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Life as a postgraduate student (Advice)

For an article on my website, I gathered advice from professors and other faculty for new master's students.

They responded to the following question: "If you could give only one piece of advice to a new student in their first week of a Master’s of Civil Engineering program, what would you share with them?”

The question was open ended, but a lot of the advice overlapped. I want to share the main takeaways from the article here. If you have anything to add, then your comments are welcome.

1. Goal Setting is More Crucial in a Master’s Program than in an Undergraduate Program

A lot of the professors shared advice on goal setting. Your goals for your master's program are critical to the decisions you have to make for the program.

Should you do the thesis or no-thesis option?
What university and city will best serve your goals?
Do you want to join academia long term, or the private sector?

You can't make these decisions confidently unless you have a specific end goal in mind.

2. Your Career is Powerfully Influenced by How You Network in Grad School

Your personal and professional network is one of the strongest assets you have to advance your career.

How are you strengthening and growing your network?

3. Everyone is Scared and Overwhelmed You Are Not Alone

Several of the professors shared how their initial experience with graduate school was overwhelmingly, frightening, and intimidating. If you are feeling this way, then know you are not alone.

Talk about it with others in your program. Look into getting counseling. A lot of graduate programs have a counselling service that is free to students.

Your sanity and happiness is worth prioritising.

4. Take Advantage of Your Graduate Program’s Services and Support Staff

If you are currently enrolled in a graduate program, then you may have a whole menu of services available to you, including:

-career and professional development services
-writing workshops and tutoring
-assistance for finding a mentor -networking events
-counseling services
-family and spouse support services
-health and wellness programs

Why not take advantage of everything offered by your university?

5. Be Appreciative of Your Time in Graduate School and Maximize the Opportunity

Graduate school can be brutal, especially if you are doing it while working.

Even if you are not working while in graduate school, you are experiencing a ton if stress on your financials, your energy, your time, your relationships, etc.

You need a strategy for keeping your head on straight and a system that allows you the space to appreciate your life and your program.

Practicing appreciation and gratefulness can mean the difference between succeeding and a mental breakdown. Take some time to develop a plan for implementing appreciation and gratefulness in your daily habits.

6. Find Your Motivation Why Do You Want to Succeed in Graduate School?

Do you know why you want to succeed in your graduate program?

Does this reason align with your personal values and beliefs?

Clearly defining your purpose in graduate school will keep you focused and energetic. Take the time to really dig into what graduate school means to you personally.

It has to be more than just money if you want to be a top performer in your program.

Original post by trogdor713

Thank you for this :smile: I've moved it to the postgrad support form. Feel free to add to it as well

@She-Ra FYI :smile:

Life as a postgraduate student

by Kathy Davies

Why I chose to study postgraduate course - Whilst I was writing my dissertation for my BA (Hons) History degree back in 2015, I suddenly realised how much I loved the discipline I'd been working on for the past 3 years. It suddenly hit me how much I was going to miss researching and writing about history, and talking about my work with like-minded people. Being from an Armed Forces upbringing and the first of my family to ever go to university, postgraduate study was not something I had really thought about until those final months of my undergraduate degree. But, after encouragement from my dissertation supervisor and the realisation that I wanted to (and was capable of) building a career in researching and writing History, I knew postgraduate study was the path for me.

A typical day at uni - I treat uni like a job - one I really enjoy. I aim to get in to the graduate school for half 9, have my emails done by 10, and work on whatever article I am reading or chapter I am writing until around half 4, grabbing lunch at some point in between. Having the graduate school space to work in is basically like having an office, and we treat it as such. Not only is it an ideal place for working, but other postgraduates are always around to have a coffee with or a quick chat, and support staff are always there to help you out if needed. Whilst I spend most of my time in 'the office', there are also workshops and postgraduate reading groups that I attend regularly, put on by the university or organised by ourselves. These break up the day nicely, and give you a chance to develop various skills, confidence, and networks with other MA and PhD students. At the end of the day, I tend to meet up with other postgraduates for a drink at the Red Lion, where we take stock of the world, share ideas and concerns, and if we can, relax.

