Just two years after she started, during pregnancy and early motherhood, Dr. Siti Fairus Abdul Sani succeeded in getting her Ph.d.in Radiation and Medical Physics from the University of Surrey, United Kingdom. For most of her pregnancy, Dr. Fairus and her husband lived in a single bedroom with a shared kitchen at her campus accommodation. She is now a Senior Lecturer at the University of Malaya, Malaysia.
1. Tell me more about yourself.
I am Siti Fairus Abdul Sani, a mother of one. I qualified as a doctorate, graduated in Radiation and Medical Physics from the University of Surrey, United Kingdom, and am currently a Senior Lecturer at the University of Malaya, Malaysia. Raised in a middle-class family, I, along with my four siblings, grew up on the principle – “No matter what happens in life, believe in Allah and be good to people. It will come back to you tenfold in unexpected ways.” My parents worked hard to make us confident, empathetic, hard-working individuals who not only stand on our own feet but also stand up for others. From having a secure job as a manager in one of the top banks in the government to starting up his own business, my father never complained about his fate; he considered this as an opportunity to prove himself in the new job. I learned from my parents that a positive attitude, coupled with hard work, determine success in the long run. I was born and raised in Kluang, Johor, Malaysia. Waking up every morning and going to school was burdensome for me while I was in secondary school. Despite my inner conflicts, I was labeled by several teachers as an underachieving child. The problem was that I had no drive or motivation, so I continuously wondered what others saw in me. I managed to finish secondary school with above average grades. However, I knew it was not my best effort. My life changed forever when I received sarcastic comments on my school grades from my class teacher as well as my brother who went abroad to continue his studies right after I finished secondary school.
I started my A levels at Johor Matriculation College, Malaysia and studied hard to prove that I could keep my nose to the grindstone and be an inspiration to others. I finished my college with a 4.0 CGPA and I was proud of myself. I felt like I had proven a point. My hard work and perseverance paid off – I graduated my college at the top of my class and garnered several awards. I was one of the top 50 matriculation students in Malaysia. Gradually, my mindset changed, and it became less about proving to people that I was responsible or good enough to be looked up to and more about the personal delectation I derived from learning and the rewards of hard work. Thus, my college education built up the most-needed confidence in me.
In 2008, after finishing my college education, I received a scholarship to be admitted to the University of Surrey, United Kingdom. Alhamdulillah, I obtained a BSc in Physics with a second upper-class honors degree. I continued to put in my best in my academic studies. I faced a couple of trials and bumps on the way. However, they seemed insignificant because I had overcome the biggest bump of them all – myself. This experience taught me that perseverance, diligence and inner strength are essential to success and I am capable of achieving anything I set my mind to do. In October 2011, I joined a one-year training PGCE course to become a teacher at St. Mary’s University College, London. After that, I married my college sweetheart before I pursued my studies at the doctorate level.
I would describe myself as a very determined and highly motivated person. I take my job seriously but I can see things in perspective and believe I am quite easy to work with. I am an optimist rather than a pessimist but I am also a realist and I cope well when the going gets tough; I am excellent at finding solutions to problems independently. Above all, I would say I am a positive and enthusiastic person. I relish confronting challenges head-on rather than sweeping them under the rug and hoping they go away. Friendly, joyful, outspoken, confident, straight forward and organised are how my family and friends would describe me. From the time I was in the college, I intuitively knew how to help other students by teaching and sharing ideas. Thus, I did these things for years before I finally figured out that I should pay attention to what this meant for my own career – becoming an educator. I love to teach because I love to learn. To me, it is natural to keep learning all the time; I am just conditioned that way. My mother used to say “you can only empower yourself by educating yourself” and it is something that stayed with me.
2. What interested you in pursuing higher education? Tell us more about your Ph.D. journey.
Since I excelled in my final year undergraduate project, I felt driven to push myself to explore and learn new things. My child-like curiosity had intensified when I became one of the top three students in the class. Without further ado, I applied for a study loan to pursue a doctorate. I embarked on my Ph.D. journey in February 2013 at the University of Surrey, United Kingdom when I was 23 years and two months old with so much excitement, drive and determination. In the first four months of my Ph.D., I managed to attend an international conference in Prague to present my first research paper. This opportunity motivated me to go ahead full speed. In the next six months of my first year, my supervisor went on a sabbatical. I emailed him a few times a week to update him and ask questions, and this was fine with me. In fact, it was great because he had a rather large group of graduate students and collaborators. Most of them were very friendly, supportive and cooperative, and I never really felt abandoned. Most importantly, none of my research progress suffered.
