Transition to postgraduate level

The transition to postgraduate study presents new and different challenges from studying as an undergraduate. Some students may choose to study a postgraduate course in a different subject or have a long gap between the new course and previous study. For most students, this transition is part of a natural progression in academic knowledge and/or professional capability. However, it is important to consider the raised expectations in terms of the following:

Critical thinking

As you start to  immerse yourself in academic debates in your reading and start to think about engaging in independent research your ability to read, think and write critically will develop as a consequence. This is about:

‘Taking a challenging attitude to what you read, hear and observe and being able to develop robust and cogent arguments of your own – either in writing, speaking or in decision making contexts and being willing to act on this, not just academically but in the ‘real’ world’ (LearnHigher, 2013)

While this also applies to undergraduate study, as a postgraduate you are expected to expand this further in order to produce a piece of work (the thesis or dissertation) that has an original contribution to knowledge. It is only possible to judge originality by being creative and critical about what knowledge exists already, what questions it answers and how successfully and what input your research has to the debate.

Critical thinking involves engaging with complex academic ideas and consequently, it is supposed to feel like a challenge. However, for further information on how to think critically, why this is important and how to overcome some of the barriers to thinking critically see our pages on critical thinking. 

Managing your reading

As well as gaining more specialist subject knowledge at a Master’s or PhD level, postgraduate work requires more reading to:

  • Understand your topic in a wider context (what it means, what other aspects there are to it, what other people have said about it and what you think about that)
  • Situate your understanding of the topic in how you understand the world (theories about what constitutes knowledge, theories about what it means to research, appropriate research tools to investigate your topic, how to analyse your data)

Reading more requires rethinking your note-making and filing systems and your use of the Library. You may find it useful to:

1) Make contact with someone in the Library. As well as helping your to physically locate materials, they can advise on invaluable topics such as how to set up automatic email alerts when new journal articles are published in your field and how to access libraries outside of Brighton and use inter library loans.

2) Attend training on using reference management software. Packages such as EndNote can help you organise your references and take notes on electronic journal articles, saving you time and paper. For information on how to use EndNote see the Library guide.

3) Create reading timetables. This is particularly for PhD students or for Master’s students where there are a couple of free weeks of reading ahead. Make a schedule for what to read and when and set yourself targets to stay motivated. Remember that quantity isn’t everything – it is far more crucial to be able to really understand key articles and books, rather than trying to grasp everything on a surface level. 

4) Write about your reading. This seems like an extra task but can save you time when it comes to witting assignments or chapters for your research. Once you have read a book or article, summarise what the author(s) has said and note your response to it. Even if you just write a sentence or paragraph – this helps fix it in your mind and provides a statement or two about the literature that you may use in future writing.


Finding your academic voice

If we think of academic careers along a spectrum from a first-year undergraduate to a professors, as a postgraduate student you are becoming ever closer to being seen as an academic researcher, a professional and a colleague. As a Master’s student you will be conducting your own original research that contributes to knowledge on your subject and as a PhD student you will become an expert within your research community.

In order to feel comfortable having a voice as an academic, you need to develop confidence in your ideas and your way of expressing them. This academic voice is highly personal as is the way you write, the ideas you choose and your approach to your research. However, here are a few pointers to consider in developing your confidence in your academic voice:

  • You will be asked to justify your ideas. Try not to see this as a personal attack (though at times it may feel like that). Instead, the person asking this wants to know on what grounds are you basing your ideas. Is it based on original research, if so what are you doing and why having you made those decisions? Or, is it based on theoretical claims, if so, who talks about these ideas, in what contexts and what debates surround these ideas? Not everyone will agree with your ideas but you gain validity as a researcher if you can confidently justify why you are thinking in the way that you say you are.
  • Make the most of opportunities to talk about your ideas. This could be anything from presenting at academic conferences to talking to your friends and family about your studies. Form a study group with supportive colleagues and take turns reflecting on where you are in your research and what questions you have. Talking about your ideas and getting feedback often helps you realise you sound much more eloquent than you may have thought you ever could.
  • Write often. The process of writing things down helps to develop your ideas. If you are forced to sum up what you mean in a sentence you have to really think about what you mean and what evidence you have to base it upon.
  • Own the vocabulary. You do not want to aim to be deliberately opaque but complex ideas sometimes require a complex vocabulary. For those who are uncomfortable with using academic language, think about it like learning a foreign language. When you first start leaning, it is much easier to listen to others before you feel confident speaking but once you are fluent you start to think in this new language and it becomes natural. The same goes for academic vocabulary. Practice, write and you will find a voice.


