Life as a research student

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The life of a postgraduate research student is very different from life as an undergraduate - so it helps to be prepared.

Postgraduate study can be quite different from what you are used to as an undergraduate student. Generally, postgraduate students have studied at undergraduate level for three or four years in a very timetabled manner with lectures, tutorials and laboratories at set times. You are expected to attend these, submit your continuous assessments and laboratory work, complete and submit a final-year project, sit your end of year examinations and then graduate, all in a very structured way.

More responsibility

Postgraduate students entering a fourth level of education move up a gear. You'll need to accept more responsibility for your time and become more disciplined in juggling research and, if doing a taught course, tutorial time.

A bachelors degree, although specific in a particular area, whether it's engineering or ancient history, is quite broad. Postgraduate study tends to be more focused, whether you are continuing your studies to enhance your knowledge in a particular field or studying a completely new discipline.

Postgraduate students have more interaction on a one-to-one level with academia and can be very much involved in the operations of their department. Quite often they assist lecturers with undergraduate lectures, tutorials and laboratories. Many departments provide their postgraduate students with their own offices, computing facilities and common rooms. Frequently, in research areas in particular, you may have to attend international conferences and in some instances present your findings at such a conference.

Money matters

As a postgraduate student you may have a more 'comfortable' student life than you will have been used to as an undergrad: many masters/PhD programmes are funded, so you might get paid to go to college. On the other hand, students who are not funded and have to finance themselves through their postgraduate studies may have to juggle a part-time job and study. This can be difficult when some of your peers are already working and you can't afford the luxuries that they take for granted. However, it is important to remain focused and remember what made you want to continue your studies in the first place. The rewards can far outweight the sacrifices in the long run.

Keeping track of time

For research students, it's crucial to keep motivated because you are not in structured timetables. Set yourself goals to ensure you remain on target to get your research completed in the set time. It is important to liaise closely with your supervisor.

Students on taught courses also need good time management. Remember to allow yourself ample time when lectures finish to complete your thesis. It is advisable to submit your continuous assessments as soon as possible after the date you receive them; you really don't want to be in a situation where you have to hand in assignments and sit examinations within days of each other.

If you intend to pursue postgraduate studies immediately after your degree, remember to recuperate in the summer after your final undergraduate exams. Ideally you'll want to start your postgraduate programme fresh and raring to go, rather than still exhausted after your final undergraduate year.