It’s becoming increasingly common for young, working adults to go back to school for their Masters or Ph.D. Some want to move up in their career, some want a raise, and some just want to pursue a subject they love.
I spent 7 years trying to finish my Ph.D. These are some of the things I wished someone had told me before I started.
1. Choosing your supervisor is like choosing your husband or wife
Almost everyone doing their Masters and Ph.D. will have to complete a thesis. As part of this endeavor, you’ll need a mentor. Just like Rey and Luke Skywalker, your supervisor will help teach you the ways of the Force, or in this case, the ways of the Thesis.
He or she would help you determine the direction of your study, as well as keep you on track with your milestones. In my case, I thought I had a good supervisor, but it just didn’t work out.
Don’t get me wrong. She was a good person, but she just didn’t have a firm vision which I could follow.
Our objectives and goals changed as often as Taylor Swift changed boyfriends. That led to me having a burnout after 7 years of trying to chase an end that never seemed to come.
That’s why you should choose a supervisor who can make a solid plan for you. He or she should guide you to finish your studies in the shortest time possible.
2. You’ll be constantly living on the brink of poverty
Full-time grad students live off scholarships or a teaching/research assistant grant from the University. Monthly stipends range from RM 1000 to RM2000. That’s definitely not enough if you’re studying in big cities like KL or Georgetown.
When I was a Ph.D. candidate, I supplemented my scholarship money by teaching biology to SPM students. There were also times when I tutored my fellow Grad students (from the Middle East) in English.
Additionally, I had to proofread, edit, and translate many of my fellow students’ thesis and other academic publications just to survive the month. Thankfully, there was a steady stream of work, so that helped.
3. Self Discipline is a Must
Being in grad school isn’t at all like doing your Bachelor’s degree, where every semester ends with exams and you can forget everything you’ve learned. In grad school, your studies on a single subject can carry on for years. You’ve got to have the right personality for it too, and be able to complete long-term goals.
If you’re like me and prefer short-term goals, things can get difficult. I just couldn’t motivate myself after the fourth year.
It’s frustrating to be working in the lab for years and not get the results you’d hoped for. Eventually, it started affecting my mental health, to the point where I couldn’t even get out of bed each day.
Speaking of which, this brings me to my next point,
4. Check your reasons for study
I can’t stress enough how important this is. Your reason for doing your Masters or Ph.D. is fundamental. It needs to be a strong enough reason to make you carry on, even on the worst of days. For me, I just couldn’t find that.
I wanted to do my Ph.D. because I wanted to prove that I wasn’t useless. I was going through some difficult rejections in life and naively thought a Ph.D. would solve everything. It didn’t.
I realized wanting to prove yourself was a shoddy reason. If you’re going to do this, you’ll need something much stronger. Either have a sincere love for the subject matter, or a strong desire to make a difference in the world.
5. Be prepared for nasty people
The road to a Masters or Ph.D. degree is a long and lonely one. No one else will understand your struggle.
Every grad student’s research title is different. Down the road, don’t be surprised to meet people who won’t hesitate to sabotage your project, boss you around, or take out their stress on you.
I remember having a domineering lab mate with a short fuse. She had a tendency of arguing with people. I happened to get into her bad books one day.
It was a silly disagreement over some soil. She had asked me to remove my plant samples from the greenhouse we were sharing. The catch was, I had to remove my plants from the pots as the soil was hers. I was afraid my plants would die or be physically stressed if I did, so I had to take the soil as well. It went out of hand when she went to our mutual supervisor, accusing me ‘stealing soil’.
Boy, was I in for months of drama. It dragged on and on, with one thing after another. Eventually, I gave up and moved to another lab just to avoid her. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This incident caused me to leave my Ph.D. I couldn’t work in the new lab after that, because everything and everyone just reminded me of how badly I was treated and disrespected, despite being a more senior student.
6. Still, there are plenty of good people too
Despite the ugly side of my Ph.D., there were plenty of good people too. There were times when strangers I hardly spoke to helped me with chemicals or lab equipment I needed. They didn’t even ask for anything in return.
Then there are the friends who rescued me one evening when I was locked in the lab. I remember that day clearly. It was a Saturday morning and I had come into the lab to take samples. Plants don’t take a day off and I had to process the samples right away so I took a few hours. Before I knew it, it was late afternoon.
I rushed to the main doors and to my horror they were locked tight. I literally spent the next hour going to all the other doors in the building. No luck. They were all locked too. The only thing open was the windows on the first floor. I contemplated jumping out, but not before I tried calling the support staff on duty.
He was dismissive and didn’t want to come all the way to the campus to let a silly grad student out. He even had the cheek to ask what ethnicity I was and when he found out I wasn’t the same race as him, he slammed the phone down.
As a last resort, I called a friend from a neighboring lab, called A. A immediately called up another girl who had the keys to a side lab door. I was saved thanks to A. These are the types of people that keep you going in grad school.
7. Multitasking, multitasking, multitasking
Being a grad student doesn’t just involve standing behind a counter in a clean lab coat, mixing dangerous chemicals together. There’s also field work, attending seminars, collecting samples, buying your own supplies and much more.
Then there’s also the administrative work. Fill in forms, learn the Faculty’s SOP, keep accounts, keep stock, write emails to people, make calls – the list is endless.
On the bright side, this is an excellent way to prepare yourself for when you start working.
So, is it a scary place?
Not at all! Many people come out of grad school successful and unscathed. However, it can be challenging if you go in with the wrong reasons, just like I did. This is why starting your studies sound motivation and a strong self-esteem is crucial, at least in my opinion.
What was your experience in Grad School like? Tell us in the comments below!