10 Things I Learned From My Master’s Program
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
A master's program is way different from an undergraduate program. For instance, most undergrad programs focus on courses, while graduate programs focus on developing a project (or projects). Therefore, there are more responsibilities in graduate programs since the student has to study, plan, develop, analyze, and write the project(s) while taking classes, and sometimes also being a research or a teaching associate. These things can make graduate school a hard and challenging experience. Although I was part of a supportive laboratory, there were some things I wish I knew when transitioning from undergrad to graduate school. Now that I've finished my Master's in Soil Science, I feel that sharing my experience may help others, who are starting soon or are in grad school already, have a smoother transition. Here are some valuable lessons I gained during this vast learning process that may help you prepare for grad school.
1. ORGANIZATION and DISCIPLINE are essential for success
Plan your work with time ahead. Get a planner, and revise/update it every day, use your phone's or email's calendar, add reminders. Be on top of your work and responsibilities, your progress will depend mostly on yourself. Write down everything no matter how insignificant things seem, it might be helpful in the future (especially in the analysis and writing process), and you will most probably forget things after a couple of weeks. Make sure all your work is backed up or synced on a cloud system.
Stick to a daily routine. Determine the hours that work best for you and designate specific working and personal hours. For example, I designated my writing/reading time for the mornings or nights, the lab work for the afternoon, and my personal time for the evenings. A friend of mine has also recommended always to do the hardest task first, and it helped him be more productive. Most importantly, get to know yourself and the times that work best for you. Try to be as productive as possible at work so you can enjoy your personal time without regrets.
2. Start reading and writing ASAP!!!
It is never too early to start reading and writing. Develop your literature review, proposal, and introduction(s) during the beginning of the program. Scientific writing was way harder than I thought. I left the writing for the end, and that was a huge mistake. Writing takes time, patience, and lots of editing.
Use the resources provided by the University; for instance, the library and the writing center. Find a writing group support. For me, it was helpful to have writing meetings with a friend who was also writing her thesis. In these meetings, we designated time for writing and for short breaks, and we often peer-reviewed our work.
3. Make friends! Build your support system
Don't underestimate the power of friendship, they can help you through your hardest times. Also, it's not a competition, build a supportive and healthy group of peers. Feed your support system; It's very easy to get lost in work, so it is vital to maintain the relationships by helping and dedicating time for each other.
4. Impostor syndrome is REAL!
Impostor syndrome is characterized by a constant doubt that one hasn't really earned one's accomplishments, although that might not be true. The feeling can be strong and destructive. Graduate school is a learning process it's okay not to know everything and to be imperfect. Don't compare yourself to others, go at your own rhythm, we're all different. Many people struggle with impostor syndrome in silence no matter how advanced they seem, so always be kind. Believe in yourself, there's a reason you got in the program, and that reason is that you are good enough and you deserve to be there. Do your best, that's enough. Here's an excellent resource about impostor syndrome.
5. Find one or more hobbies that distract you from work
Unwinding is essential for your health. Find a hobby that disconnects you from the everyday work stress. For instance, some people enjoy hiking, others hang out with their pet and/or friends, others exercise, watch series, paint, etc. Do something different and have fun with no guilt.
6. MAKE time for the things you enjoy
It is alarming to see so many graduate students overwork, burn out, and become unhealthy mentally and physically in academia. In WAGS, we believe this is a toxic academia culture that needs to stop. I learned to be strict with my personal time, it is not healthy to work all the time every day. Find the time to have some drinks with your friends, for instance, go to that concert you've been wanting to go. Take a day off during the week, we are not robots!
7. Ask all the questions you can
There are NO stupid questions. Don't assume things, ask, and get the exact answer, be curious.
8. It's okay to ask for help
Hey, we're not perfect, and we don't know it all, it's totally okay to ask for help! It is also crucial to help others as well.
9. Self-care is ESSENTIAL
Mental health is as important as physical health, don't be afraid to go to therapy, it's actually very helpful. Also, some people recommend meditation and mindfulness for improving mental health. Don't forget to eat healthily and exercise, take care of your physical health, you will thank yourself later.
SLEEP!!! Many studies suggest 7 to 8 hours, but really, sleep as much as you need to feel well. Know your body, give your body the rest it deserves. You work hard, be kind to your body.
10. Celebrate all accomplishments and don't take failures personally
No matter how small these accomplishments are, celebrate, you did it! You finished an experiment, celebrate! You got a grant, celebrate!! You passed your classes, celebrate!! All small and big steps are worth celebrating. Why not, it's fun!
On the other hand, if you got a paper rejected or an experiment failed, that's okay, it's part of the learning process. Don't be harsh on yourself, we're not perfect, you'll get it right some other time.
You can read the Portuguese version here.