Then, I got pregnant. I was heavily pregnant at 35 weeks when my supervisor returned from his sabbatical. In the UK, the timeline for confirmation of candidature for Ph.D. is usually a year after you start. He gave me two weeks to submit my first-year research report and prepare to defend it in a viva. At the same time, my husband had to return to Malaysia to renew his visa. I also had a job interview with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya three days after the confirmation viva. This process was very painful and daunting for a student mom-to-be. I had to struggle and cope with the workload and pregnancy alone. Alhamdulillah, Allah made things easy for me despite the limited time I had and I passed both interviews. However, the stress affected my physical condition; I felt sluggish and lethargic and encountered bleeding. I knew that babies are ready for delivery anytime after 37 weeks but I was not ready. Knowing that my husband was still in a different continent, I started to have panic attacks. Alhamdulillah, I was surrounded by many caring and loving friends who took great care of me. They swiftly brought me to the hospital and I was admitted for two days. Alhamdulillah, my baby and I were fine.
Again, my supervisor went away. In February, he returned with a mission for me to submit the whole thesis and set up the viva date in June. By that time, I already had four publications as the first author in a tier 1 journal. Thus, I could just compose my Ph.D. out of my published papers. It was an excellent way to ensure that I would pass the final thesis defense without difficulties. I set myself a target of 2 months. I aimed to complete reviewing one chapter a week to complete the six chapters. I had a minimum daily goal of 2 pages. I smashed the target most days. I ended every day feeling good about my progress, which meant that I could start the next day feeling confident. I subsequently arranged a mock viva with my supervisor after submitting the thesis to the department. I was ready.
The day of the defence viva arrived. After years of intensive study and persistent effort, I only had 3 hours to defend my work during a nerve-racking eye-to-eye discussion with the examiners. I constantly reminded myself that I am the expert in my specific field, not the examiners. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally heard them utter, “Congratulations!” It was surreal. Had I really completed my Ph.D.? Alhamdulillah Thumma Alhamdulillah. Within two years of starting and after delivering my beautiful baby, I had succeeded in submitting my Ph.D.
3. Ma shaa Allah! Was it difficult raising a child during your Ph.D. years?
Looking back, this all sounds a little crazy but having a baby during your Ph.D. is not impossible. In fact, it is a brilliant way of keeping you grounded. I would have to say the best time of my life during my Ph.D. was the day I gave birth to my son on 11 May 2014, exactly on his due date at Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford, UK. Alhamdulillah, the delivery of my first child was as smooth and uncomplicated as possible without pain meds. The 20 minutes of battling to push my son out were all worthwhile – the pain was intense and horrible but once I held my baby and saw his beautiful face, all the pain just vanished in thin air. When the midwife placed him on my chest for skin-to-skin contact, his smell was sooo nice that I can still remember it. His eyes were closed when he came out to the world but Subhanallah, he immediately opened his eyes widely once he heard the word Allahuakbar from the Adhan recited by my husband into his right ear.
The first few months of mothering were a blur. I learned the true meaning of exhaustion. The area of my brain reserved for abstract and analytical thinking shut its curtains on me. Instead, the primal parts ignited in full force – feed the baby, change the baby, rock the baby, repeat. A baby demands constant attention and time. You need immense time management, discipline, flexibility, lots of sleepless night, constant stress, and non-existent time for myself. Being a first-time, fully-breastfeeding mom and trying to juggle full-time studies with family life with my immediate family members 6572 miles away got really overwhelming sometimes. It was tough and exhausting but believe me; my little son is the best part of my Ph.D. He inspired me to keep going, no matter how difficult things were. Studying with kids keeps you focused on learning, and you get your work done in a limited amount of time. I diligently worked almost every night after my child went to bed. I nursed my son while reading and studied when he was distracted. Sometimes, I read my readings aloud to my son. Once a week, I would go to the library alone even if it is just for a few hours. I tried my best to use the weekend to catch up and get ahead. Admittedly, it does not always work but it helps.
There will be times when you need to focus more on your child. That’s okay. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Trust me, the best part of your day would be to go home and cuddle your smiling, little baby. Doing hands-on learning activities, playing legos, coloring, going to the park – what could be more fun than that? My biggest hope is to make playing at home seem simple, easy and affordable – because it can be! I strongly believe it is never too early to make learning fun and to make it a lifelong passion. I have documented most of my son’s play and learning activities, including sensory and structured play since he was eight months old on my personal Instagram account (id: totsmom_playlearn). Having my son during my graduate school is one of the best decisions I have made in my life.
