise for postgraduate research of every sort. 

But here's my real point: get excited about any — or, better still, many — of these and other topics, and imagine yourself capable of making a new breakthrough in any number of them. Our universities are full of interesting, talented and innovative lecturers (and sometimes professors too) who are great mentors. 

Find a place that will embrace and challenge you and your ideas, and above all an academic who talks your language and speaks to you (in both senses of the word), who takes an interest in your dreams and has no problem in dovetailing these with her or his own, and who is willing and able to (help) solve some of your logistics nightmares, such as funding and work/living space. And remember, there are plenty of professors looking for good students. It's your marketplace.

Challenge your professors and your university. Postgraduate study is as much about learning new tricks, skills, knowledge and abilities as standing up and changing the system from the bottom up. It is your university, you are paying fees and you should demand (y)our money's worth. And in the end it is not about what you cover, but what you uncover and discover — not just the satisfaction of getting answers, but also the enjoyment of the pursuit, of crafting questions and designing ways to investigate them. How you apply these is then up to you.

Postgraduate study is no different than wanting to be good at a sport or dance, or plumbing, cooking or tinkering with cars: it has to be a passion carried out with infectious curiosity, and it has to set some goals. There has to be firm understanding, too, of what else the new non-Cartesian academia offers: nothing is predictable at all time and space scales. 

Be prepared to remain flexible as you proceed: things change, new courses will emerge and some will dissipate during your postgraduate time. There will be ups and downs, and you will have to be alert when it's time to pick up and move on —remain dynamic and continue to explore: there will always be a way to look at your study topic from a new perspective. 

There are, of course, always more negative perspectives: academics from teaching and learning environments and administration, for example, always fret a lot about rules, regulations, outcomes and potential failure, as well as why things may go wrong. Not all can see the wood for the trees, or the light at the end of your research tunnel. 

But learn to steer your own boat: there have never been such rich opportunities to participate in local and global intellectual debate. Networks via smartphone are taking over university teaching and communications, as we speak, while you make decisions about your next knowledge-building blocks. There is also an abundance of choices — what to do, and what to study when. 

And, today and tomorrow, you can do your "homework" on the move. Your cellphone might yet turn out to be your best adviser. There is a bright postgraduate future right at your doorstep — google it on your smartphone: new science, ideas and interconnectivity have penetrated almost every aspect of government, entrepreneurship and big business, and more recently academia. 

You may have to be prepared (to help) with professors who lag behind in the new-age communication technologies, and some won't understand or tolerate your SMS language (incidentally, this opens up all sorts of wonderful opportunities for greater student-mentor cohesion; it does in my research group), but there are many professors who have embraced this new world with gusto. Find out who they are and where you can follow your dream. 

If you cannot make up your mind, continue to let your fingers do the talking on your PC or Mac: the internet has much more information than any university website can offer on its own; think of supplementing your course work with the best "Moocs" (massive open online courses) taught by the most exciting professors from Stanford and MIT to Singapore. Being free of charge, some Moocs have global class attendance of half a million students, self-motivated with infectious curiosity, a growing sense of wonder and responsibility with increasing confidence — all voting with their feet and ready to redesign their postgraduate studies where needed. In doing so, they discover alternatives to the way people live, learn and work across the globe — and you can, too.

So, once you're in a postgraduate position, be prepared to break rules and push boundaries if you feel you can and deserve better — learn to transcend cultural and intellectual silos: explore both art and science to broaden your horizons. You will never get a better chance to do so.

Be aware, there are pockets of poor and rich supervision in every university. But there are also now much greater opportunities for students to explore this before they make up their minds where to go. 

Don't be afraid about trying out universities that do not brand themselves as the best: there is amazing talent everywhere to suit your needs and talents. But the first lesson to remember is that quality matters. Shop around carefully and ask for real data on the career paths of the university staff and graduates.

Of course, between entrance and departure, there are always administrative hurdles at universities and colleges. Don't be put off — they are everywhere, although some institutions are definitely more user-friendly than others. But in the end, most of the "paperwork" is online, and is no different than learning to fill in your tax returns later in life; it is part of the course, but it always gets easier after the first time.

Written by: Maarten de Wit

Picture credit: John McCann

  • Maarten de Wit is the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University professor of earth stewardship science, an emerging science that transcends all disciplinary boundaries. This article was published on Mail & Guardian.