A new digital platform that connects early researchers with experienced mentors has been compared to the online dating app, Tinder. “But instead of a date, you get a mentor,” said Dr Olebogeng Selebi (left), Deputy Director at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Future of Work.
She was speaking at the launch in Pretoria last week of Thuso Connect, the new virtual mentoring programme for early career researchers. The event also launched Thuso Resources, an online platform with advice, articles and other information for those starting out in their academic careers.
The comparison of Thuso Connect and Tinder is not far-fetched. Dr Leandra Jordaan, project researcher for Advancing Early Career Researchers and Scholars, the Universities South Africa (USAf) programme that developed Thuso Connect and Thuso Resources, said both she and Professor Stephanie Burton, the project’s leader, had giggled at Dr Selebi’s comment. “Matching mentors and mentees can be very complex. So believe it or not, we did start there; both of us went to Tinder very early in the process, and looked at what they do and why they are succeeding in matching personalities,” said Dr Jordaan.
Dr Selebi hailed Thuso Connect for using a “tried and tested expert matching algorithm that connects mentors and mentees with the highest percentage potential for success. From there, resources guide the mentoring journey.”
Thuso Connect is a localised version – in South African-speak — of a programme created by the mentoring software company, Wisdom Share, based in San Francisco.
Setting out as an academic can be daunting
Dr Selebi shared her experience of the first lecture she presented at the age of 23. Although a colleague walked with her into the lecture hall of 400 to 500 students, she was “completely frightened looking at all of those faces”. Her colleague helped her connect her equipment and check everything was working, then wished her good luck, and left.
“I then had to present a lecture for the first time. That was my wake-up call: nobody was coming (to help). And that was when I realised that, as academics, we are taught pretty much from the word go that you have to learn how to work independently.”
She said it was “a very similar feeling” to coming out of the cocoon of intense study required to complete a PhD. The only thing she knew about trying to figure out the next step in her career was “publish or perish”. But she had no clue on how to tackle publishing. “No one had really explained this process to me,” she said.
And that is why Dr Selebi is strongly endorsing Thuso Connect and Thuso Resources. She knows first-hand the need for a support network, especially when you are starting out as an academic. “Sometimes we don’t even know what the person in the next office is working on,” she said, let alone at another university.
“I know that it would have helped me when I was an early, early career academic, but now that I’m still an early career academic, platforms like this will continue to help me to establish myself as a researcher, find relevant articles and reach out to potential collaborators, not just at the University of Pretoria, but across the country, and help me to add to the lacking African body of knowledge on the subject of the future of work.”
The missing middle of research and academia
Dr Clifford Nxomani (right), Deputy Chief Executive Officer at the National Research Foundation (NRF), said he thinks Dr Selebi’s experience of her first lecture was better than his. “I froze in the middle of explaining DNA replication. Imagine, you must find creative ways of dismissing the class while you’re trying to recompose yourself,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of the NRF, he said they would like to congratulate USAf, its partners and collaborators on the launch of the two platforms, which he described as ‘’concrete deliverables’’ of support in the development and advancement of new academics.
He said early career and emerging researchers and scholars have been referred to as the missing middle of research and academic cohorts because, unlike postgraduate students from honours to PhD, and rated researchers, they were not defined in funding agencies’ criteria on who is eligible for funding.
Applicants for funding had to demonstrate “your distinguished career, and evidence of your experience as a researcher, but you’ve just gone past maybe your second year of postdoc. So you are better than a postgraduate student, but you’re not quite an established researcher,” said Dr Nxomani.
This showed the need for what he referred to as “bespoke, fit-for-purpose modalities and instruments”, such as how to write research and funding proposals, so people didn’t have to fumble trying to work it out for themselves. Emerging researchers need funding for projects to gain experience as a researcher. They also need guidance to make best use of the resources and funding “to navigate the tricky pathways to becoming an established and leading research scholar,’’ he said.
Thuso Resources and Thuso Connect addressed these needs, both individually and collectively, he said, and filled the critical gap of what emerging scholars needed to grow and develop.
Researchers cannot be developed in isolation
Dr Nxomani said the resources of these two platforms needed to go hand-in-hand with institutional support and an appropriate research culture. ‘’Otherwise you do not have an anchor that grounds you and ensures that you don’t get shifted from your focus of growing and developing and maturing your knowledge and your expertise,” he said.
He said the success of Thuso Resources and Thuso Connect demands the creation of ecosystems within and between institutions to nourish individual researchers’ drive, energy, and commitment to growing their careers. Access to resources could also not replace researchers’ determination to advance themselves.
“We trust that both the emerging researchers and scholars on the one hand, and the research and academic institutions on the other, will embrace Thuso Connect and Thuso Resources to help grow the next generation of NRF A-rated researchers as well as Nobel laureates for our national system of innovation,” he said.
Nxomani said he was quite certain that the NRF would provide complementary initiatives and programmes to enable and support ones like Thuso Connect and Thuso Resources so that they could progress people “from the lowest levels to the highest levels of our research capacity across all our institutions”.
Other messages of support at the hybrid launch were on pre-recorded video.
One of them, of Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General of the Department of Science and innovation, said it was an honour for them to be part of the project, which they are sponsoring, as they seek to boost social economic development in South Africa though research and innovation. “Let’s encourage learning online and virtual mentorship,” he said.
Professor Nosisi Nellie Feza (left), Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Postgraduate Studies at theUniversity of Venda, said her mandate (as a member of the advisory committee for the Advancing Early Career Researchers and Scholars programme), is to develop resources for mentoring novice researchers to ensure quality professors, who can ‘’take the research agenda forward and be innovative enough to address the societal problems that South Africa has”. All early researchers should use the platform ‘’so they can become what they aspire to be as researchers of note that this country needs”.
Major Eunice Maeshibe Marema of the South African National Defence Force and a master’s student at Wits School of Governance, said she endorsed Thuso Connect because it was a great initiative to help mentors and mentees meet “to share ideas from different walks of life’’. Thuso Resources was an accessible way of accessing resources. And both platforms helped people acquire knowledge, which was the ideal way to empower societies.
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa