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Dr Holmes-Watts accomplishes a dream 20 years in the making
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing
Published: 28/03/2024

Graduating with a PhD from Stellenbosch University (SU) on 25 March was an emotional day for many reasons for Dr Tania Holmes-Watts.

Her co-supervisor and role model Dr Cyrill Walters sadly passed away in December last year. In one of her last messages to Holmes-Watts, she wrote: “Tania, I am so proud of you. Remember, no one can take your PhD away from you."

She will always treasure that message, Holmes-Watts says. “I experienced Dr Walters as a true role model, someone who offered a voice to the underdog without fail. I commit to do the same. I treasure her memory, what she stood for and our time together."

Studying towards a PhD has been a dream Holmes-Watts has nurtured for over twenty years. But early in her career, she was told she is “not PhD material". “If this labelling was meant to crush my spirit, it achieved the opposite as evidenced today – graduating with a PhD in Science and Technology Studies," Holmes-Watts states proudly.

“I grew up in Atlantis, a town where social ills like gangsterism, unemployment and poverty are at the order of the day. Neither my parents completed school, but my father often said to me: 'Tania, education is the key'.

“I found myself being a first-generation graduate in my family and married to a foreigner from South-Sudan, Scotney Watts. We met when I was 20 years old. At the time he had just completed his PhD at SU in what was then called Conservation Ecology Nature Conservation. The following year, we fell pregnant and got married. We've been married for over twenty years now and find ourselves parents of three boys. Scotney has always been my biggest, most passionate supporter. I thank God for him."

As a first-generation graduate, Holmes-Watts started her career at the National Research Foundation where she was employed in the Human and Institutional Capacity Development Unit in Pretoria.

“I was there for two years and then moved to Cape Peninsula University of Technology, serving in the role of Research Grants Manager for more than a decade. Part of my duties were to train academics to acquire funding and to pursue their doctoral qualifications. For a long time, I just felt that it is disingenuous for me to encourage colleagues to do a PhD when I did not walk that road myself.

“My various roles in the research management space were a huge motivation for me to do relevant, meaningful research at doctoral level. In 2022, I was appointed as Executive Operations Manager at the University of Fort Hare. It was a culmination of events that got me, with the blessing from my family, to resign from the position a year and a half later, by and large, to also ensure the finalisation of corrections to my PhD dissertation." 

The findings of her doctoral research resulted in the design of an intervention model purposed to improve research performance in public universities in South Africa. “My research results counters common narratives that relate to systemic inequality pertaining to scientific research and research management that links to perceptions of 'white excellence' and 'black failure' among Historically Advantaged Universities and Historically Disadvantaged Universities, respectively."

Holmes-Watts says she is very grateful for the support and guidance she received from Prof Jonathan Jansen, Distinguished Professor in Education at SU, who also supervised her studies. After the successful examination process of her PhD, Jansen told her: “Well done, Tania. You have done the hard work and showed character."

The journey to achieve her academic goals was difficult and fraught with challenges, Holmes-Watts admits. Although she has always approached her work with excellence and passion, she encountered discrimination and prejudice.

“For some, obtaining my PhD posed too much of a threat. If my PhD journey can be explained through film, it would not fit the genre of a drama or even a romcom. More like a horror movie with a twist!"

The unconditional support from her family and her faith carried her through the difficult times, Holmes-Watts says. “In a recent sermon our senior pastor said we need to allow the One who designed us, to define us. On graduation day, I bore witness to the faithfulness of God Almighty, who sustained me and my family throughout this journey in every season. Thank you, Lord."

Reflecting on the ups and downs of her academic journey, Holmes-Watts says she believes everything happened for a reason. “Everything that occurred on my PhD journey was necessary, leading up to the recognition bestowed on me when I graduated."

Her family is super proud of her academic achievements, Holmes-Watts says. “The boys call me 'doctor' as soon as they get up in the morning." Her children clearly give her much pleasure. “The eldest, Noah (21), is studying Information Technology. The middle one, Jeremiah, is in matric this year. He serves as a Student Representative Council member for his school for the second year now. And then Joshua is our last born. He is in Grade 4 and has already decided that he must also secure a PhD. He is not sure in which subject area yet."

Holmes-Watts treasures the past few months when she could just be a full-time student, full-time mom and full-time wife. “It was glorious!" she laughs.

On a more serious note, she adds Walters had written a book chapter entitled “Mommy Penalty" in which she gave an honest account of the realities faced by women in academia. “Women need much more support, compassion and understanding. In fact, I salute every woman who takes on this journey, it is not for the faint hearted. But with God on your side, all things are possible."

Holmes-Watts says she's grateful for the opportunities she received at SU. “One thing is certain; my life is in many ways better and enriched because I embraced an opportunity afforded to me to enter Stellenbosch University. I worked hard to achieve success in my studies." 

​PHOTO: Stefan Els