The Postgraduate Survival Guide

There’s lots of advice for those starting college life, but there’s no survival guide for postgraduates – until now


In August, the nation’s collective attention turns to the Leaving Cert results and the panic for college places. With reliable precision, The Irish Times and other serious and important newspapers swoop in to provide reams of advice for the terrified, excited, wide-eyed innocents who are about to be packed off to very big school: “How to survive college”; “100 things you need to know about student life”; “What kind of student are you?”

The poor graduate student barely gets a look-in. Sure, don’t they know all about college life already? But graduate life is a very different beast, and it needs its own special treatment.

The graduate student is jaded from years of crisps for breakfast, exhausted from 18 years of non-stop exams, and weary from the ever-present suggestion of damp. Sure, a small part might be clinging onto the comfort blanket of student life, and indeed some will be desperately batting off the horrors of a real job. For most graduates, however, it’s time to move on; they just want some money now.

But it’s tough. Things have changed. A third-level degree isn’t enough anymore. Employers want more . And so, those 18 years of education don’t come to an end. Instead of being propelled into the real world, these twentysomethings are increasingly signing up for another year, or two, or three, or four, of studying.

In 2013, there were 42,375 undergrad graduates and 17,647 postgrad graduates. These numbers are expected to rise in coming years.

Postgraduate life is not easy. At postgraduate level, there are fees to be paid, and most parents can’t continue to bankroll their no-longer-so-young geniuses. And there’s real, intense and exhausting work to be done: no more four-month long summer breaks; the library owns you and your summers now.

If all this seems a bit cynical, it’s because I spent (let’s just say three) years eking out a living during an interminable MLitt (research master’s) in UCD. Undergraduate life was immensely fun, but at master’s level, the student politics and the college papers and the parties and the buzz of college life became very distant and I felt too old to stay involved.

So, here is my long overdue Postgraduate Survival Guide, guaranteed to keep you healthy and sane during these oft-frustrating years. With a bit of luck, you’ll be in and out in a year.

Postgraduate is to undergraduate as sixth year is to first year
Remember the start of your Leaving Cert year, and how superior you felt to the little kids starting secondary school? Postgraduate students can relive these feelings.

Listen, you’re not like undergrads anymore. Living in the same socks for three days was only possible during that short undergrad window of your life; beyond this, you’re just a slightly creepy man-child. When those young wans eagerly bounce up to you during the very-important election for King of the Debating Society or President of the Student Society for Self-Advancement, look on them with a carefully cultivated mixture of curiosity, pity, and smugness.

You are enlightened now, and you know that stuff never really mattered (let’s just brush aside that time you eagerly campaigned for your new best friend whose inspired ideas for the Students’ Union Education Office promised to radically change the world, only to immediately fall out with that friend when their campaign collapsed in a poisonous heap of acrimony).

Make other friends
There may still be some who see postgraduate studies as an extension of student life. They’ll squeeze every last drop of bin juice out of the soiled rag of college life, and their fingers will be peeled off the last Grecian column at the university gates as they are mercilessly flung onto the cruel street of working life (hey, life is tough). Ahem. A better idea: don’t linger around with the same old cliques. Of course, this is even easier if you’re switching to a new university or college, and this is recommended where possible.

Make new friends, and not just with those in your department, or you’ll quickly find your chosen discipline viciously turning on you as even it gets bored with you droning on about it all the time. Meet other postgraduates and share a collective moan about the shrinking possibilities of academic life.

Choose a supervisor
At some stage, you’re going to have to write a thesis. If you’re doing a research master’s, that begins on Day One. If you’re doing a taught master’s, you’ll still find yourself looking for a supervisor. This may be the most important choice of your postgraduate life. Make the wrong decision and, worst case scenario, it could be very difficult to finish your work.

Should you opt for the very endearing but bumbling Prof Long-Winded? What about the ice-cold, acerbic and intimidating Prof Scarypants? Or maybe you should – to hell with it – just go for that dreamy Prof McBeautiful?

Your supervisor should be there for you, not the other way around. Check out the research interests of potential supervisors in your discipline and ensure they are not too far from your own. Read some of their published work and see if you like their approach. Meet them. You don’t necessarily have to like your supervisor – indeed, don’t make the mistake of picking a supervisor based on how super nice they are – but you do need to respect them and to feel that you can be intellectually stimulated and challenged by them. Finally, make sure they’ve enough time to give you: contrary to popular belief, senior academics have a huge and increasing workload.

Money, honey
Unless you’re lucky enough to have a wealthy benefactor, you’ll probably find it a struggle to pay your way through the postgrad years. The vast majority of postgrads will need a part-time job. You’ll have to balance this with a lot of study. Most postgrads find this all very testing, so make sure to change your bad undergrad eating habits. Being broke becomes exhausting, but it’s not forever: surround yourself with a network of like-minded friends who will be happy to have nights in and take long, free, mind-clearing walks.

Motivation and management
If it’s true that the Leaving Cert is the hardest exam you’ll ever sit , then it is also true that postgraduate study is the most pervasive and all-consuming time of your academic life. Unless you are foolish enough to become a freelance journalist upon graduation, this might be the only time when you really have to motivate yourself. Self-discipline is key. In the first of my (three) years of postgrad studies, I once accidentally didn’t show up for two months. It was an accident, honest. PhD and thesis deadlines start off very, very far away but, before you know it, they’ve sidled up behind you and grabbed you by your unguarded throat. Cue a month of stale coffee breath and all-nighters as you agonise over the placement of every comma.

You will have to learn the art of self-discipline. Treat it like a job, working from nine to five, or 10 to six, or set out a weekly plan which allows you work late two nights a week but take a half-day on Friday and relax on the weekends. That obscure and elusive bright idea that only you could care about will throw a glass of cold water on your face just as you’re drifting off, cruelly forcing you to work into the dawn, so learn to manage yourself.

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