Settling into Postgraduate Study
Undergraduate study does not necessarily prepare students for postgraduate study especially in programs that are predominantly researched based. At postgraduate level an even greater emphasis is placed on self-directed learning and the acquisition of academic skills. The thesis is not the end of your study but your first piece of academic work. Completing it is both a contribution to new knowledge and a learning process for you.
College has set up the Centre for Academic Practice and Student Learning (CAPSL). It a very new body and has a high priority in the College Strategic Plan. One of the areas that will be developed by CAPSL is graduate learning and teaching support under the Dean of Graduate Studies. Teaching and learning are not the same things. The skills a teacher uses to guide a student’s learning are not necessarily the same skills that students use to learn. CAPSL hopes to set up systems that promote both teaching and learning. The Graduate Student’s Union is represented on CAPSL so if you want your concerns or ideas expressed, speak to your delegate.
Where can I find out what to do?
There are already a number of graduate supports working in College. These are generally Department based so ask about them. Some Departments run structured dissertation preparation programs. Others have research seminars, guest lecturers and discussion groups. Some have printed guidelines about expectations, word limits, dates and deadlines. Still others have assessment and structured supervision guidelines or at least undergraduate equivalents that can be applied. The more general pattern however is one of self-directed learning where the initiative for defining and arranging learning support, rests with the student. This model possibly more closely represents the likely work environment of graduate students than a more structured model. Nevertheless, there is no need to make the learning process harder and less efficient than it needs to be.
Copies of dissertations are deposited in the library so there are examples of what you have to produce there. Try searching the web for guidelines from other universities. This is an example of taking control of your own learning.
Well prepared course handbooks that address some of the transition, orientation and control issues above are very useful. If your course does not have one perhaps a group of graduate students could offer to draft something for your course based on your recent experience. As a minimum this will clarify issues for you and be of immense help to students in later years. They can do the up-dates as part of their structured learning plan to keep the document relevant. Departmental staff is usually so focused on their own work that they jump at the opportunity to have graduate students do some of this work.
The issue of supervision in specialised graduate areas is complicated and places high demands on interpersonal skills of staff and students. Use existing resources on communication, negotiation and conflict resolution. Try the library, SCS or talk to other students about how they did it. Remember, the content of your thesis is only part of your learning process. What you have learnt from how you went about researching, structuring and writing your thesis is just as likely to get you a job as the content.
Much of what can be learnt about the graduate student experience can be accesses through discussions with other students. Other help can be accessed through the Graduate Students’ Union, the Postgraduate Advisory Service and the Graduate Studies Office.
Some of the support that students feel they need from their supervisor can be obtained more effectively elsewhere. Your struggles to come to grips with the subject matter, define what you are trying to do, get yourself motivated, get over writers block, comprehend the demands of your supervisor, develop new insights and depth of meaning, vent your frustration at how long everything takes or getting over the latest computer crash, are all important parts of the learning process but not something with which the usual supervisor is going to have the time or skills to deal. However, there are two simple forms of peer supervision: the learning pair and the study group.
These are usually formed from within your own discipline and are generally content based. You form a partnership with someone with whom you want to work closely, agree on meeting times and what you are going to discuss. The content could be “what do you think my supervisor meant when he/she said I should be doing x” or “there is no data in this file. Can you see what’s wrong with it?” You can also set yourselves research tasks and provide summaries to each other.
Study groups are a way of addressing the issues involved in doing research work. They are relatively informal groups of students from different backgrounds and disciplines and different stages of completion. Maximum diversity ensures a breadth of insight and experience. There needs to be commitment to attend regularly and ways of managing meetings. You raise and discuss issues of mutual interest such as the supervision process and how to deal with interpersonal problems. Study groups can be where you try your ideas out on fresh minds to clarify things for yourself. You can make it more formal if you like e.g. researching a topic, finding out about Graduate Student Union activity in other Irish Universities, looking up College policy, finding some good graduate student websites and then reporting back to the group. Coffee and cake are a good idea.
Reflective journals are a very private form of leaning supervision. In essence you become your own supervisor. A reflective journal is not a work log or diary. In the reflective journal you record your experience of formulating questions and of how you came to find answers, like a documentary of your journey of discovery. They are a chance for you to explore your “blocks” and “dead ends” and to think about and plan strategies to overcome them. You do not have to keep one all the time. You might decide to do one over a 3-month period or during a time when things are going really well or really badly.
Doing a PhD can be stressful. If you ever feel that the pressure is getting to much for you visit the Student Counselling Service which provides a confidential support service free of charge.