4. Did you face other challenges? How did you overcome them?
We faced the challenge of figuring out how to support my family’s daily maintenance expenses. You see, my husband quit his job as an engineer to pursue a Masters Degree (MSc) at Cranfield University, UK. His school was one and a half hours away from Guildford, where I was studying. We were in long distance relationship for eight months. Although we visited each other weekly, truth be told, it was not easy. Sometimes you are so stressed out that you need someone beside you to help you through it. However, we decided to be positive and used this opportunity to focus on our studies. When we were finally ready to reunite on a more full-time basis, I was three months pregnant. We lived in a single bedroom with a shared kitchen at my campus accommodation. Three weeks before I was due, we finally moved into to a spacious family suite that was only 5 minutes away from the office and lab.
In my second year, my scholarship application was rejected unexpectedly. At the same time, my son who was then four months old was diagnosed with eczema. My husband finished his MSc course and worked double shifts as a janitor from 5:00 to 9:00 AM and 5:00 to 9:00 PM to provide for our family. My husband’s schedule worked well for us as he could help to babysit during the day, allowing me to do the experimental works in the lab and meet up with the supervisor. Expenses increased significantly, but we were still able to survive and thrive on his income. When money was tight, we embraced minimalism and learned to be more creative in how we entertained ourselves.
Alhamdulillah, I feel fortunate to have married my husband. He is extremely supportive, flexible, patient and wise. He is happy to do domestic chores. He provided a lot of emotional support throughout my studies. The love and teamwork I have seen in my family this past year are remarkable.
It is also important to have a special relationship with our God, Allah The Almighty. We will continually face hardships and difficulties until the day we die. But if we have a close relationship with Allah, all of the hardships of life will become easy. Allah is always near when we supplicate, as He hears when He is called and He answers when He is invoked. All we need to do is to humble ourselves before Him and ask Him sincerely. By the will of Allah and at the right time and situation, he will grant us happiness, illumination and peace in our life.
5. What’s your favourite verse from the Quran and why?
If you read the Quran you will see that all the Prophets went through trials and tribulations. Life is a test so let us learn from the best examples – our Prophets. Truly, the life of this world is short and its treasures are few. This Quranic verse touches my heart and always gives me strength when I faced any difficulties in life – “Allah does not burden any living being with more than he is well able to bear” (Quran 2:286). Whenever a person faces hardship, it is easy for him or her to give up and walk away from their challenges or complain and blame those around them. They fall into depression, feel sad about their situation and feel powerless. As a Muslim, Alhamdulillah we have a constant guide in the form of Quran. No matter what hardships you confront, you will find solace in it. In the end, I pray that Allah removes all our ordeals and blesses us with good life, for “Verily with the hardship there is relief. Verily with the hardship there is relief.” (Quran 94:5-6).
6. What do you want to say to people who are going through their Ph.D. now?
Life as a Ph.D. student is very different than what you imagined. No lecturer will tell you what to do, and you are not asked to do an assignment or sit for an exam during the whole academic year. You will have a supervisor who, if you are lucky, advises you and guides you through the process, and that is all. There are many decisions that you have to make and you should be ready to take on that responsibility. Getting a Ph.D. is not an easy task at all. It takes passion and patience. The only driver in the whole journey is your self-motivation because Ph.D. is the time when you can totally and completely devote yourself to the study of one particular area and become a real expert in the field. Here is my graduate school advice for new and current Ph.D. students –
1. Read, write and network – these are the top key skills in graduate school.
2. Set an ultimate goal to publish peer-reviewed articles – write, write and just keep writing. The writing process will help your ideas become clearer and better organized.
3. Manage your time and get into a routine. Allocate time to certain activities; it helps motivate you to do what you can for that particular task in that time frame.
4. Stay motivated – It is undoubted that you will be lost in the middle of an ocean of uncertainty, and you will have in front of you a couple of painful years to endure during the Ph.D. period. Understanding the big picture of your research work is a huge, huge motivator. Once you understand that your tiny contribution is going to make a small but measurable difference to this overall big picture, you will look forward to doing what you are doing.
5. Have some self-belief. You came so far and have done so well. You should be confident in your abilities, so be positive!
6. Enjoy the ride! The Ph.D. journey has many perks that make it a great experience. Remember that you are still a student, so enjoy life like a student. Do not take everything too seriously and make use of your free time. You have the chance to travel, get results and present them in conferences. You will meet interesting people, have the chance to explore your ideas and to be creative. What’s more fun than that?
7. What is your hope for your community?
My greatest hope is for the millennial generation in Malaysia to inculcate a love of reading and contribute positively to national development. We are living in a fast-paced country, trying to keep up with the current events of the world. In this new age of technology, we can get absolutely anything with just a single-click of a mouse and in a blink of an eye, be it information, accessories, gadgets. Previous past times such as reading has become old-fashioned. However, the power of reading is essential. Reading opens doors to increased knowledge, builds maturity and character, sharpens our thinking, and widens our awareness in social, economic political and environmental issues. A reading habit does not develop automatically. It needs to be nurtured and guided until it flourishes. Change must start with the individual.