Since many of us are getting back to our courses and research, I thought I’d share 10 things that I believe will help me to prepare for my Masters. These are things that will help you save time, stay organized, focus on what’s important for your research and feel more confident. While my experience is limited to being a Masters student in Astrophysics, many of these tips are broadly applicable.
Getting a research notebook
A research notebook is a place to dump all your thoughts, questions, to-do lists, calculations, meeting notes and general research. I personally love pen and paper, and I’m partial to dot-grid notebooks, but any notebook or even a digital Google Doc could serve this purpose. Having a notebook dedicated for your rough work is so much easier than having dozens of loose sheets of paper that get lost. Because there’s no pressure for this notebook to be any form of neat, it’s easier to make productive mistakes in it.
Listing (academic) strengths and weaknesses
Your Masters studies are the perfect opportunity to improve on your weaknesses and take advantage of your strengths. While there are some things that I am ‘good at’ (like reading and understanding journal articles), there are several other skills in my field that could use some work (like radio astronomy, for example). Knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are can help you find a balance between the stress you can handle, the areas you would like to grow and the intensity of your work.
Deciding on research interests
At Masters level, the academic research world is your oyster. You might want to veer off into something totally new; you might want to stay where you are because of how interesting it is, or where it looks like your field is going. For example, I love extragalactic astronomy so I’m staying right here. However, I might incorporate some relevant techniques from other areas. Since MeerKAT is taking its first data, and the SKA continues to develop, getting more experience with radio observations is vital for me as a South African astronomer.
Choosing a supervisor
Your choice of a supervisor can dictate whether you thrive or survive through postgraduate studies. The best advice I ever got about research was “Choose your supervisor – not your project”. I would suggest meeting with several potential supervisors within your research interests and going with the person you feel like you can comfortably work with. Then develop a project you are interested in together.
Brainstorming a topic
I haven’t done this (yet) but it is high up on my agenda. After choosing your supervisor, spend a meeting with them brainstorming a few possible ideas for your research project. After this meeting, you can follow up by reading research articles and thinking about what resources you have available (in terms of data, equipment, etc). Although your topic will naturally evolve and change over time, it’s good to have an idea of where to start and where you’d like to be heading.
My Masters’ programme requires 6 months of coursework and I have to – of course – choose my courses. One of the easiest ways to do this is to talk to students who have done the programme already and are in the same field to find out which courses are most relevant and which ones are not that great. Take your skills, strengths and weaknesses into account to choose courses that will have the most benefit!
Choosing a system to stay organized
As I mentioned in the first point, my notebook is really important for keeping my thoughts organized. However, I will need a system that can handle scheduling and the digital components of my academic life. Since we are in 2019, there are thousands of apps and programmes that make it a lot easier to keep track of papers, references, notes, meetings and classes. Choose a system you like, that is accessible to your devices, and most importantly – works for you (I will be using Google Calendar, Google Docs and my bullet journal for this).
A recent problem I have had is trying to create figures that are all the same size, with readable fonts and colour schemes, that work within A4 journal-article layouts. It’s awful and time-consuming to be fiddling around with plotting parameters and googling fixes for ‘how to make my errorbars thicker in Python’. To solve this, I am going to create templates that I can easily copy and adapt.
Having templates ready will ensure that your work is presented in a consistent way and will save you a lot of time. I will be creating templates for plots, presentations and my actual thesis draft (if you don’t use LaTeX – I would suggest learning it as soon as possible!). Github is a good place to store these templates, and you can have a look at websites like Overleaf for example templates of several types of academic documents.
Updating my CV & LinkedIn account
By the time this post is live, I will be able to officially add ‘MSc Student: Astrophysics & Space Science’ to my CV. It is always good to check if there is anything new that might be missing from your CV and LinkedIn accounts. You never know when there may be a conference, workshop or summer school that you want to apply for on short notice. Having your CV ready to go can save you a lot of stress in these situations.
Reading relevant books
I don’t know about you, but I don’t how to write a thesis. Fortunately, I was recommended a book called ‘How to Succeed in Your Masters and Doctoral Studies’ by Johann Mouton that can (hopefully) teach me. Most university libraries will have a copy of this book or something similar. Have a look around, ask other students for recommendations and try to find a book that appeals to you!
If you are not much of a reader, there may be workshops that you can sign up for offered by your university. Learning how to write a thesis is not something that we’re typically taught in the way Calculus or Statistics are taught and there’s no harm in getting some help!
Even if you’ve done just a few of these things, you’ll feel much more prepared and ready to tackle anything that comes your way this year! All the best for 2019’s academic year.