While I was undertaking my master’s in science degree in bioinformatics at The University of Melbourne, there was one thing that I often felt like I was not: the master of my own life. My existence often -but not always- seemed to be bound by the chains of constant pressure and a constant demand to outperform what I thought was possible by me. And I was not alone in this feeling. Many of my peers felt the same and some didn’t make it to the end.
It was late June when I graduated from my bachelor’s degree in science majoring in genetics, along with a diploma in languages (in French). About a month later, I jumped into a whole new program, undertaking a full-time master’s degree. The main thing I did not realise is that I was not only jumping to a new degree, I was also jumping to an entirely new field. At that point I knew that genetics and bioinformatics are linked and that it is imperative that they work together to help us answer biological questions (more of this in future posts). What I didn’t quite know is that jumping into a bioinformatics course requires a foundation of technical skills that a genetics degree will never teach you.
The program description for this course required that applicants have previous experience in mathematics (1 subjects’ worth) and no coding experience. In reality, it was impossible to follow the computer science subjects without a coding background because these subjects were not tailored to the bioinformatics course, but rather they belonged to the computer sciences or software engineering programs.
As a result, I found myself massively under-prepared, practically and especially psychologically, to undertake the degree. I nearly dropped out of the program altogether and eventually had to drop 2 out of 4 prescribed subjects in my first semester. I was depressed for a long time, my ego had been crashed, and so had the self-confidence of a young, high-achieving girl. It all felt like *bullshit* at the time.
But I got through it. And when I look back on my experience now, I wouldn’t change a single thing. Well maybe I would change some of the moments of agony like when I thought I was going to have a heart attack because I nearly missed one of my end-of-semester exams. But anyways *putting dark thoughts aside* the experience overall changed me for the better.
Did I know what I was getting myself into? No. Did I know what kind of mental armour I needed to survive the roller coaster ride that was going to be master’s? No.
So this is why I’m writing this now, sharing small bits of insight into postgraduate-study life and advice for how to best prepare yourself if you’re considering postgraduate education. What you’ll read here is influenced by my own experiences, however it is for the most part widely applicable.
1. Very important tip: Do your homework before starting a master’s. Know what you’re getting yourself into.
Back when I was researching postgraduate programs at Melbourne Uni I had no idea that I should really carefully investigate the program I was thinking of pursuing.
Looking back now, I wish that someone had come to me and told me: “Look, going through the student handbook isn’t enough. It’s paramount that you do research beyond that”. The thing with the student handbook is that it’s meant to be somewhat informative, but it’s also very much meant to be a marketing tool. This may sound bad, however universities as institutions don’t always care about how good of a fit an individual is for a given course. They want to pump numbers through, and the handbook comes in handy when it presents a glossy, well-organised picture.
What you need to be doing if you’re in this research phase is to speak to people. Reading the handbook is a great start. But even if what you’re reading there sounds ideal, students who have an insider’s experience with the course will often give you the most accurate information. Another great idea is to speak to the program coordinator as well as to professors or university staff, like tutors, and ask them questions about the structure and details of the course.
Where to find all these wonderful people? I would start by talking to your friends and contacts from university. Simply ask if they know anyone who’s doing the degree you’re interested in. Can they connect you so that you can ask a few questions? Can they add you to the degree’s assigned Facebook group before you start studying so that you can post questions?
Also, go ask the tutors that you had during your undergraduate degree. They are often postgrad students themselves and will know the right people for you to speak to. People generally want to help people and so I’m sure someone out there will be more than happy to help. Lastly: email the coordinator who runs your dream degree. Their email address will be listed in the student handbook and they are supposed to be there to take care of matters such as to make your entry into the course smooth. Go ahead and reach out!
Whatever you do, DO NOT be afraid to ask questions and don’t worry about what people will think. It’s your future we’re talking about here.
What to ask these wonderful people? Well, ask them how they found the degree. Do they love it? Do they hate it? I find that often the expression on peoples’ faces alone is enough to reveal if there’s severe agony and regret there, underneath. Ask them how you can best prepare. Can you take any online courses (such as in programming in my case) to better prepare you for the course? Ask them for any subject notes they may have kept. Ask them about what they would do differently if they were to start over. They’ve been through it, they’re bound to have ideas. Make friends with them because you never know when you might need to speak to them again down the track.
