It’s the second half of semester two and the countdown to graduation for some of you undergrads is well and truly on. You might be thinking, what comes after graduation? Will you go straight into the workforce and hustle your way up capitalist ladders? Maybe you’ll make some serious bank in a summer job, and take a break from the typical trajectory of life after Uni by traveling the North Island in a campervan.
As time keeps ticking away and you get more and more worried about the uncertainty of your future, maybe you’ll ponder enrolling in a panic-Masters or another panic-postgrad course. Before you sign yourself up for a dump truck load more of student debt and a perpetual state of questioning everything you thought you knew, Critic gifts you with some words from the wiser, more worn-out individuals that are postgrad students.
The longer you stay, the more people around you will leave. It’s kind of like a game of last man standing that nobody knew they were playing. “All of your old friends leave and your year group becomes a lot smaller,” said Jada*.
It’s so much fucking work, no cap. Sure, there are fewer little assignments and conventional exams are a thing of the past once you hit your Masters, but holy cow the workload is intense. “I wish I knew how much work it really is and how lost you feel at times. There’s a constant feeling of being overwhelmed but somehow, someway, you always get it done,” said Jada. Growan* said “The Uni should be paying me for being my own lecturer at this point. It’s hard. I really expected fourth year (honours) to roll on from third year (undergrad) but it really levels up.” Bonnie* had more to add, saying: “Everyone feels like they’ve been thrown in the deep end for the first few months. I felt like I was flailing around like a fish out of water.”
The onus is well and truly on you to get stuff done, and you suffer the cold consequences of your inactions when crunch time comes. “Self-directed research isn’t kidding, you have to motivate yourself hard out and it’s really easy to fall behind and be cruisy when there’s no classes or compulsory times to show up,” said Bonnie. Bee* touched on the importance of managing your time to avoid being your own worst enemy. “Begin your research project early. I ended up with many late nights and a super hectic final crunch near the submission deadline,” they said.
People think you actually know what you’re doing? Coming out of an undergraduate degree into postgrad, there’s the baseline expectation that you’re the cream of the crop and know what you’re doing and where you’re going. It can feel like that could not be further from the truth. “There’s a bit of a jump in how self-reliant you need to be to get shit done. It feels like there’s a lot more expectation that you know what you’re doing. But in saying that, there are a few good resources out there, like writing days and workshops. The Māori postgraduate coordinators are really good at reaching out and supplying resources too,” said Niamh.
Asia touched on the fact that you’re expected to know a bunch of things pertaining to postgrad and research in general. “My course just expected us to know what a literature review is, how to conduct specific methodology, what a thesis is actually composed of. It seems like basic knowledge, but literally no one taught me any of this,” she said. Although there is help if you look for it, there is an implicit assumption that you know the basics. “Even the thesis workshops expect you to have some sort of basic understanding, when in actual fact my brain is completely empty and I did not know a single thing,” Asia said.
Postgrad is a full-time job. There’s not much time for anything else, so if you can avoid having to work, please do. Unfortunately, the reality for many, myself included, is that working at least part-time is an absolute necessity. “I wish I didn’t work while studying. It’s so hard trying to manage your own thesis workload with zero guidance whatsoever, let alone having a job as well. If you can subsist on Studylink alone, do it. It’ll be worth it for your mental health and studies in the long run,” said Asia.
There is absolutely no rest for the wicked (you, postgrads). Sleep is a thing of the past. REM can often take a backseat even in undergrad, especially when due dates and exams get closer and closer, and it just seems to roll over into postgrad too. “I wish I knew that sleep and postgrad are mutually exclusive. You have to pick one or the other, you can never have both. At some point in the year, postgrad will win this battle and you will be running off of four hours a night and every week that passes will take about five years off of your life,” said Sarah*. In terms of breaks in general, you can kiss them goodbye. “You will never get a holiday again. You will never have weekends, a mid-semester break, or any form of respite whatsoever,” said Asia.
Make sure you know what course you’re signing yourself up for. There are mega differences between honours, honours-masters, masters, and PhDs, and it’s crucial you make sure you’re clear on which postgrad course you want to do and what it will do for you in the future. “I did not know the difference and honestly just signed up to do honours ‘cause my friend did,” said Niamh.
You could either become a leading world expert on a super niche topic, or never know what the fuck you’re researching at all. “I wish I knew that I would never really ever know what my dissertation is actually on. I thought that writing one would make me an ‘expert’ on a very niche topic, but really I’m a quarter of the way through writing it and I still couldn’t tell you what it is I’m actually researching,” said Sarah*.
You’re going to out-age most of the student population... dinosaur status well and truly achieved. I see this as neither a good or bad thing, just something that is. I’m (definitely not) pioneering the idea that getting old isn’t something we should be afraid of! Old is cool! “I feel old... I’m only 21. It’s like when freshers are told not to say they’re first year, but now it’s with being fourth year,” said Growan.
You can’t compare yourself. The nature of research means there’s no way to logically compare yourself, your process and your research to other students. “It’s okay if you work differently to your peers. It’s about how you work best and that doesn’t always look like nine to five in the office or lab,” said Bonnie.
Failing is simply a part of the process. There will definitely be times when you fall flat on your ass during postgrad. “You have to be ready to fail. Experiments won’t go perfectly like they did in undergrad labs and that can be really hard for straight-A students to come to terms with at first,” said Bonnie. Trust the process.
As old friends leave, new ones will come. Although your younger, wilder and freer friends will move past you at least physically, new baddies will come into your life. “You make so many new friendships and relationships, including with lecturers. Classes are smaller, people have matured, and your lecturers actually get to know you,” Jada said. Deadass lecturers are quirky and funky. “It’s lovely being surrounded by people who are equally excited about their research (if not equally as tired/close to death). That’s the biggest difference between undergrad and postgrad — people (theoretically) WANT to be here, and that’s real nice,” said Asia.
Your classmates are bussin’ and become your actual real-life friends. The camaraderie is real in postgrad and having people slogging it out with you definitely makes the journey more bearable. “I wish I knew that when you do postgrad you automatically make a group of amazing friends, because you all need each other to survive. You will spend all day every day with these people, and they have no choice but to like you. These people will also be your soundboard so that your other friends and flatmates don’t have to listen to you complain about your classes and research all day,” Sarah said.
Even though it might feel like your whole life is about postgrad, this simply shouldn’t be true. It’s important to strive for balance in your life as much as you can. Keep doing things that make you happy and make you feel like yourself. “Even if you think you have no time it’s still important to make time for things that you enjoy. At the start, I felt guilty taking breaks from my study. But I quickly learnt in regularly keeping up the gym and watching my fav shows, I gained energy,” said Bee*.
So, before applying to do your PhD (like Kanye said on Breathe In Breathe Out) or other postgrad course, consider the above pieces of information so generously donated to us by some of the grandmummies, granddaddies, and grand-rents of the student population. Despite all the challenges and obstacles postgrad seems to present, I for one have found it to be one of the most growth-enhancing journeys I have ever taken up.
“It’s so, so important that you study a topic you love with all of your heart; that passion will keep you going, even reading tedious academic literature can be fun if you enjoy the topic enough,” said Asia.
If you do end up doing postgrad and feel like you’re not the spitting image of what a postgrad student should be, everyone around you probably thinks you’re well within the means of your abilities. Fake it till you make it. That’s the only way I’ve ever gotten shit done that I never thought I could do, and that’s on imposter syndrome vibes.