Being a higher-degree research student is challenging. That goes without saying. The challenge of research is part of what draws me to it: challenging is far more rewarding than ‘easy.’ Each individual’s circumstances make their personal situations challenging in their own way. This blog post will explore aspects of my life and how it impacts my academics.
I’m currently enrolled full-time in a Master of Education (Honours), with plans to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD early next year when I complete my results chapter of my thesis. Of course my enrollment isn’t as straightforward as ‘full-time.’ I’m not sure any post-grad enrollment is necessarily straight-forward. I’ve been enrolled in this masters part-time for around two years, some semesters I’ve done one one two units a semester, other semesters I haven’t enrolled at all. When I completed a teaching contract at the end of last year I decided to take enroll in full-time study study, (initially in speech pathology!), doing five units at masters level. This semester I’ve moved my enrollment in education to full-time and dropped out of speech pathology entirely. This shift has brought some challenges with it.
Issue no. 1: I’m enrolled externally. I have zero classes. All my contact with my supervisor (located at the University of New England in Armidale) is via email or phone calls, which can be challenging. Maintaining regular contact with a supervisor is important, but there can be a tendency for ‘out of sight out of mind’ when you reside 300km away.
How I deal with it: my supervisor and I are in the habit of scheduling our next phone meeting during our current one. Regular meetings help keep me on track with my work so I don’t lose momentum, and also maintain the feeling of being a ‘proper’ uni student.
Issue no 2: it’s difficult to maintain a study routine when you have no regular classes. I’m also working currently as a casual teacher, which means work can be highly unpredictable: some weeks I may work four days, others not at all.
How I deal with it: I always make sure I take printed documents to school with me on the days I work. Often this is proof-reading material I’ve been working on: a task I typically find tedious and boring. Often when casual teaching I’ll have ‘easy periods’ where you essentially have to be a body in the room, and occasionally I’ll have a whole lesson off as I’ll be taking a lunch duty. Regardless, there are a number of opportunities for me to get some work done during the day, which is also helpful in maintaing momentum for me. Developing and maintaining a study schedule, and blocking in time during that day during which I’ll work is important. Equally important is scheduling a time of day where I ‘turn off.’ I generally try and enforce a rule of ‘no work after 8pm’ as well as scheduling an entire day off a week. ‘No work’ means no emails, no reading, nothing. I believe it keeps me mentally fresh, and helps me sleep better by not working too late into the night.
Issue number 3: ‘extracurriculars.’ I’ve completed three half marathons in the past three months (finishing the last on the weekend with a PB of 1:42, bet you can’t half tell I’m proud!). I also go to the gym a few days a week and practice yoga daily. This accumulates to a significant amount of time per week spent on these ‘extracurriculars.’
How I deal with it: time management and self-discipline has always been one of my strong-suits. It’s amazing how much work you get done when you remove the word ‘procrastination’ from your vernacular. Stop talking about it, stop complaining about it, just sit down and do you work.
Issue number 4: maintaining focus. This is probably my biggest challenge of all. Finishing my research seems such a long way away, it’s easy to fall into the trap of having a few days (or weeks) off here and there, taking more ‘easy’ weeks than I should and so forth. I think that being an external student compounds this problem, as being geographically isolated from campus allows me to ‘forget’ a little easier that I’m actually meant to be studying.
How I deal with it: having lots of small, short-term, tangible goals keeps me on track. I set goals for each day and each week. Making sure I know what deadlines are coming up and working towards those. I’ve found talking to other research students to be helpful for maintaining focus and motivation.
As a student (at any level) it’s important to take time to acknowledge what challenges may potentially complicate or derail your study. By taking time to specifically acknowledge these factors it is possible to develop concrete, workable solutions to ensure that study is a successful experience.