In order to make this all happen, you’ve got to be proactive and start doing your investigation early. Trust me, it will be worth it when you start in your new degree.
2. Understand that, above all, postgraduate study is a commitment.
Drawing parallels from the world of romantic relationships, doing an undergraduate degree is a bit like someone telling you “I just want to keep seeing each other, you know, casually, but I don’t won’t to commit to a serious relationship right now”. Whereas doing a master’s degree is more like “I’m ready to commit to this relationship. It’s been good to just see each other but I like you and I want to try and make this work”.
Whichever way you look at it, undertaking a postgraduate degree is a big, big commitment. It really hadn’t hit me that this is the case until I realised how big the jump is from undergraduate to postgraduate study.
If you want to get through the degree you’ve got to realise that you may have to sacrifice things that are important to you. You may have to reduce your working hours or give up work altogether. You may have to give up sport or volunteering commitments that are dear to you. Your social life may take a hit and so you should ensure that you have supportive and understanding people around you.
But it’s important that you don’t give up and that you persevere, if doing this master’s degree is what you have chosen to do.
3. Ask yourself: Why am I choosing to do this?
Is it because I feel pressure from my peers who are also doing this? Is it because my parents said I should continue studying? Is it because my brain is telling me that I don’t have the guts to face the “real world”? Is it because my Yiayia (grandmother) is squeezing my cheek and telling me “good girl, go to university, very proud of you” (the last one is totally an ethnic thing).
Or is it because you actually love what you’re studying and you want to get your hands dirtier with it? Or maybe you feel that you’re not qualified enough yet to go out there and work in your field as a professional and hence further study is the best option.
In my case it was never a question in my mind: am I or am I not going to pursue further study? To me it was a given. I think I was heavily influenced by my parents, both of whom hold master’s degrees. I was also certain that I had to pursue postgrad study because of my ongoing thirst to learn and my desire to be “more of a scientist”. Undergraduate study alone does not make you a scientist.
Another reason why I took further study is because of the so-called “Melbourne Model”. Based on this model, to be qualified as a Melbourne Uni graduate, you’ve got to undertake both a bachelor and a master’s degree in any given field. It doesn’t always work linearly, however, for example, you can’t be an engineer, after only 3 years of undergraduate study.
Why are YOU choosing to take on further study?
What are the drivers and motives behind your decision? Should you spend some time to search internally and understand why you want to do what you think you want to do? It’s all in the process of growing up really, and of becoming a more mature human being.
4. Explore what employability prospects and overall opportunities another degree will offer, before you commence studying.
Oh I will stress this one. For nearly two years I worked as a Student Peer Leader, offering fellow university students advice, guidance and practical help with figuring out their career moves and preparing to apply for internships and jobs.
It is very clear that in the majority of cases people undertake degrees without putting thought into what they can and would like to do once they complete their degree. Or their parents tell them that it’s a good idea that they undertake X degree because they think they understand the employability prospects. But you don’t.
It can be quite disheartening to complete a challenging 2 years of postgraduate study to then realise that you’re not equipped with all the necessary tools to approach the job market. As previously mentioned: do your research to find out what you can do with a given postgrad degree. Talk to other people, such as career and student advisors, which any university is bound to have.
5. Ask yourself: if I don’t do this master’s, will I still be able to achieve my career goals?
If I want to have X career and Y lifestyle and do Z sort of things: do I really need a postgraduate degree?
I mean, one thing we haven’t explored yet is the aspect of money. Doing a Master’s degree will put you in greater debt than if you just do a bachelor’s degree. Greater by around $30,000, give or take and depending on the type of degree and institution… If you’re in Australia. Let’s not even tough student debts in the U.S.
What I’m saying is you’ve got to think about what sort of life you’d like to have, therefore what sort of career you’re aiming for, therefore what sort of studying you’d need to undertake in order to achieve it, if any.
Once again, this comes back to asking yourself some important questions and making sure that you come back with some honest answers. And remember not to compare yourself to other peoples’ situations too much. Although we can learn from one another, everyone’s situation is unique to their circumstances.
