Get the Most Out of Returning to University for Postgraduate Study

There’s this wonderful wave of euphoria that washes over you before returning to university when you’ve got a period of postgraduate study lined up. Once you’ve accepted your place, your funding is lined up, and the course material has arrived, you can feel the prospect of many months of study stretching out ahead of you like a sunlit plain. And, unlike the time before your undergraduate degree, there is less of a sense of trepidation – you’re more confident than you were then, and by and large you now know more of what to expect.

This gives you a tremendous advantage, relative to your first pass at the university experience. As an undergrad, you had little idea of how higher education worked, of how you would work within higher education. Now you’re returning to university, you now know yourself a bit better, and you’ve got three or more years of mistakes and triumphs under your belt; each of which can teach you something about how to approach the coming time.

The List

One of the things I did before I returning to university at Cambridge for my masters and PhD was to ask myself three questions: firstly, what did I miss out on first time around – what would I have really liked to have done, but neither had the time or the opportunity to do? Secondly, I looked at my CV and asked myself; what’s missing? What skills could I benefit from, that I haven’t covered so far in my career? Thirdly, what sort of things could I avoid doing this time around?

The answers to these three questions will be different for everyone. But each question is important for different reasons.

What do you want?

Firstly, taking up something you’d always liked to have done at undergraduate, starts you out on a positive footing. Fitting something you’ve always wanted to do into your schedule improves your mental health and wellbeing – a vitally important consideration during postgraduate study – but it also gives you a sense of progress and achievement. It is a regular reminder of how you are growing as a person; learning who you are and what you want. As far as my own experience was concerned, I realised that I’d really have liked to have done more exercise. I’d always been slightly envious of the camaraderie and social scene of that side of Cambridge life, and yet I’d never had the time or the confidence to get involved while I was an undergrad. So during my masters and the first few years of PhD, I took up yoga and attended athletics training. I didn’t join the squad or compete, but that didn’t matter – my goal was to enjoy myself, and instil the good habit of regular exercise; something I still follow today.

What’s missing?

Secondly, reflecting critically upon gaps in your existing skill-set ensures that you will get as much as you possibly can out of returning to university. I’d always wanted to write professionally, and work with charities in the environment sector, but I realised that – after my undergraduate degree – there was little on my CV that proved my interest or skill in these areas. With this in mind, I volunteered to be my college RAG officer, that afforded me plenty of experience with charitable fundraising and organising events. Later, I was elected as my college’s graduate Environmental Awareness Officer. I also wrote for a variety of student publications. So now, at the end of my postgraduate study and PhD, I have a wealth of voluntary experience in my chosen sectors.

What can you live without?

Thirdly, by asking yourself what you liked less, or what you could live without about your undergrad experience, helps you to free up time in your schedule for other things. At undergrad, I did a lot of publicity and secretarial work for different student societies. Although this was very rewarding at the time, I realised that I wouldn’t have a lot to gain from taking on more of this kind of work. So I stepped away from the admin, and never looked back.

The period before your course of postgraduate study begins is full of potential and anticipation. To make the most of that potential, it’s well worth pausing briefly to consider how to make the very most of the time you have to come.



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