What is my life like as a postgrad student - I am constantly challenged personally and intellectually. There are always opportunities to develop my skills and confidence, and I am part of a community which strives to build each other up and see one another succeed. Admittedly, life as a postgraduate student is hard work and occasionally lonely, but there are always people out there who will understand and support you.

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I founded the Postgraduate Research Students' (PGR) Society at SHU in 2017 to ensure every postgraduate researcher here had a student-led support network available to them. We put on regular events and socials, such as pub quizzes, walks in the Peak District, and day trips to places like York and Liverpool, to bring PGR students together for non-academic purposes and help students to maintain a healthy work-life balance. The society has really contributed to the experience of many PGR students at Sheffield Hallam, and has become a very important part of my life as a postgraduate student.


My advice for you - Make sure you are deciding to do a postgraduate course for the right reasons. Postgraduate study is not the same as undergraduate study, so don't underestimate it. You will need to put the work in. So, make sure you are choosing to go into postgraduate study because you really want to develop your knowledge and skill in the discipline you choose, and actually enjoy the discipline you want to spend (at least) another year of your life working on.

Once you're in, get involved. Whether it is joining the postgraduate society, attending reading group sessions in your department or helping to organise conferences or events; getting involved with these initiatives will enrich your experience here, expand your network, and help you to kindle new friendships among the postgraduate community.
(edited 6 years ago)
Reply 3
Hello! Not sure if this is an appropriate place to ask but: how much time off would people say is a reasonable amount for a 1st year humanities PhD student?

I'm obviously aware that this differs place to place and person to person, and there's not a correct answer but I'm aware from my undergrad and masters that I have a tendency to work stupid long hours 7 days a week until I exhaust myself and this probably is not a great plan for the PhD haha. I'm trying to plan out my upcoming year and schedule in breaks, as I want to give myself some structure without terms to do this for me. Thanks!!
Original post by Oxf12345
Hello! Not sure if this is an appropriate place to ask but: how much time off would people say is a reasonable amount for a 1st year humanities PhD student?

I'm obviously aware that this differs place to place and person to person, and there's not a correct answer but I'm aware from my undergrad and masters that I have a tendency to work stupid long hours 7 days a week until I exhaust myself and this probably is not a great plan for the PhD haha. I'm trying to plan out my upcoming year and schedule in breaks, as I want to give myself some structure without terms to do this for me. Thanks!!

You may be allowed a certain amount of time off like annual leave or you may have to work this out with your supervisor but yes it is very uni dependent. And burn out is actually very common with PhD students so that kind of schedule is not a good idea at all. Remember that a PhD is very different from anything taught so you really need to pace yourself.
What an excellent post @trogdor713, with some excellent words of advice for upcoming postgraduate students!

As a postgraduate student myself, I wanted to lend some advice to any prospective students who are interested in a masters course!

Firstly, make as many friends on your course as you can! On a masters course in particular, you'll meet so many new people who a vast variety of backgrounds such as different undergraduate courses, ethnicities, religions and more. It's a creative pool of different opinions and perspectives which is so incredible to engage within. My partner finished his masters five years ago, and to this day he will still meet and chat with his old course mates, and they will share laughs, life advice - and importantly, job advice and even opportunities.

Secondly, have fun! A masters course will be intense, and you'll need to study - but when you work hard, you play hard. It's important to relax with these new found friends, so choose a University with lots of places to relax and hangout. I loved the University of Kent due to their having multiple bars, lots of restaurants and cafes all around campus - even a club! And if I wanted even more choice, I can walk into the city and experience more clubs, more bars, more cafes, escape rooms, stunning walks, and more!

Finally, don't let your undergraduate degree define your future studies and path in life. Perhaps your undergraduate degree was in Psychology - don't let this hold you back from pursuing what you want, apply for that course in Marketing or Politics that you desire! Put your interests and passions first - you won't succeed as well as you could have if you study something you're not interested in. And it also goes for your grades too. Many people see a 2:2 grade as 'too low'. At the University of Kent we consider applicants who achieve a 2:2 award in their undergraduate, with a flexible approach to admissions whereby considering each student and their personal circumstances.

In summary, don't hold yourself back, make as many friends as you can, and have as much fun as you can - because it'll be one of the best years of your life!

