What I wish I knew (when I started my postgraduate degree)

Reproduced with permission from Quantifyyourfuture.co.za

Pursuing your studies in honours, masters, or a PhD will give you an opportunity to challenge yourself and become an expert in a field you are passionate about.  You should expect to be guided less and to think more for yourself than you may have done with any previous studying.

We chatted to some industry professionals who shared their tips on what they wish they knew before they started their postgraduate journey. These tips will help you prepare you for the challenges and ease your transition into postgraduate study.

Know who you are

Before you get started, think about whether you’re the type of person who enjoys working on their own, or needs constant supervision. The type of person you are will help you decide on your research topic and supervisor.

Choose your research area carefully

Having a genuine interest in what you are doing will keep you motivated during challenging times.  Try to find an area that you are passionate about. Your research objectives might change along the way, but that’s okay – it can actually be a good sign that you are progressing well with your research!

Choose your supervisor carefully. He or she will  play a pivotal role in the success of your study. Do not be afraid to ask for help.  Communicate and report to your supervisor regularly.

Find opportunities to present your research. Get in touch with people conducting related research at your university (including from different departments), at conferences and arrange visits to external research labs. Presenting can be scary, but it gets easier as you practise and it’s a fantastic way to network and get feedback.

The differences between academia and industry are vast. Being exposed and engaging with the “beauty” of real-world challenges and problems is a fantastic way to learn while still under the “protection” of academic supervision.

Make use of resources and networks

Consistently attend departmental seminars and lab-group meetings, even (or especially) when the topic is not your area of expertise. There is always a lot of interesting work that other people are doing – you can learn a thing or two that may help shape your research and career.

From a resource perspective, Google Scholar is an exceptional tool for finding articles but it can also take you down a rabbit hole. Be clear up-front what keywords you want to use in your search!

Criticism is crucial

Constructive criticism can make you a better researcher.  Do not take it personally but use it to make you stronger and to improve the quality of your research!

Manage your time

Draw a timeline with achievable, realistic goals. Your goals may shift so keep adjusting as you go. Reaching smaller milestones will motivate you to continue on this path. Have a routine and try to stick to it.

Communication is key

Communication can help solve many of your insecurities, uncertainties and issues  – and it’s important to get this right from the beginning. Communicate with both your peers and your lecturers, as you will need this component to build relationships that may be key to your future employment. Effective communication also aids the relationship with your supervisor, and you’re sure to feel a sense of accomplishment when everyone knows where they stand.

Have a support structure in place

Make enquiries at your institution about support programmes that might be available.. Find out about workshops and seminars on academic writing, sourcing articles and journals, applying for funding and coping with stress.  Surround yourself with people who are supportive, understanding and respect your studies. Build relationships with your classmates.

Remember – you’re not alone! Having open, honest conversations will help you immensely. There is no shame in asking for help – whatever it might be! Support and collaboration will make things easier.

Make time for yourself

Pursuing postgraduate studies is demanding and can be very challenging, intense and stressful. ‘Me-time’ will help you to prioritise your life around your studies. It is important to commit to the programme, build a timetable for yourself, and try your best to implement balance in everything you do.

Take care of yourself by exercising, following a balanced diet and taking time off. Adopt a healthy routine that will rejuvenate you. Try to be patient with yourself when times get tough..  Make time for family, friends, hobbies and social activities to help energise you.  Give yourself things to look forward to!

Physical activity is essential to avoid burnout. It doesn’t matter if it’s a walk, run, or a session at the gym – time spent exercising is never time wasted and will help to clear your head and get your endorphins working!

Work hard, Work smart

Embarking on a postgraduate journey requires  a serious time commitment. Apart from having to work harder and independently, you need to be able to self-motivate and exercise self-control to meet the goals in your timeline.  You will be expected to take greater responsibility for planning, monitoring and managing your time.

Plan and write down everything you do — even if it doesn’t work. This includes meeting notes, method details, code annotations, among other things.  Ideas are easily forgotten.

There is no doubt that a postgraduate degree is challenging, but it might also be the most rewarding thing you will ever do. We hope that these tips and tricks will help you navigate the road ahead.

A big thank you to the contributors of this blog post;

Arusha Desa, Lecturer at UKZN

Humphrey Brydon, Lecturer at UWC

Mogamat Yushly Collop, Capitec

Leon Matsuro, Standard Bank

Clement Tilley, Standard Bank

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