Things I wish I knew before pursuing graduate studies

While most of the posts I have read are written by CEOs, entrepreneurs and pretty much anyone with a fancy title who have ‘made it’ in the world, I thought measly, young ignorant me would write one too. It’s nothing life-changing, in case you were thinking, so don’t get your hopes up.

Before I started my master’s degree, I was beyond excited at finally finishing undergrad and being able to pursue topics I was actually interested in. I thought for sure I would invent something that would revolutionize the world. I pictured myself tinkering in the corner on my home energy system, holding awards and making lots of money. Imagine your house with a completely independent supply of electricity and water – wouldn’t that be revolutionary? Little did I know what I was in for. If I had known these things, I would’ve reconsidered.

1. You spend half your time reading literature papers

At least one paper a day. And these papers will be repetitive. Call me ignorant, but that was not the kind of research I had in mind. If you are not passionate about your topic, you will struggle. I only just recently realized the term research means re-search (yes, I’m so slow).

2. You might work harder than your fellow friends in industry

I love being a postgraduate student because your time is flexible. You don’t have to follow the 9 to 5 norm. It’s almost like two or three years of freedom to do what you want. There is probably also less pressure compared to industry. Having said that, you still have to put in the hours. You have to work hard and if you are funded, you have a contract to abide to. Depending on your project, you might just have to work on the weekends and after-hours to ensure you obtain your degree on time.

3. Your supervisor matters

Some graduate students say choosing your supervisor wisely is key to your success. It is almost like choosing your friend. You want to choose someone who is compatible with your personality. If you don’t work well alone, you might want to choose a supervisor who will give you deadlines and likes to monitor your progress. If you like more creative freedom, a supervisor who lets you do your own thing might be better than someone who constantly breathes down your neck.

4. It’s okay to not know your project

I was stressing myself out so much because I didn’t know the full extent of my project even after a year into my research. I realized this wasn’t something to be worried about. Most of the time, your research falls into the bigger scheme of things. You will struggle if you make your project so broad that is probably fit for two degrees. Define your project well. Also, if you know the answer already, it isn’t research. Most of the time, you only truly see the full project after zooming out and seeing the final table of contents.

5. Things WILL go wrong

I was ready to quit and told my supervisor so because things just weren’t going right. I put in so much work and after 6 months I was still not getting any useful results. It’s really easy to lose motivation after the 4th time doing the same thing and that thing isn’t even your real research. Just remember that quote: “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor”.

6. Taking breaks is good

I cannot stress this enough. I thought the harder I worked, the quicker I would finish. So I worked and worked without taking any official breaks. This turned out to be counterproductive and I ended up taking more breaks because I was just so tired of seeing my project every day. Consistency is key – work consistently, play consistently.

7. You ARE essentially working alone

If your undergrad was anything like mine, where you had a lot of group work going on, the transition might be difficult. While there is a lot of support and help, it is YOUR project. In undergrad, your peers were all doing the same thing so everyone knows the problems, worked through them and experienced them together. Your research project is entirely your own and no one else is doing the exact same thing as you. That means while others can walk you to the edge, no one can actually take the leap with you.

8. Passion for your work is the most important thing

I’m not talking about a 3 day excitement period and then you are onto your next thing. If you have passion for what you are doing, it will help you through the toughest times. You can’t wait to get into it and it’s something you want to consistently do. I am not passionate about research. I always thought I was. Sometimes you have to do it to know.

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