- Nathan
(edited 2 years ago)
What a great thread @trogdor713! I would definitely second a lot of the advice given here, especially in terms of goal-setting and accessing support. I'm now in the second year of my PhD but these are my top tips for getting the most out of your Masters course:

1. Get Involved!

I went back to uni after an 11 year gap to do my MA. As a mature commuter student with my own home and a family, I was worried I wouldn't fit in with the university community and that there wouldn't be anything for me to get involved in outside of attending my lectures. How wrong I was! During my MA year, I probably got involved in more extra-curricular opportunities than I ever did during my BA!

In addition to the usual roster of university clubs and societies, you'll probably find that your uni has PG-specific opportunities such as student journals, student-led conferences, seminar/lecture series, and academic development workshops. Whilst it is really important not to get overloaded (see my next tip!), taking part in the most relevant (and interesting!) of activities such as these is a great way of getting to know other PG students, provides excellent networking opportunities, and helps you to gain valuable skills for both managing your Masters project, applying for/undertaking a PhD, and building your CV for your working life beyond your Masters degree.

2 …but Don't Feel You Have to Do EVERYTHING

The above being said, don't feel you have to sign up for everything. Masters study is pretty intense before you add in any additional pressures such as a part-time job, family commitments, or extra-curricular activities and there can be a lot of pressure to take part in all of the things and to pack your schedule to get to as many workshops, conferences, and networking events as possible - especially if you're CV-building or looking to apply for PhD funding.

It's therefore really important to make sure you don't burn out. There will, inevitably, be far more on offer than you can possibly find the time to do so really think about what you want to get involved in. What will attending that conference/workshop do for you? How will it help you develop as a researcher? How does it help you to reach your goals? Is it a valuable use of your time?

And remember that there is absolutely nothing wrong with deciding that the most valuable use of your time today is doing something fun, catching up with friends, spending time with family, going for a walk, hitting the gym or taking a mental health day. All work and no play does not for a healthy Masters student make! Which brings me to tip number three...

3. Plan Your Time

Masters study is much more independent than an undergraduate degree. Even if you do have taught classes, you'll probably find yourself making a lot of decisions about your own research such as formulating your own essay questions/thesis topic and methodology, researching and reading independently, and choosing which workshops and conferences to attend. There's also a greater expectation that you'll seek out support if you need it and will take a greater degree of control over your own learning and progress. As such, planning how you spend your time and managing your workload to give yourself a healthy work/life balance is crucial.

Like @hallamstudents, I chose to treat my MA like my job. So, on average, I worked 9-5.30 Monday to Friday, giving myself 30/45 mins for lunch and a couple of coffee breaks throughout the day. That isn't to say I didn't deviate from that routine sometimes - part of the joy of being an independent researcher is being able to be flexible around your working commitments - but having that 'working day' routine helped me to dedicate sufficient time to my studies whilst keeping protected time for family, friends, and fun time.

Time management is a skill - and like any other skill, its one you learn through practice. What works for me might not work for you - we all learn at our own pace and find different methods and routines helpful, so find one that works for you and don't be afraid to experiment a bit until you do. And if planning and time management is something you struggle with, seek support - your supervisors and tutors are there to help you, as are student support and academic development teams, and many universities now run academic development sessions on these skills. Which brings me to my final point...

4. Don't be Afraid to Ask for Help!

Yes, Masters is more independent but that doesn't mean you have to do this all on your own. As a PG student, you still have access to a full range of university support services - from student support, counselling and wellbeing support, tutor and supervisory support, academic writing and library help, and peer support from your student's union. Make sure you reach out to them and utilise them if you need to. Feeling overwhelmed is a very common experience at PG level so talk to your supervisors, tutors, and peer supporters if you're feeling unsure or anxious, or if you're not sure what you should be doing next - they'll be able to offer guidance and support, as well as to point you in the direction of other services that might help.

Hope those tips help - there is already some great advice in this thread so hopefully we can build a little bubble of support for new postgraduate students! And as @University of Kent Reps has said, have fun!!

Amy Louise :smile:
Reply 7
Thnx for your guidance

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