Postgraduate wellbeing

Staying happy and healthy is an important part of your success as a postgraduate student. The increased independence and responsibility of postgraduate work requires you to balance numerous projects, stay focused and motivate yourself to keep going with independent research.

Take a look at our interactive prezi on wellbeing as well as our reflections from student bloggers about what it is like to be a postgraduate and the challenges and excitements this may bring:

Becky – studying a PhD with additional needs

‘I started university as a mature student with additional needs including Asperger Syndrome, and some intermittent physical and mental health issues.  I disclosed before starting my course and experimented with different types of support.  Importantly my needs changed between undergraduate and postgraduate study, not because I had changed particularly, but because the nature of the work was very different.  I was no longer writing essays or taking exams, so the extended deadlines, exam breaks and amanuensis that I had found so useful during my first degree became irrelevant, as my work was lab-based experimental research, self-directed reading and writing my thesis.  How a disability affects someone is so individual that it is difficult to write general advice, but here are some things that made a difference for me:

  • I took a few transferable skills courses in time management, study skills and ‘being a research student’, and I wrote notes for myself about everything I thought might be useful later on, or that I was likely to forget.
  • I also learned to be kinder to myself and accept that moving from a taught degree to a research degree was going to be difficult, involving a lot of change, and would challenge me in a lot of new ways that I might not immediately value! 
  • The biggest help was having a supportive supervisor who understood my way of working.  To help me recognise when I needed to ask for help, whilst acknowledging the waxing and waning nature of motivation, inspiration and productivity that is part of studying for a PhD, my supervisor and I agreed that I would let him know if a week passed without me achieving anything on my To Do list.
  • I also learned to accept that things that other students enjoyed doing or found useful, were not necessarily going to be enjoyable or helpful to me, and that whilst there was a lot of wisdom to be found in talking to others, sometimes it was just better to find my own ways of doing things. 

Although the support I received from the central university was less formalised as a postgrad than it had been as an undergrad, it was still useful to keep in touch with the disability support office, as they did arrange for me to have an additional person in my PhD viva, whose role was pastoral rather than academic. I now have a PhD in Psychology and continue to work with universities to support students with disabilitues.

For those who are interested, some advice I have previously written specifically for students with Asperger’s is reproduced here:

Emily – the challenges in transition to PhD study

‘The transition to doing a PhD was initially really exciting. It was something I’d been thinking about doing for a long time and I was really looking forward to leaving my job and moving to Brighton.  I signed up for some MSc courses, met my supervisor and some other students and started to get some books out and set up my workspace.

I soon came across a couple of challenges though. The first one was that I wasn’t used to sitting down and working at a desk for hours on end and I found my arms and neck were really sore after a day’s work. The second one was that because I started late, I constantly compared myself to other students – I felt like everyone else seemed to get it and I was a couple of steps behind. The first challenge was fairly straightforward to overcome – I started going for a walk around campus or doing some exercise in the morning and not only did the aching ease but I felt more alert and ready to work – I often had my best ideas on those walks! The second challenge took more time and was about developing my confidence as a researcher and as a student. I was used to being highly competent in my job and it was like being bottom of the class again.  Once I prepared and submitted my research proposal and this was accepted I felt a huge sense of validation in my ideas and the way I communicated them. Since then, I feel I much more confident working independently to develop my research topic.  I want to tell others about it and have already presented at two conferences this year and am looking forward to doing more!’

Archana – studying as a mature postgraduate student

‘I returned to studying after a long career break and am mid way through an MA in Information Studies. Becoming a mature student after spending several years as a full-time parent has been a rewarding experience which I attribute to having worked through challenges in three areas.

My biggest challenge was in trying to achieve a balance between my studies, part-time work and family life.  At first I attempted to maintain the same level of commitment to all my responsibilities; it was only when I reached the end of the first term in a state of exhaustion that I realised that completing my studies would require me to prioritise commitments and share household tasks with family members.  Once I had accepted that I was not “Superwoman”, everything became much more manageable.  An unexpected reward was discovering that my partner is a talented cook!  

Secondly, I felt academically challenged throughout the course; although I received disappointing results in my initial assignments, I found my lecturers to be generous in their advice and guidance.  By focussing on the areas they recommended I was able to develop my critical thinking and writing skills.  For me, studying as a mature postgraduate has been an opportunity to interact and learn from experts without the self-consciousness I experienced as an undergraduate.

