Prior to being appointed Vice Chancellor, Ms Phakeng had been serving at the University of Cape Town as Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation since January 2017. She was previously Vice Principal for Research and Innovation at the University of South Africa (Unisa) for five years, after spending three years as Executive Dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at the same university. She holds a PhD in mathematics education from the University of the Witwatersrand and is a highly regarded B1 NRF-rated scientist, with over 80 research papers and five edited volumes published.
She has been invited to deliver over 40 keynote and plenary talks at international conferences and to serve as a visiting professor in universities around the world (in Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Jamaica, Kenya, Lebanon, Lesotho, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Senegal, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US). Ms Phakeng has won numerous awards for her research and community work, including the Order of the Baobab (Silver) conferred by the President of South Africa in April 2016. In August 2014, CEO Magazine named her the most influential woman academic in Africa, and in August 2016 she was awarded the prestigious Businesswoman of the Year Award in the education category. In July 2019, the University of Bristol granted her an honorary doctorate in science in recognition of her leadership role in mathematics education in South Africa.