Surprisingly, both previous and recent research highlighted that postgrad students worried less about the content of their course, and struggled more with the ambiguity of what it means to study at postgraduate level. Often, students felt like novices all over again, and lacked clarity about their academic skills. How could they read effectively, and extract the necessary information for their assignments? How should they structure their essays? What exactly does a well-written assignment look like at postgraduate level? It was this confusion that made the transition feel rocky for students, and limited their ability to be critical and independent. The expectation for postgraduate students to have already mastered such skills seems to be a common problem. Until this problem can be solved on a wider scale by educational institutions, here are some ways that you can ensure a smoother transition.
Academic Skills > Content
Naturally, you might feel inclined to make a start on your readings. This is a good place to start but be careful not to dive too deep. You might find yourself becoming more confused or discouraged without having learnt the content first. Instead, you can use this time to reflect on your academic skills, and research your course. To gather an understanding of what to expect on your course, you could reach out to current students, or friends who have studied at this level before. You can read blogs or watch YouTube videos about others’ experiences on a similar course, or postgraduate study in general. This understanding can help you to reflect on aspects you might find challenging, or areas you’re likely to excel in.
After this, it’s worth reflecting on your undergrad experience. Do you feel confident in your essay writing skills? Do you know how to search for appropriate academic sources? What did the feedback on your last few assignments look like? Make a list of these skills, and note how confident you feel about them. From here, you can slowly begin to develop these skills. Whether that’s through accessing study resources from your university, and checking what services you can access for support when the course starts. This gives you direction to work with, rather than feeling confused and worried. There’s usually guidance online from a variety of universities on how to develop such key academic skills. While it might feel like they expect you to know all this, the support is there and it’s okay if you’re still developing these skills.
Postgraduate students frequently express concerns about cultivating a good work-life balance. The ambiguity of course expectations, along with the independence that comes with postgraduate study, can leave students struggling to manage their time. To reduce this concern, it’s a good idea to organise life as it is now. If you work or have family commitments, it can help to understand where you’re currently at and how that might change when your course starts. You’ll be able to navigate deadlines, and independently study more easily if you practise a little time management beforehand.
Something I've begun doing recently is putting everything in a calendar. That means article deadlines, social plans, sports games etc. By having all your commitments nicely lined up against each other, it makes planning your days and weeks so much easier - and something like Google Calendar can be connected to email and online video meets, making organisation even easier.
If you’re continuing into a field of study you’re familiar with, you might find yourself feeling confident as you start a new course, which is great! However, in this piece of research, some students expressed that this confidence meant they engaged less than other students because they felt as if they knew the content. This is where mindset is important. As postgraduate study is characterised by independence, it’s a good idea to take mental ownership of your learning. This can look like engaging in your lectures, seminars or workshops. Or, expressing your thoughts and discoveries while working on your research project. Even if you feel inexperienced or lack confidence, it’s this engagement and openness to learn that can help you progress successfully. Likewise, don’t hesitate to reach out for support if you’re confused. Students found reaching out to their lecturers and other staff helped their transition greatly, and found they were able to build better relationships in this way. Universities often have a range of learning services, usually closely connected to the library services that can help you to develop as a student.
As the research suggests, many postgraduate students feel confused and out of their depth. By following these tips, and knowing that what you’re experiencing is normal, you’ll soon find your footing. The best thing you can do is be kind to yourself as you navigate the transition into postgraduate study.