Even students who did well in achieving their undergraduate qualifications are often caught by surprise when the full reality of the demands of post-graduate study hits them. And those who struggled through their undergraduate qualifications may see only dark days ahead. But before throwing in the towel, there are a few tips that can help those studying towards Honours and Masters Degrees, an education expert says.
“Many will be surprised at how different the demands are between under- and postgraduate study and may be wondering if they had not taken on more than they can cope with,” says Peter Kriel, Head of the Faculty of Business at The Independent Institute of Education.
“It is particularly the research component of postgraduate studies that seems to floor students. And students often experience an overwhelming sense of loneliness during the research phase because of the personal and individual nature of their inquiry into their chosen field.”
Kriel says combatting this sense of loneliness and isolation is key to making a success of postgraduate study, and particularly so for students who are studying part time or some distance from a campus.
“As is the case with all stressors, the first route of action is to understand what is happening to you and then tackle the experience with solutions that you actively apply. There are a few practical things you must do to help you through this process.”
Form a community of practice: Talk to other students also involved in postgraduate studies, and make a point to not only talk about the academic demands, but also how you experience this path. This way you will realise that you are not alone in feeling overwhelmed. Your community of practice can be an online forum or regular coffee meeting – the point is to ensure that you surround yourself (physically or virtually) with people on the same path.
Know yourself: Take an honest look at your daily habits. You know yourself well enough to identify when you are procrastinating or making excuses. Call yourself out on these and act differently – even if you do not yet feel differently. Be honest with yourself about what constitutes a real challenge and what amounts to evasive tactics. The best way to make yourself behave differently is to share these insights – perhaps with your community of practice or a friend or colleague – and share your commitment to how you are going to change. That way, further procrastination involves letting someone else down too, and is less likely to happen.
Look after your mental wellness: It is normal to experience periods of high vulnerability, tiredness and anxiety about what needs to be done. Balance, says Kriel, is always the answer. Work backwards from deadlines and set yourself many smaller manageable goals; be sure to plan for downtime, rest and relaxation, and get into the habit of a measured pace. Recalibrate your plan as soon as you miss one deadline and you won’t land up with that sickening feeling of not having made any progress on your thesis for six months.
Look after your physical wellness: This includes getting regular exercise and eating well. Kriel says that the 30 mins you take to go for a brisk walk or go to gym or do something you love will not only improve your productivity, but also give you time to reflect on your work, which often results in finding solutions to challenges. Remember that good eating habits do not consist of increasing your intake of chocolate and caffeine only, and excessive alcohol use is a sure way to set yourself up for failure.
Deal with life as it happens: Whether it be a personal crisis, a promotion, a health challenge or failed relationship, life can disrupt the best laid plans. Communication is the key to limiting the impact of life on completing your qualification – speak to your supervisor as soon as you can and adjust your plan to accommodate the new challenge. If you adhered to the above, then it is most unlikely that there will be an objection to you realigning goals and deadlines to accommodate what life has thrown at you, Kriel says.
He says the steps outlined above are not just sound advice for postgraduate students, but for any individual trying to make the best of their life, opportunities and circumstances.
But the value of postgraduate students taking these suggestions seriously lies in the fact that the feelings of isolation and being overwhelmed often come as a shock – particularly to postgraduates who are generally high achievers and usually able to mediate all challenges – and these steps are a sure-fire way to get them back on track.
“Postgraduate students are often surprised by these new feelings and the challenges that they bring, but if they realise that their feelings are normal, that they are not alone, and that there are methods to address them, they are able to stop the spiral of fear and loathing that could prevent them from reaching their dreams,” he says.