Am I a good or bad postgraduate student?

Over the years since I started my postgraduate career, I have come across a lot of different kinds of people. I have seen students who spend all day from 6 am to 9pm (or even later) at the office; those who disappear from campus for weeks in a row; those who spend all of their time in the lab doing experiments; those who are in the office every day with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and their email (to make themselves feel better) tabs opened; and those who come occasionally for tea time and leave immediately after lunch. People are different and depending on what research you are doing, there are different expectations for each one of us.

Those doing theoretical/computational research do not necessarily have to be on campus every day (if they have a really good internet connection at home); as compared to those who have experimental work and are required to be in the lab to get experiments done. Like I said, people are different and we do different research, therefore, there are different expectations for each one of us. It is not fair or right to expect all of us to have the same work schedule. Some people work better at home than others. Just like Sesethu mentioned in her July blog post, all fields matter and we shouldn’t look down on others because they appear to not be putting as much effort into their studies like we do.

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I am one of those people who do experimental research and is expected to be on campus most of the time doing “experiments” but strangely enough, I fall under the “occasionally showing on campus for tea and leave after lunch” group. In the beginning, everyone would comment on how scarce I was and that I must be working really hard in the lab doing “experiments”. I would laugh and agree with them to make myself feel better that I am working very hard and being a good student. Unfortunately for me, this lie caught up with me and now everyone is shocked to see me on campus after 3pm. Is there such a thing as being a “good” postgraduate student? Well, I googled it and to my surprise, there wasn’t much on the topic but I did find something worth reading.

I am particularly happy with this one set of slides I found by Dr Sherry Beaumont. Nowhere does it say that I need to be in the office all day every day to be a good postgraduate student (which is fantastic news for me since I struggle with that). The slides give pointers on what the definition of a successful graduate student, what the characteristics of a good graduate student are and how to be a good graduate student. It is very consoling to me that I can say I follow some of the tips given but I still need to work very hard on this “being a good postgraduate student” thing.

I decided to change my search from “how to be a good postgraduate student” to “how to be a successful postgraduate student”. This search, on the other hand, yielded many results, I literally could not choose which page to open first. Since I like things summarized for me, I decided to go with a post by The Grad Student Way.  They published a post on 10 ways to be a successful PhD student; while choosing the right University is one of the most important things to consider, it is also important to stay passionate about your PhD. It is also very important to learn as much as we can, network, communicate, work hard, preserve, stay productive, read and publish. The last two are very important; you can never read enough, there are so many published papers out there for us to learn from and the best way to show all of your hard work is through publishing.

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If the journey to a Masters or PhD degree is not straightforward, how are we expected to behave in a certain way? There is no such thing as a good postgraduate; as long as you put in effort, dedication, commitment and stay passionate then you will conquer the bumpy road towards the red gown. Let us continue soldiering on to become successful postgraduates students, I mean, why be good if you can be successful?

Dear Postgraduate student

You may not know who I am but if you have been following the blog posts from SAYAS then you have a rough idea of who I am.  I just thought I should check up on you and see how you are doing. How are things going? By things, I don’t necessarily mean your research but I mean everything in your life generally. Are you eating well, getting enough sleep and spending time with your family and friends?

It is June now and we are halfway through the year, those of you have just started your MSc/PhD’s have probably submitted your proposals or working to meet the deadline. I have always felt like June was a good time to reflect on the year thus far. I always ask myself: “what have I achieved so far this year in my research?” Sometimes the answer to that question isn’t a good one, we all have this little timeline of how we want our MSc/PhD to go but it never really does. I am here to tell you that it is fine that everything is not going according to plan if it is then great for you.

June is an extremely busy time for the undergraduate students because it is exam season. Everyone seems to forget about us postgraduates because we don’t have exams and assignments anymore. Well, I am here to remind you that you are not forgotten. I am thinking of each and every one of you out there who are working hard to do your first submission, final submission or just trying to make sense of the research.

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I know some days are harder than others but like all things in life, this too shall pass. Some days, I wake up and ready to conquer the world but other days I just want to sleep for the whole week. Unlike undergrad where we know exactly what is expected of us in terms of what to study and when to submit assignments, postgrad is slightly (trying not to scare anyone) more demanding. No one ever really warns us about what we are getting ourselves into and those that do warn us, we seem to not take them seriously because we believe we know better.

Since June is a good time to reflect on our journey thus far this year, let’s go through some checkpoints to see if you are surviving postgraduate or if it is surviving you.

  • Do you belong to a community of practice?

Are you part of a community of postgraduate students where you discuss how things are going? This community does not necessarily have to be people from your research group or even your department. Not all the problems we come across are research-related, sometimes someone from a different faculty might be going through or have gone through a similar situation. At Wits University, we have this Postgraduate club called “The PiG”, this is a place meant strictly for postgraduates and staff members. This has been a great place for me to meet fellow postgraduates where we discuss our research and life in general.

  • How well do you know yourself?

Well, we all know ourselves but do we really know ourselves well enough? I know that I suffer from stress-induced insomnia. When I start having sleepless nights and watch the night pass by slowly then I know that I am definitely stressed. I have multiple ways of dealing with my stress so I can’t really point you in a certain direction. Sometimes I lock myself in my room until I feel better, I take a walk or go for a hike, have a night out with my friends and other days I eat so much sugar and junk food. You need to know what the signs are that make you believe that there is a change in your behaviour that needs to be addressed. Then once you know these signs, find ways of dealing with these changes that work for you.

  • Are you looking after your mental and physical health?

There are many reports on the mental health of postgraduate students being a crisis, which is why I started my letter to you by asking if you are eating well, getting enough sleep and spending time with family and friends. There are many articles in the internet that address this issue of mental health and how to look after yourself, read through them and implement them. It’s better to lose a few minutes of your time taking a walk or a short jog than to wake up one day in the hospital because of fatigue. Please make time to take care of yourself both mentally and physically. Walking around looking like a zombie in the lab or campus will not get you your degree any faster. Here is a blog by Munira where she discusses how having hobbies can help with the postgrad life.

  • Are you dealing with life as it happens?

I have spent the first six months of this year trying to order equipment for my experimental setup. What was supposed to be something that takes a month dragged on for four months instead? This basically affected everything else that was meant to happen afterwards, at first I didn’t take it well but life goes on and I have since then readjusted the plan for the year. Life continues happening while we are doing our research. Like I mentioned above, things will not always go according to how we plan them. The trick is to be able to adjust our plans with what life throws at you. Challenges will come our way all the time, some will knock us down but be strong enough and get back up.

I really hope that you are doing well and if you are not, I hope things will get better soon.

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I admire you for choosing this career path and I know you will make a success out of it.

Yours faithfully,

Joyful