If the name Liela Groenewald rings a bell, it might be that you've seen her perform at a music festival or heard one of her haunting songs on the radio. Although the love for music has not dissipated, Dr Groenewald now performs a leading role in the Tygerberg Doctoral Office at Stellenbosch University's (SU) medical campus. As we kicked off May commemorating Workers' Day, we dedicate this series of articles to our staff and their important contribution to the University. In the interview below, Groenewald tells us more about her work.
Could you explain your role at SU?
I head up the Tygerberg Doctoral Office. We are a small team who provides comprehensive support to all those who have a stake in the doctoral programme in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS); provide a faculty-based contact point for postdoctoral fellows; and facilitate FMHS research master's examinations. Each team member takes individual responsibility for a slice of work, and I maintain oversight of the whole package.
To facilitate this work, we maintain a comprehensive database on all aspects of doctoral studies, from which we compile reports for consideration by the FMHS Committee for Postgraduate Research. We also keep up to date with the latest information on administrative and governance processes related to the doctoral programme, whether that information is relevant for applicants, students, supervisors, heads of academic environments, programme leaders, or Faculty and University management.
In short, we are a one-stop desk aiming to make it as easy as possible for doctoral researchers and their supervisors to excel at their research, while adhering to ethical principles and good governance. To make sure we do this as well as possible, I also liaise with all other units in the University relevant to our doctoral cohort, to see where we can streamline processes or strengthen support and development.
What does a typical day at work look like?
Well, I manage the operational aspects of the Tygerberg Doctoral Office, support the work of the FMHS Committee for Postgraduate Research, help to streamline all aspects of the doctoral journey, and then there is some cyclical work. So, there isn't really one typical day.
But I do touch base with my close colleagues just about every day to make sure that we are on top of any needs that have been expressed in the Faculty. Nicky Cockrell is our encyclopaedia of institutional memory and takes full responsibility for all aspects of research master's examination. Brigitta Kepkey is a well of energy and wit who joined us in December and keeps on top of a stream of incoming queries from PhD students and supervisors, and manages our databases. We also benefit part-time from the work of Marifa Muchemwa, who has been supporting international PhD students and helping me track and analyse institutional data, as well as that of Chanelle Windvogel, who is helping to develop support materials for doctoral students and to prepare for our Predoctoral Short Course.
I must confess there is heavy load of email queries, but I am a sociable person and I very much enjoy talking to people – I like days that involve personal contact with colleagues. That can happen when I'm a soundboard for heads, supervisors, and students who need one-on-one advice to navigate a specific part of the doctoral journey. But I also reach out to quite a wide range of other environments to build an understanding of all the processes that affect the doctoral journey; and then relate that information to the people who need it. If a specific process may have a knock-on effect on enrolment, throughput, graduation, or the doctoral experience, I work with the relevant teams or individuals to promote user-friendly processes and build a collaborative institutional culture where there is an opportunity to do so.
How did your education or past experiences prepare you for this role?
I spent the best part of my career as a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). I completed my own doctorate while working as a fulltime academic in the department, under supervision of my fantastic SU mentor, Simon Bekker, together with my departmental head at UJ, Tina Uys. They were both wonderful, respected academics and researchers with strong, international networks. I feel very privileged to have been mentored by two supervisors of this calibre and by other colleagues in the department, including Sakhela Buhlungu and Ashwin Desai.
I joined UJ just after it was created as a comprehensive institution, and this was a wonderful period of fast-paced transformation. UJ did incredible work to support student access and success while accelerating research and publication and climbing the rankings; to open the doors of learning and provide proof that diversity promotes excellence.
For a number of years, I had the opportunity to convene a weekly public seminar together with my colleagues Letitia Smuts and Tapiwa Chagonda, where I had the opportunity to see some of the most celebrated scholars in the field engage our own postgraduate students in an intimate and interactive setting. I was able to witness greatness of intellect and character up close when world-renowned scholars would engage our postgraduate students with humanity and humility. It was a riveting environment.
I also convened my department's master's programme for many years, so I did manage to develop a thorough understanding of a spectrum of issues to consider with respect to the postgraduate and research degrees: from recruitment and selection, through bursaries, supervision, risk management, cohort building, capacity building, throughput, and outputs. That experience is directly relevant to the work we do daily in the Tygerberg Doctoral Office.
And finally, I completed my honours degree at Stellenbosch University, so I did have a good idea of what I was doing when I accepted this position in October 2021.
What do you enjoy most about your role and working at SU?
The work holds rewards on the level of individual interaction, but also because we have an impact on how our Faculty and University performs and how it is perceived in the broader higher education sector. I hope to help shape our environment so that it will appeal to a diverse and first-class cohort of prospective research degree students.
I also enjoy being a champion of all those involved with the FMHS doctoral programme. By streamlining systems and processes, we can free researchers, supervisors, and students from soul-destroying red tape, and energize them to achieve excellence in their research, reach their goals, and spread the word about their experience at SU. This is why we place information at our Faculty's fingertips; this is why we strive to manage all administrative and governance processes in an efficient, ethical, and enabling manner.
But aside from this specific role, I thrive in a higher education environment because I am convinced of its worth. I value the truth-seeking rationale of scientific endeavour, in which all claims and explanations are tested and re-tested against evidence and from all possible perspectives. I value the contribution that education and research make to the well-being of society. I appreciate the transformative role that higher education plays in individual lives and communities. It holds the key to social mobility and structural transformation. Higher education work is part of building a brighter future. That is fundamentally what makes me happy to do this work at the start of every workday.
Tell us something exciting or interesting about yourself that few people would expect.
That is for me to know and for you to find out! The “exciting" details are reserved for those who will take the time to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with me at one of Stellenbosch's cozy bistros. All the better if there is jazz in the background.