Postgraduate Research: What To Expect
By Sophie Sadler
Are you a new PhD or Masters student this year? Or perhaps a third year considering research in the future? Either way, we’ve got you covered in our handy guide for what to expect from postgraduate research. Whether it’s the thought of proposing your own research; socialising and making new friends now that all your undergrad friends have scattered to the winds; or budgeting as a grown adult without a real 9-5 job, we’ve got the tips to turn the daunting into the doable.
DAILY LIFE AS A POSTGRAD
Unlike undergraduate students, it’s most likely you’ll have your own desk to work at in your department. The benefit of this is that you can treat your work a bit like a 9-5 job if you want to. You’ll be able to get more work done and feel more productive as you’re spending the day in an office surrounded by like-minded people. This means you can also keep your weekends free, if you manage your work well!
Ideally, you should aim to meet your supervisor at least every other week. How often exactly depends on what you and your supervisor think is best – meeting every week can be very useful if you need deadlines to keep you on track, but if you prefer more time to get on with things then once every other week could be what’s best for you. Just make sure you discuss this early on with your supervisor, so you know what to expect and have meetings organised in advance!
You will find that there are lots of meetings and events for academics in your department. It’s always good to get involved and share your research with others. Talking to other postgraduate students in your department is a good way to find out about other developments in your field. However, you should avoid falling into a trap of comparing yourself to other students. Every postgraduate degree is completely different! The number of papers another student writes, or the number of conferences they attend is completely independent from your own experience.
First things first: get to know the other postgraduate students in your department! In the time of COVID, this may not be particularly easy, but some departments will have discord channels, for example, which you can join to communicate with your fellow students. There will also be a student representative for your department, who you can contact if you have suggestions for things like social events.
One of the great things about being a postgraduate student is that you have the benefits of both adult life and student life. Once you get a job, many activities which are cheap and easily accessible as a student become expensive and harder to get involved with. Now is a really good time to take your last opportunities to get involved with student societies. Most sports are significantly cheaper as a student and may not require you to have your own transportation, for example. Of course, the added benefit is that this is a great way to meet people!
CONSIDERING THE FUTURE
One of the best things about doing postgraduate research compared to having a job is that your time belongs to you. Take the time to learn new skills relevant to your field just because you want to or are interested in trying something new; there should be time to fit this around your main research, and it only makes you more employable. For example, if you’ve always wanted to learn a certain coding language, your postgraduate degree is a great time to do this!
You may not know what you want to do after your degree when you begin, and this is okay, but at some point you need to decide so it’s good to start thinking about it. The two major paths after postgraduate research are academia and industry (i.e. just getting a regular job). If it’s industry you’re more interested in, it might be good to get internships during a PhD, depending on your subject. If you want to stay in academia, focusing on the best research outputs possible is probably the way to go. Another good thing you can do if you’re interested in academia is get some teaching experience. This brings us onto the next thing…
As a postgraduate student, you will have the opportunity to apply to be a student demonstrator. This is completely optional, but as mentioned above, it can be a useful experience. And importantly for this section, it earns you a bit of extra money. For some subjects, e.g. mathematics, you can get involved with marking as well as demonstrating in classes. This is also good for making money as the more hours you spend marking, the more you can earn!
Generally, postgraduate students earn a stipend to live on if their research is funded. This is unfortunately not as much as a normal 9-5 job, but as mentioned earlier, you have all the usual student benefits. This means student discounts; take advantage of these!
As with anything, you’ll get out what you put in. The more you interact with the other postgraduate students, the more you’ll find others who are experiencing the same things as you and who have advice for succeeding. Though, if you’ve been accepted to do a postgraduate degree, the chances are you’ve already done a great job of succeeding as an undergraduate student. That means you have all the skills and experience to succeed at this new endeavour, and most likely this time you’ll be doing it with less frequent hangovers!