Shifting identities

Postgraduates study can feel life-changing and it is important to be prepared for this transition.

For those who have taken time out from study, becoming a postgraduate student can involve a shift in identities which may be challenging. For example, friends and family may still expect the same amount from you even though you have a new commitment and it may be more difficult to say no when your time is not constrained by fixed working hours.

Also, for those who are moving straight from previous study, being a postgraduate can feel different from being an undergraduate. It requires you to take it very seriously in terms of the workload and the time commitment and more is expected of you in terms of having a mature and professional attitude. This can result in a shift to a more serious student identity where you have to, for example, turn down work and personal commitments due to your studies.

Here are a couple of pointers to think about in terms of becoming a postgraduate student:

  • Treat it as the equivalent of a full-time job (35-40 hours). However, recognise that this may be the only time in your life you have the flexibility to choose the hours you work according to the way you work best. Enjoy this and use it as an opportunity to think about how you like to study and consequently, what sorts of careers and lifestyles would suit you best in the future.
  • Find a way to separate your studies and the rest of your life. This could be by physically leaving or tidying away your workspace or being strict about the time you will finish studying. Time relaxing away from your studies allows you to come back to it refreshed and often with new ideas.
  • Talk to your friends and family about what you are doing and how much time it will take so that they understand what a commitment it is.
  • Include your friends and family in what you are doing and talk to them about what you are reading, thinking and researching. Firstly because it is always productive to communicate your ideas to a range of other people and it helps make them clear in your mind. And secondly because if your identity shifts to that of a student, you want the people you love to understand so that they can be part of that journey too.
Independent learning

Most Master’s courses involve attending several hours of taught classes per week and PhD students also attend extra classes and supervisions, with some even having set hours to be in labs, for example.

However, in general, postgraduate studies do involve more independent work, particularly in terms of researching and writing the dissertation or thesis. The independent nature of the work is its best and worst feature.  The freedom to choose what, how and when to study feels liberating. However, it can be difficult to motivate yourself to work and can feel overwhelming in terms of how to focus on what can seem to be a huge and abstract task. Here are a couple of pointers:

  • Think about your motivation for why you decided to study your postgraduate course. What motivates you to care about your subject and to do your work well? Keep this thought in mind to pick you up at times when you can’t get started with writing essays or feel like you have too much on. Knowing your goal can help you prioritise what is important.
  • Organise a quiet and comfortable study space. Make the most of the university’s libraries and study facilities and work out the most productive time of the day for you to study. It can help you stay motivated to vary your study space – from a more relaxed café one day to working in silence in the Library the next day. Others prefer a more fixed desk with everything to hand. Find out what suits you.
  • If you are doing a PhD or at the time of writing your Master’s dissertation, have your research questions with you in your study space to focus what you’re reading and thinking. It can be easy (and often productive) to go off and explore texts and ideas from other areas but you constantly need to ask, how does this relate to the questions I am asking about my topic?
  • Build a network of supporters around your studies – from your supervisor to fellow students. Seek and value their input and feedback and keep them informed when you have questions or you get stuck. Although this is your course and your research, you don’t need to go it alone.
Funding opportunities

There are a number of funding opportunities avaliable to support you as a postgraduate. Many postgraduates also work part-time but it is important to find a balance between paid work and study so that you can dedicate enough time to your course.

Choosing your research project

For PhD students in particular, the first part of the course will involve choosing or finalising your research project and having it formally approved. This can be a difficult transition as it can involve making decisions on how the next few years will be spent. It can also involve managing the expectations of your supervisor or other funding bodies in terms of what they want from the research.

For Master’s students, you will also have to think about what you will do your research project on towards the beginning of the course.

See our information on choosing your topic for guidance on what makes a successful project and how to write your proposal. 

Whilst the transition you go through and the challenges and excitements you come across will be highly individual, two key points emerge from the advice above. Firstly, it is important to create a community of supporters around you and your studies – including your supervisor, fellow students and friends and family. Secondly, it is important to recognise the commitment you are taking on and what this will mean in terms of time and workload in order that you give yourself the space to read, to think critically and to develop your ideas into an original and interesting dissertation or thesis.

The Postgraduate Journey – Advice from Brighton staff and students