7 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting a Post-Grad Course

#7: Question, don’t accept

7 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting a Post-Grad Course
Photo: Kyle Gregory Devaras/Unsplash

#7: Question, don’t accept

Starting a post-graduate course is entirely different from studying at the undergraduate level. You live in a different city, and you’re surrounded by peers and professors of such formidable talent; you almost feel intimidated by their prowess.

Life in graduate school is not a bed of roses, and during most of it, you’re all alone.

There were several lessons I had to figure out on my own while I was pursuing my masters. If I had known them earlier, my life during those years would have been simpler. The following insights are based on my post-graduation experiences in Geotechnical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.

1. The First Semester is the Hardest

You will have to get used to a new college, new routines, attend classes by new professors, and stay on campus with new friends. Getting used to so much novelty can be daunting, especially if this is your first time living in a different city or country. You will feel like everyone around you is already one step ahead, and you’re the only one who hasn’t got it all figured out.

But, let me tell you this: things will get better.

This constant second-guessing yourself is normal, and everyone around you is going through the same, no matter how well they hide it. Just hold on, work hard, and things will get easier. Remember these few tips:

  • Most of the professors are very good teachers and excellent researchers. It’s best to attune yourselves to the rhythm they expect from day one to make sure you can maintain good relations with them.
  • Coursework isn’t everything. It’s essential to keep yourselves up-to-date with current research going on in your field. A goal of reading two research papers each day all through your first semester will help.
  • Quizzes and tutorials matter more than you think. So, even if you didn’t manage to study much, just show up and be present. Sometimes, even attendance can make a difference in your final grade.

2. Connections Are All You’ve Got

In a competitive world where everyone is out to get themselves the best deal, it’s important to network aggressively and establish your own circle of friends/acquaintances.

If your work involves experiments

Make friends with laboratory support staff and technicians. These are the people who will come to your aid if something goes wrong in your experimentation during your post-graduation course.

Interaction with the juniors

Being a graduate student is only half of your job. Most graduate schools pay a small stipend in exchange for making you work for the university as a Teaching Assistant or a Research Assistant. Both of these opportunities are excellent ways to make friends and exchange ideas with undergraduate students.

You never know which random conversation in a laboratory or classroom might become the foundation for your next research publication.

Networking with your seniors

Seniors and Ph.D. students are going to be the only ones who would guide you through your time in Graduate School. It’s best to maintain good relations with them and always keep in touch regarding new happenings in your field.

And don’t forget your classmates

Get to know your classmates well. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of them and gravitate towards the ones you feel are most in sync with your work-flow. Before you know it, they might end up becoming co-authors and colleagues in your future projects.

3. You Will Read and Write All the Time

Every lecture will end with reading assignments. Every course will have term papers and writing assignments. Before you realize it, most of the time that you spend in academic work at your Graduate School will be on reading and writing.

The importance of skimming

Because of the tremendous work-load, you might not find the time to read all the books or the research publications allotted to you. To get more work done in a short time, you will need to learn effective skimming techniques. The true talent of being a researcher is to glean the contents of a research paper by reading the abstract, the final paragraph of the introduction, the diagrams, and the conclusion. When it comes to books, you will have to learn from summaries and effective reading of the book’s table of contents.

Writing a perfect paper

Technical writing and creative writing are poles apart. You cannot use arbitrary or abstract words like “much,” “better,” “more,” etc. Every word you use has to be crisp and convey the exact meaning of the research being undertaken. The good news is, with all the help you will receive from your seniors and project group, you will learn to write very quickly.

4. Your Voice Matters

Growing up through school and university, I had gotten used to my seniors and professors never taking me seriously. But in graduate school, I learned that my voice matters. If I have an opinion or a suggestion, my research group will take me seriously.

When you are the expert on your project, you are no longer a follower. You are a leader. No one knows about your research project as much as you do, not even your professor. And when you speak, people will listen.

This feeling of being taken seriously by people who are much more advanced in their careers than you can be overwhelming, yet, strangely rewarding.

5. Internships Can Only Help You So Much

I used to think that the more internships I do, the better prepared I would be for life. Sadly, that is not the case. A job (or a Ph.D.) is still very demanding, no matter how much “experience” you have.

Internships can only help you so much. They don’t prepare you for the real deal. When you’re an intern, you are working on a single project with just one supervisor. However, while working in a job, you will need to interact with several people and leave a good impression. A job demands skilled interpersonal interaction and excellent presentation more than it demands the quality of your work.

A friend of mine never did a single internship. Yet, she landed a job where she is valued and respected.

Another friend spent two semesters doing internships (even though they paid peanuts) because he believed they would enrich his resume and better his chances of surviving in the corporate world. However, when he landed his first job, he found the atmosphere so suffocating, he had to quit within a few months and start looking for opportunities to do a Ph.D.

When I asked him what lesson he learned, he told me that if he had spent these precious months looking for a Ph.D., he could have saved himself the time and effort.

I wish I knew internships depend a lot on your luck. Landing a stellar internship does not magically guarantee a well-paying job.

6. The Importance of Work-Life Balance

When highly competitive and self-motivated peers surround you, it’s natural to feel that you need to work during every waking hour in the day if you want to see tangible results. I cannot stress how important it is to take care of your physical, mental, and spiritual health while in graduate school unless you want to risk burning out or falling into depression.

It’s important to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Most campuses have excellent sports and recreational facilities. What’s even better, these places are great excuses for meeting new people with a set of interests different from your own. Being a member of hobby clubs and participating in co-curricular activities will go a long way in helping you unwind and take your mind off your academic pressures.

Eat a healthy diet. Sleep on time and sleep a lot. Keep your body moving. Avoid junk food and sugar. Take long walks. Don’t spend all day staring at a computer screen. Remember: a healthy body paves the way for a healthy mind.

7. Question, Don’t Accept

Brush up on your basic skills before you start Graduate School. When you are presented with a hypothesis or an equation, don’t blindly accept it and memorize the patters. Instead, question it and try to understand the formulation yourself.

The same holds true while reading research papers. Just because it has been published in a reputed journal, don’t take it as an unshakeable truth. Try to understand the assumptions and work out ways in which the research could be modified or improved.

Cultivating a curious mindset will help you go a long way in doing some original work in your research career.

8. A Few Bonus Tips

  • Even if your GPA in the coursework isn’t too good, it is possible to make up for it in your project work in your second year. An excellent project with credible citations goes a long way in making your resume attractive to potential employers and universities.
  • If you want to go for a Ph.D. later on, it is best to start reading up on possible research topics from your first semester itself.
  • Explore the library on the campus. It will have all the books you will ever need to get acquainted with your courses. Even if it doesn’t, make proper use of all e-resources made available to you — these should be sufficient.
  • Keep all the lecture notes saved even after the coursework is completed. You never know when they might come in useful next.

Graduate School will probably be the most challenging, and yet, the most enriching period of your life. It is an experience that will test you and change you forever in subtle ways you might have never guessed.

The obsessive need you will face as a graduate student to have at least three citations for each claim you make in your research paper will change how you read articles online. You will no longer believe conspiracy theories unless backed by years of research in peer-reviewed journals of repute.

Another unexpected change you will observe in yourself is that when caught up in an argument, you will hesitate before using strong words like “will” or “definitely.” All your sentences might start with “I think…” or “According to me…” Without verified sources, you can never be sure about what claims you are making, even if it is a simple, informal discussion.

Make the most of the years you are on campus. While you are being productive, don’t forget to take care of yourself and have a good time.

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