When I was deciding whether to take on a research masters in geology at Trinity College Dublin, my main concerns were my level of interest in the subject, the availability of funding, and job prospects afterwards.
Once the decision was made, I thought I would slip comfortably into my new life as a postgrad. But I was unaware of how challenging the transition from undergraduate study to postgraduate research would be.
As an undergrad student, you attend classes, hand in coursework, sit exams and gain feedback throughout the academic year. But if you decide to take up a research-based postgraduate course rather than a taught one, you are faced with a dangerously blank-looking schedule.
While an undergraduate’s week is dictated by their class timetable, research students need to organise their own time and partition their workload, often with very little guidance.
The lack of structure means you can easily allow a serious backlog of work to build up. Having left the cocoon of the lecture hall, at first I felt quite lost.
With most research courses lasting two to four years, you can lull yourself into feeling you have all the time in the world. Sleeping in and putting things off can be very tempting.
Excellent time management and organisational skills are prerequisites for any research student. Based on personal experience, this is not the time to develop these skills: by now, you either you have them or you don’t.
“Create the structure you used to have as an undergraduate. Schedule time for writing and organise opportunities for feedback and socialising, for example through conferences,” says Dr Tamara O’Connor from the student counselling service at Trinity College Dublin.
A tip? Ask your supervisors for deadlines and small assignments early on in your course. Personally, I’ve been fortunate – my supervisors have been present and helped me stay focused. But if you feel you need a framework to help you pace your study, don’t be afraid to ask.
Without classes to attend, you inevitably meet fewer students. And the friends you hung out with during your undergraduate days are scattered around the globe.
It’s to your advantage to socialise with the other researchers you encounter. Cultivating these relationships will help you stay on track – seeing what your peers are accomplishing can be very motivating.
So besides making sure your course is right for you, these are some of the issues to consider when poring over postgraduate syllabuses and wondering if you’re really cut out to be a researcher.
As for me, after a few weeks of adjustment, I eventually settled into my day-to-day research into the carboniferous rocks of County Clare, Ireland, and really began to enjoy it. Suddenly my schedule was full again and I could breathe a sigh of relief.
I can really relate to this, particularly since I’m currently doing my MRes part-time whilst working 40+ hours a week! You can get a bit of angst (‘is he not replying because I’m a part-timer?’) as well as frustration (I handed in a formative essay over four months ago and still don’t have a clue how I did – though I certainly could have followed that up if I could only remember to at the right time!).
Having said that, I think that @tiorladam and @jeronimo97 have it quite right when they talk about students failing to prepare for that valuable time you do manage to snatch with you supervisor. I tend to find that writing down my question or problem first helps me formulate what I want to discuss in the meeting – at least so that I can speak cogently rather than in a mix of broken sentences and hand gestures!
I have one more year to go and, though I’m looking forward to finishing, I know that I will look back on these two years and consider myself very lucky to have been given the opportunity to take my studies completely beyond what I achieved at undergraduate level.