Finishing a masters and moving onto a PhD can be a very daunting experience, especially if you’re travelling to another country! Here, Amy discusses some of the lessons she’s learned over the course of her masters, and how they might help when undertaking a PhD.
It feels strange to be writing a blog post while feeling relaxed, but last week I handed in my master’s thesis, making this post one of the last things I’ll write as a student at Warwick! While the last few weeks have been insanely stressful, I think I can now reflect on the last year and form some (hopefully) coherent thoughts on what I’ve learnt. More importantly, I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to take these lessons and apply them to the PhD I’ll be starting at UC Berkeley in January! Hopefully, these ramblings will be helpful for anyone else making the transition from a masters degree to a PhD, particularly one in a different country.
One of the first things I think I learnt fairly early on in my masters was that you can never be too prepared. I started writing my thesis much earlier than I probably needed to and had kept on top of all my writing to make sure my analysis was up to date. This meant that work was spread out more evenly throughout the year and that when hand in arrived, (while it was still stressful, my lab mates had to deal with plenty of tears!) I had full sections of my thesis practically finished. Keeping on top of literature and compound characterisations, maybe even writing trial reports on background research (and making sure your references are organised!) are all things that will be useful in the long run. Especially when starting a PhD in a different country, where the system might work in a different way to the one you’re used to, being prepared will take some of the pressure off in an unexpected requirement pops up.
With this in mind, I think anyone going from a masters programme to a PhD should try and establish a good work-life balance early on. It can be so tempting to work yourself to the bone to make a good first impression, but at the end of the day, you’re going to be burned out and overstressed. You’ll be much more effective if you take regular breaks and time for yourself, so you can be refreshed and extra productive during your working hours.
A fairly obvious but important tip that I definitely need to apply more to my own work is to keep organised! Information is thrown at you 24/7 when you’re conducting research, and if you keep organised, you’ll thank yourself later. I was guilty of having piles of random papers in the corner of my desk that I’d have to rifle through frantically a couple of times a week to find something important. In hindsight, it would have saved me a lot of time if I’d kept my work in a more logical order! I’ve definitely discovered this when sifting through all the paperwork needed for my visa. There’s so much red tape, so to make travelling between the UK and the USA as pain-free as possible I’m definitely going to need to be organised.
In previous blog posts, I’ve touched on struggling with setbacks and personal issues, which affect everyone in different ways. Without a doubt, the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my masters, and one that I think everyone starting a PhD, regardless of subject or location, should know, is that everyone feels exactly the same. Everyone has a moment (or many moments) when they doubt themselves and their research. If anyone says otherwise they’re either too proud to admit it, or are very lucky! Imposter syndrome is very real and can often be your biggest obstacle to overcome. Knowing that you’re not alone and making sure you find a support network early on in your PhD will be invaluable to you. I personally know I wouldn’t have managed to hand in anything resembling a thesis without my lab mates and ideally, everyone in research would be lucky enough to find such an incredible group of co-workers and friends. This is a major worry of mine when moving so far away, but I’m sure many other people will be in the same boat, and I’ll be sure to keep in contact with people back home.
As a self-confessed perfectionist, I found it really hard handing in my thesis knowing what was wrong with it – the tiny details I didn’t have time to finish, and the extra parts I would have added if I’d had time. I really beat myself up about it, feeling on some level like I’d failed. But upon reflection, I’ve realised that research is never perfect, and that’s kind of the point. We can always push ourselves to improve. Going forward into my PhD I think I need to remember to appreciate every little victory and treat the setbacks and regrets as learning experiences. Since I’m sure moving to the US is going to be a massive culture shock alongside a massive academic challenge, I’m anticipating feeling pretty overwhelmed! So as cheesy as it sounds, if I can try and keep things in proportion and acknowledge hard work, hopefully by the end of my PhD I’ll be able to see how far I’ve come!
Have you recently finished a masters degree? Or perhaps you are a PhD researcher who has reflections on how you’ve improved since your last research degree? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Amy Kynman earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Warwick in 2018. She is currently finishing a Masters by Research in chemistry, also at the University of Warwick. Her research focusses on the chemical reactivity of rhodium complexes, with the aim of utilising them for carbon-carbon bond-forming reaction. Alongside her studies, she is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the University of Warwick’s student newspaper The Boar. In January 2020, Amy will start her PhD at UC Berkeley, USA.