10 Things to do to prepare for your studies

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 notebookWhatsApp Image 2019-02-20 at 20.30.47

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.

Choosing coursesWhatsApp Image 2019-02-20 at 20.30.47(1).jpeg

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).

Creating templates

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

WhatsApp Image 2019-02-20 at 20.30.48.jpegI 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.

 

Studying the distant universe while staying grounded

Over the past few years, astronomy has jumped to the forefront of science in South Africa. With the development of the Square Kilometre Array and the continued success of the Southern African Large Telescope, our country is an exciting place to be as a young astronomer. Although I’ve always had an intense curiosity and a love of mathematics, these massive projects drew a clear path for me into studying astronomy and physics at UCT in my undergrad and doing my Honours in Astrophysics and Space Science through the National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Programme (NASSP). From this year, I will be working toward a Masters Degree in the field at the University of Cape Town and the South African Astronomical Observatory.

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The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), Sutherland

I first stumbled across astronomy by reading the late Stephen Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time, and countless documentaries on Discovery channel and National Geographic articles. I was fascinated by how we could determine how our universe works on a fundamental level by observing the night sky. Unanswered questions, like dark matter and how galaxies formed, are what hooked me. Astronomy and physics – which are interlinked with each other – both required two things I still enjoy: asking questions and doing maths.

My research will be in extragalactic astronomy. In other words, I get to look at pretty pictures of galaxies about five billion light-years away and write a thesis about it (I wish it was that simple!). I will be concentrating on galaxy mergers – an important step in the evolution of galaxies and a small puzzle piece in how our universe got to the way it is today. My work involves analysing observational data from telescopes and plenty of coding in Python.

However, this journey was not always easy. At the end of my Honours year, I decided to take a ‘post-graduation gap year’ in 2018. Although I was still set on becoming an astronomer and getting my PhD, I was burnt out and wanted to try something different for a while. I spent five months working at the IAU Global Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), which is hosted at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town and working on some creative projects. My work at the OAD involved writing articles about how astronomy had been used to promote sustainable development across the world. After my internship at the OAD, which changed my perspective on my responsibilities as a scientist, I found myself missing research and began working with my supervisor on turning my Honours project into a publishable paper.

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Two galaxies, NGC 4676 A&B, in the process of merging.
Credit: NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (UCSC/LO), M.Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA

When studying something as abstract and distant as astronomy, it’s easy to lose sight of the reality of living in a country like South Africa. I have made it my goal to promote development and wider inclusion of wider demographic diversity in STEM – and particularly in astronomy- in South Africa. As a brown, Muslim woman in a highly male-dominated field, it’s important for me to positively contribute to creating a scientific environment where everyone is welcomed.

One way of doing so – along with being a good role model as an academic – is to be involved in associations such as that UCT Space and Astronomy Society, where I serve as a committee member for two years. That experience showed me the importance of communicating science and how astronomy, in particular, can bring people together under the same sky. Being part of the SAYAS blog team for 2019 also gives me the opportunity to expand on those goals as a platform for me to engage with other young scientists across the country.  

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Inside the 1.9 meter telescope at the South African Astronomical Observatory site in Sutherland after a long night observing galaxies in 2016

I enjoy planning, organising and self-improvement, so I’m looking forward to tackling the challenges my Masters degree will bring with it. I’m happy to share advice on staying organised through the chaos that is a postgraduate degree, talk about the struggles we face as South African postgrad students, and sharing new developments in my research. I’m also excited to write more about astronomy and how it impacts us as South Africans.

Please feel free to ask me questions about my studies in the comments below and don’t forget to check out the posts written by my fellow SAYAS bloggers!