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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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
Confidential advice and support on financial, emotional and academic issues from Student Services at Brighton