Lastly, I was surprised by certain aspects of my personal learning journey; undertaking new experiences with a diverse group of people led me to recognise and reflect upon my personal strengths and weaknesses and it is this learning that I am taking forward with me into the future!

My advice to other post-graduates would be to:

  • Recognise the commitment you are taking on and feel comfortable asking for help from others – you can’t do it all!
  • Value the feedback you receive from your tutors and listen to what they have to say about how you can improve and develop
  • Enjoy the journey – not only do you learn about your subject, you learn a lot about yourself too!’
Jon – being a part-time postgraduate

‘For me, the hardest part of becoming a part-time postgraduate student was the establishment of a balance between work and study. Having graduated five years previously, I had got used to a working day that finished when I got home; suddenly I found that a lot of my working days never seemed to end.  Even when I hadn’t planned to do any work for my studies they would still be at the back of my mind. At the cinema I once caught myself trying to remember the definition of ontology, although this might say more about what I was watching then the postgraduate experience itself (‘Tree of Life’).

Talking to my employers about my studies so that they were aware of the pressures that I was under and the dates when I may need to take time off made the process much easier. Even when I ran out of annual leave towards then end of the year, letting them know in advance had allowed them to manage around it. They preferred to let me have a planned day or two off and make up the time then to catch them unaware by calling in sick. I may have been lucky with the manager that I had, and I’m sure many would be less sympathetic, but it’s still better to attempt a compromise then to try and keep your education as some sort of secret second life.

Once I had managed to get my job balanced with my studies I found going back to university to be even more rewarding than I thought it would be. When you’ve been out of education for a while the amount of satisfaction that you get from a good mark after working hard on an assignment catches you by surprise. Early on in the course this feeling was also mixed with a degree of relief, as the concerns that you had over losing the ability to write academically since you were an undergraduate start to fade.

When I began to think about using my course to change careers, I found that my replies to job interview questions often felt more natural when I was talking about my MA then my employment. This was especially true for anything along the lines of working within a team, managing my time or meeting deadlines under pressure. I ended up in a job that I really enjoy, and although I think that some of that is down to the dedication that a postgraduate course showed on my CV, most of it came from the confidence that it gave me to answer those questions. Luckily, they never asked me anything about the deeper meaning of Terrence Malick films.’

Graham – preparing yourself for the workload

‘I came back into University after 13 years of work to study for an MA full time.  This involved me moving down to Brighton as well, so this year has involved a lot of changes in my life.  It has been an exciting and exhausting experience as well as being intellectually stimulating and at times stressful too.  I was warned by others who had done an MA that it would be hard work, but I don’t think I quite understood exactly how hard it would be until I started down here, so my first bit of advice would be don’t underestimate the workload.  For a 1 year course you have to work pretty much at full speed throughout the year and you don’t have the flexibility that longer courses allow in planning your time.

I thought I had prepared fairly well when I came down to start the course, after all I had read some of the reading list!  However looking back I think greater preparation for the course would have made things a lot easier.  One very obvious example is looking up how you are meant to reference sources and learning this thoroughly before you start, I didn’t do this and lost some marks on early essays. 

Needing a part time job I applied for various positions when I came down, some involving a considerable commute.  Luckily I didn’t get these ones and by luck fell into a job that was close to Uni, and at 20hrs per week it turned out to be the maximum I could do and cope with the workload.  When considering other commitments wait until you understand how much time your studies will take up.  Many of the jobs I initially applied for I could never have kept up when the workload kicked in after the first 6 weeks, and my decision to start volunteering was rescinded fairly quickly too.

Finally; when studying, try to get into a routine that suits you, don’t try to force yourself into an unrealistic work timetable that you cannot keep to and then get stressed over it.  I do a lot of my work at Uni because at home I tend to goof around and prevaricate.  However I now have accepted that I do this, and now when I work at home I spend 9am-4pm drinking tea, surfing the net and playing computer games and then when I have done all this I work though until the early morning.  Try to fit your workload around your own idiosyncrasies!

I have had a great time studying at Brighton, and I am sure you will too.’

Wellbeing tips in the Prezi, adapted from University of Brighton research into postgraduate students and wellbeing. Morris, C., & Wisker, G. (2011) Troublesome Encounters’ investigates factors in the learning of masters and doctoral students in Education which impact on wellbeing [Online]. 

Don’t underestimate the workload, even if you are only timetabled for a few days a week. Be sure to allow yourself time to settle into the new way of working before you take on extra commitments

MA Student in Library and Information Studies