Managing and Mastering a Postgraduate Degree

Datin Dr Wendy Liow
VP and Dean of ELM Graduate School HELP University
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As I was preparing this article, I cannot help but look back on my own postgraduate journey.

More than two decades ago, I embarked on my postgraduate journey. I signed up to do a master’s degree, exactly 10 years after obtaining my bachelor’s degree and then 10 years later, I took my doctoral degree. Many asked me why would I decide on something so challenging given that I already have my hands full with my two kids and a very demanding job, not once but twice. Am I on some kind of paper chase? Some wonder.

There are different reasons why someone would embark on a postgraduate degree. Some do it for career advancement or career change, to make more money and achieve greater status, to increase their job prospects and networking opportunities. A few would tell you that they want to do a postgraduate degree to make a positive difference and to improve society. Whatever the reasons that motivate someone to do a postgraduate degree, they are good reasons as it set you on the path towards life-long learning.

So, you are about to sign up for a postgraduate degree or are already in one of the postgraduate programmes. You are probably now having second thoughts as you struggle to complete your assignments or prepare for that darn exams.

You wonder how you will manage and complete your postgraduate degree – managing your life while trying to cope with your multiple assignments and deadlines; particularly those doing a part-time study. Among the most popular tips, you hear from your well-meaning friends are “Manage your time properly”, “Prepare early”, “Have a learning support team”, “Develop workable schedule”, “Communicate more with your lecturers” and “Organize everything”.

Easier said than done as you let out an audible sigh. You have attempted to follow all the tips and yet the finishing line is still a distance away as you struggle to balance your work life, study life and personal life. A constant exhausting juggle.

So, how to manage and master a postgraduate degree?  The following sharing is my own and I hope it works well for you as it has for me.

First, I think it is important to understand that taking the decision to pursue a postgraduate degree will set in motion a process of sustained learning. It is not a hobby that you do when you have time.  Pursuing a postgraduate degree must be one of the commitments. This implies that you need to make time for it and not treat them as a pastime.

For a start, it is important that you block time to study and commit to the time. Think carefully about how your studies will be structured and fit into your life. For me, it was allocating a specific slot between 4 am to 6.30am every day before work seven days a week. I am an early riser so I prefer to study when everyone is still asleep. For the late night owls, you may prefer to study when everyone is in bed. I call this my window of opportunity (to study). Some will tell you that they prefer to have more concentrated and longer reading and writing sessions. I find more frequent, shorter but regular sessions more effectively. Whatever works for you. The key to surviving and succeeding in a postgraduate study is “Focus and Discipline”, nothing less, nothing more. So, block your time and keep to it. I often tell this to my students - We all have similar access to knowledge, to the tools for knowledge and the only thing that can prevent us from succeeding in postgraduate study (or in life) is not working hard and using our own unique ability and transferable skill to discover, connect and make the knowledge usable and meaningful. I am a big fan of the book written by Dr Carol Dweck, a Stanford Psychology professor – “Growth Mindset” -  You must believe that you have the intelligence to complete your study successfully and this belief will motivate you to be resourceful as the going gets tough.

To help you to keep your time, it is also important that you obtain agreement for support from the onset of the postgraduate studies. Explain to your family, your employers, colleagues and ask them for space and time.  Taking on a postgraduate study should not have to be a lonely journey. Many are rooting for you to succeed if you let them know early.

Lastly, I think it is important to understand that you are responsible for your own learning and achievement. The instructor, supervisor or mentors are there to facilitate your learning. You are ultimately the person in control and you must take the wheel and not blame others for your failures to achieve what you set out to do. I remembered reading JK Rowling’s commencement speech to Harvard Graduates and something she wrote stuck with me “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction…” I think the same is true, there is an expiry date on blaming others for your lack of success; whether it is your teachers, instructor, lecturers, supervisor for not guiding you or giving you the support you need. Once you stop blaming others, you will be liberated to do so much more with your time and not waste time being angry with others for not being there for you.

Finally, a postgraduate study; especially a doctoral degree level programme is not just an intellectual pursuit, it is also an extremely emotional journey for which you can only prepare so much. You will encounter your own unique challenge as you embark on this wonderful journey of discovery and growth. Be prepared to challenge yourself and be engaged not just in the classes but also all the other opportunities provided to learn. Remember, even if you don’t like the lecturers for whatever reason, look beyond and take personal responsibility for your own education.

I wish for you that your dreams stay big and each step you take leads you closer to where you want to go.

Our Education Minister, Dr Mazlee Malik likes to start his talk with a quote and I like to end mine with a quote. So here you go, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” ― William Butler Yeats.