Whether you’re looking to shake up your career, pursuing a passion or returning to uni to upgrade your qualifications, there are many things you can do to make the most of postgraduate studies.
Associate Professor Con Stavros shares his advice for charting your path to learning success and thriving as a postgrad student.
1. Get your employer’s support
Assuming you’re working, an employer who is supportive of your study is extremely beneficial. Not only does it mean they may pay some or even all the costs, they will also provide the flexibility in hours required to make it to classes or attend to study matters. From a few days off to prepare for an exam, through to access to data to help in an assignment, a compassionate employer can make a world of difference.
In most cases employers are genuinely delighted if their staff are pursuing relevant qualifications. If you have such an employer, make sure you keep them updated on how you’re progressing and what kind of skills you have developed that can be incorporated into your job.
If you don’t have an employer, then study is a great ice-breaker at interviews. Pursuing education shows enthusiasm and dedication and worthwhile prospective employers will view it very favourably. One thing I have often found is that employers often value your degree from the time you start it, not just when you complete it. That means that simply beginning study can open career doors!
2. Have an understanding partner
Study will cut into your social life. If you have a demanding job and you’re throwing formal education on top of it then your partner is going to have to be empathetic and supportive. If they’re likely to be resentful of the time commitments required, then maybe study is not for you (or perhaps it is time for a new partner!).
Support doesn’t equal just giving up time. It may include putting up with other students in study groups, reading drafts of assignments and sitting and smiling through endless rehearsals of presentations. Try to involve your partner in the fun parts of your study (I guarantee there will be some of those) and make sure you set aside some time with him or her where the “books” don’t intrude.
3. Choose your courses and subjects carefully
The most common question I get from prospective students is for advice on helping decide between alternative courses or choosing specific subjects within them. I have some simple thoughts: don’t micro-specialise too early in your career and try not to immediately jump for the latest hot area that may end up being of little value to you in the years ahead. Take your time and carefully assess the options, drawing on the knowledge of trusted colleagues where possible.
Students should ideally start off with a broad specialisation and narrow that towards the end of their education if it is specifically related to their employment advancement. Choose courses that strengthen your weaknesses, rather than doing those that you think you will be naturally good at. If you are a manager and are not good at finance, then you should pick a finance course to build up your skills. That is the whole point of further study.
Finally, don’t just rely on the title of the course for what it entails. Read the course outline (syllabus), consider the person in charge and talk to other students to find out about their experience. Also, keep in mind that a university like RMIT is very much globally focused – your next semester’s courses could be almost anywhere in the world given our exchange programs and study tours. Take advantage of these wherever possible!
4. Talk to your lecturers
In most cases academic instructors are fascinated by the work of their students, their reasons for study and the things they are learning and applying. While arguing or questioning lecturers just for the sake of it is not appropriate, a good lecturer welcomes interaction and treats students as collaborators and co-creators in the learning process. Be bold, be polite and get to know your teaching staff.
Most of my colleagues genuinely enjoy helping people and that is one of the main reasons they chose an academic career. We all know that we can change people’s lives for the better and we value that opportunity and responsibility.
5. Get a good group
Finding a focused, hard-working, enthusiastic bunch of people to work with, either in an informal study group or as a formal part of the assessment, will be important to your success. Many courses have an element of group work in them and students often bemoan the problems that such collaboration brings. Incompatible schedules, thoughts or personalities in a group can be a recipe for disaster.
My advice is to be direct when ‘shopping’ for a group. Don’t just work with the people sitting next to you as often happens. Sell yourself and seek out people that you would like to associate with. Set up processes to track contributions and establish some firm guidelines as to what must be done and what behaviour is acceptable.
While you will be tempted to work with friends or people from similar disciplines, some of the best groups are those made up of people who have completely different thought processes. An engineer, librarian, marketer and accountant will usually make a better group than ‘four-of-a-kind’. The same goes for mixing backgrounds and learning styles. Challenge yourself to work outside your comfort zone and you will almost certainly reap the rewards.