6. The learning process during postgrad study is not the same as the learning process on the job.
Example scenario: say you’re 21 years old and you’ve just graduated from, say, a bachelor’s in finance, majoring in econometrics. You want to pursue a career in that area but you’re not sure what you want the next step to be. Do you pursue postgrad study in that field, or do you try to get a job in a company, for example a financial services or consulting firm?
My argument: In either scenario you will be pushed to learn. You will develop as a professional and mature as a person. You will become more knowledgeable in your field and you will be more qualified overall. But the type of learning experience and the types of benefits that you gain from either path are different.
To me, learning on the job means that you gain a wealth of knowledge on a given field while at the same time experiencing the “real world”, practical application of what you are learning. This in itself is very exciting and being able to see the fruits of your labour might make you more incentivised to keep learning. Another great part about this scenario? You’ll be getting paid to learn.
On the other hand, if you pursue a postgraduate degree in your field you will not have to work for someone else. You will be running your own independent little empire and you might learn to become a better independent learner and thinker, while at the same time getting an academic’s deep understanding of things. You will be driving your own learning experience and you will not be operating under the umbrella of a big firm which -let’s be honest- often train and upskill their employees solely based on their own agenda.
Just something for you to keep in mind.
7. Understand that postgraduate study will teach you resilience, in studying and in life.
During your chosen postgraduate program you will learn a huge volume of things. You will practice some of what you are learning and you will be allowed to make mistakes operating in the safety net of a university environment. You’ll make friends. You’ll meet people who are wonderful and smart and whom you will learn things from. You’ll discover things about yourself in the process and you’ll become more of one thing: YOU. You will grow up and it will all help you become the unique, magnificent human being that you have inside you.
Throughout the challenging times you will build one thing: resilience. Looking back at my own experience, I sometimes feel a hint of doubt as to whether it was the right choice for me. Was it really worth it? Did I fuck up and now I’m a failure and I can’t admit it?
I ask myself these questions momentarily but then I mentally slap myself in the face remembering that YES, it was all worth it because it made me so much stronger. Honestly, dealing with advanced programming assignments and being thrown into the deep end without an oxygen tank and 10 great white sharks lurking around (aka assignment deadlines) makes me think that I can take on nearly anything. After what I went through and made it, not much scares me in terms of learning, developing, persevering.
And this is what life is about, in my view. Keep walking, keep trying, keep going. Stay true to yourself and stay positive. The lessons you learn and the non-tangible things you gain are almost always very much worth it all.
It remains that postgraduate study is not appropriate for everyone to undertake. But you should factor these things into the equation and then see which way the balance tips for you.
8. Have the right attitude and keep an open mind.
If you decide to do it, remember to own up to that decision like a mature human being (am I harsh?).
If things are difficult, remember to not let that get to you as you are NOT a failure. Either there’s things you can try and change to make everything easier, or you can change direction altogether and that’s perfectly fine.
But if you decide to go with it, remember to not take your failures personally, such as when you don’t go so well in assignments. Remember that everyone is learning, and everyone is a bit of a dork at the start. Remember to value your victories.
Remember to not stop loving yourself in the process.
9. Ensure that no matter what, maintaining your sanity and wellbeing remains a priority.
Here’s how I survived my master’s degree: I decided to go part-time and do the degree in 3 years instead of two.
The thought of this used to fill me with shame. Oh Mon Dieu! To be considered inferior and less capable than your genius peers! What a silly, silly attitude.
Looking back, I regret putting so much pressure on myself for wanting to go part-time. I did it because I wanted to keep doing things that were important to me. To keep having a social life, to keep working, to keep developing extracurricular skills that were very important to me (such as communication skills).
There’s no shame in doing things differently to everyone else because that’s what works better for you. My advice is to take it all as it comes and to keep an open mind. Do things to protect yourself and your sanity and everything else will follow.
Bottom line: You need to take a look at yourself and ask a few questions about why you’re doing a master’s degree. Investigate how it’s going to be. Weigh out the unique benefits and the potential disadvantages. Is it right for you? Don’t rush into anything. Trust your gut and what it’s telling you! Last but not least, leave a comment below or shoot me a message if you ever need support or advice and I’ll be happy to chat and help in any way that I can. 😊