6. Visit the library
Once just physical facilities, libraries are now also portals into a vast online world. Think of the library as the launching pad for all of your inquiry and it will become your (virtual) best friend forever, whether you visit in person, or more commonly, online.
Library staff are highly customer service focused and outstanding at assisting students, offering both physical and online support. Most information is available electronically and is easy to find and access. You can literally search the world’s leading knowledge databases in seconds and download all the information you need. In fact, you will find that you will have too much information and that the secret now is not in accessing data, but in making sense of and managing it!
All universities run library orientation programs for new students. Take one of these and prepare to be amazed. The library is also likely to have information on skills such as note-taking, referencing styles and exam preparation if you need a refresher.
7. Set aside study time and the right location
While it would be nice to think that you could do all your work in class time, the simple fact is that your lecturers will expect you to put in quite a bit of time outside of class. It is a good habit to get into setting aside some quiet study time and setting up a home office or study corner to allow you to work effectively. Typing up your assignments while watching the football might sound feasible in your mind, but it isn’t (unless you are in my Sport Marketing class where it may be necessary).
Think carefully about what works best for your needs. Some students like to break study up into small pieces, while others prefer to set aside large periods of uninterrupted time. Irrespective of whichever option you prefer, one important key is to start early and stay on top of things. Be proactive, not reactive to deadlines. It is easy to feel overwhelmed if you let work accumulate. If that happens speak immediately to your instructors and work out a way to move forward.
Part of the value in postgraduate study is establishing a network of contacts among your peers, industry partners and the teaching staff. Try to meet as many people as you can through the various social activities on offer and try and establish at least a basic rapport with the staff.
Most universities offer a variety of organisations you can join and this can even lead to overseas exchange programs and international competitions and awards. Often it is the extra-curricular things you do at university that will set you apart from your peers and make all the difference at a job interview. Remember also that networks are online and offline – you should cultivate both.
9. Understand the assessment
This is where the grades are given. You will be set a series of tasks to complete that will allow your teaching staff to assess whether you have achieved the learning outcomes of the course.
First thing to do is to find out what these outcomes are, so you know exactly what it is you are expected to do. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification and always read and re-read the requirements. You would be amazed how many students write great answers to the wrong questions!
You should also endeavour to understand the teaching style of the person marking your work. For example, a lecturer that teaches by using analogies will most likely be impressed by students who incorporate analogies into their work. Don’t be afraid to be creative but please give up any ideas of trying to impress with pretty pictures, extensive references just for the sake of it, obfuscation or big words (like obfuscation). We’ve seen it all before!
The best projects and exam questions are usually clear, concise and creative. At RMIT we focus on getting our students ready for the real world, so it is important that your work (and how we assess it) reflects this.
10. Have fun!
University life need not be a hard slog, although postgraduate study by its very nature is challenging. There is no reason however why every learning experience you have can’t be positive, rewarding and based on a sense of fun and community spirit.
Naturally, some lecturers are better than others at providing such an environment, but you should be prepared to be a contributor to the enjoyment of learning. Teaching staff are not there as entertainers (despite my array of jokes at the ready) but are usually delighted when students approach their work with a sense of humour and make attempts to contribute to the environment in a positive way. The best students learn from a variety of sources, including other motivated students.
RMIT is very much a practice-based institution, so whether it is testing food and drink (to prove a theory on brand image being more important than taste) or listening to an industry guest speaker defend a controversial advertising campaign, I can usually guarantee an experience that makes engaging in the class worthwhile.
Being a constructive part of knowledge building, whether physically on campus or part of our growing online range of programs is half the fun. And remember, no matter what you might think now, your study days will undoubtedly give you some of the best experiences of your life.
Associate Professor Con Stavros is the Program Director of Postgraduate Marketing programs in the School of Economics, Finance & Marketing at RMIT. He has four degrees, earned through a mixture of part and full-time study. This article was first published in Marketing Magazine.