Organisation as a postgrad student

OrganisationIt is traditionally said that the step from year 1 to year 2, as an undergraduate, is more difficult than the step from 2 to 3. Likewise, the step from undergrad to postgrad level of studying. This can be for various reasons. Some find the increased intellectual demands difficult; or that it requires a way of thinking that they didn’t really grasp at undergrad level (e.g. critical thinking). Sometime, however, it can be to do with organisation and management.

In many ways, life as an undergrad is prescriptive. Assignments are laid out for you, periodically, You are told, more or less, perhaps a bit less than you were at school, what is required from you, and varying levels of assistance provided. As you progress through university, this clear guidance of what is required, and assistance, is slowly withdrawn. In your first year, an assigment might come with a title, a work sheet dictating what needs to be done, what your aims are, and what you need to do to achieve specific grades (for those who’ve not studied at this level, this doesn’t mean that they’re given the answer, more that they are told generically what is expected for a first class answer. For example, it might include critical questioning, clearly formulated, understandable English with good grammar, good referencing in the corerct style, etc.). By your third year, you may only be given an essay title and perhaps a few comments about it.

At postgrad level, this process of withdrawing continues. As a humanities student, I’ve found that I’m not having my essay titles dictated to me any more. Instead, the onus is on ME to come up with a title, within the broader overview of the module as a whole. It means that the students not only get to work on what they want to work on, but also that they get to develop key skills, such as being able to identify areas that can be studied properly within the time and word allowance, as well as appropriateness. These were initially developed at undergrad level in the dissertation and will be enhanced further in the MA dissertation – which means someone from this level of working will be able to examine an idea, a concept, decide how far they want to delve into it, and know, from this experience, how much work is required, and how many words are required for a report on the subject – key skills for a researcher.

At the same time, however, the actual number of assignments go down. In your first year as an undergraduate, you may complete around 18 assignments, not including the exams, spread out over the course of the year. In my final year as an undergrad I completed 6 essays of varying lengths, 4 exams and one dissertation of 10,000 words. At MA Level, I have done 1 short essay (2,500 words), 2 projects (5,000 words), and one exam this year (although, granted, I am doing this part time – if I was full time, I would have done 3 short essays, 4 projects, one exam, and one dissertation of 20,000 words). The timing of these is further apart – If I had been studying full time, the short essays would have been due in before Christmas, two projects in the first week of January, the exam in the last week of April and the second project in the first week of May, and the dissertation in mid-July. This doesn’t mean that the MA student lives the life of Riley, punctuated by periods of sheer terror as they burn the midnight oil (although it can mean that too). What it means is that there is an expectation that the MA student is better able to balance their own workload, plan ahead, and pace themselves through the semester.

And this is where many students struggle.

For those returning to MA study after years in the workplace, they may not have a problem. I didn’t start to struggle until the last few weeks, and then, at a very specific level (which I’ll come onto in a moment). But for those going straight to postgrad level from being undergrads, then they may find that their level of organisation & management of their working, studying hours, isn’t quite enough. Deaf students may well struggle with this kind of management for an additional reason: hearing students can overhear conversations – whether between other students or other staff – about organisation and this can trigger thoughts about their own practices. Unless this kind of organisation is explicity covered in a seminar or something similar by a member of staff, or the student themselves approaches someone to ask them what they do, then ideas of how to organise themselves can pass them by.

So, what to do?

Most people will have a to-do list – this can be electronic, or like mine, it can be a notepad and pen. Every day, I write down what I need to do that day, numbered 1 to whatever, with the number ringed, and as they get done, I scribble the number out (which is most satisfying!). So far, so good. Some people may even incorporate the next level of management, a weekly planner, which works alongside the diary, where they write down everything that has to be done that week, perhaps as part of bigger projects, and from that weekly planner, they build their daily to-do list.

I do both of these – in fact, the picture above is mine, for this week – and you can see that it’s divided into sections – uni work, other work (right now, job search – I need a part time job!), and stuff that needs to be done around the house. At the bottom is a small table of things that need to be done every day. Emails need to be replied to, the washing up needs to be done, and so on. Overly meticulous? Perhaps. But it does ensure that these things are done, and for a long time, it worked for me.

Recently, however, I became aware that these two levels were no longer sufficient, that I needed to think about a third level of organisation. I was reading 5 ways to detox your desk (and mind), and while I’m pretty good with number one (clean desk!), number two made me sit up and pay attention. It refers to the Inventory, basically a sort of meta descriptive of all the various projects that are going on. Let’s take where I am now – trying to pull together a PhD proposal. At the back of my mind I’m juggling various things, including ideas and information for things that actually, I won’t be exploring for several weeks yet – at least. At present I am solidly engaged in the literature review, trying to identify themes and concepts within the literature to do with my subject. Every week I’ve been writing “Literature review” or “book assessment” on my weekly to do list, and its never getting crossed off – because its too big, too overarching. Which is pretty demoralising. Its not possible to view the overall project from within the weekly management tool, and in trying to do so, I was setting myself up for failure. What I needed to do was to break it down, and only list the thing within ‘Lit Review’ that I could get done within that week, whether it was reading a book or an article, or whatever. This level of organisation is particularly useful for when you have different projects on the go – so in one day, you may need to switch from doing a lit review to doing research for a local project through to writing an article on something to preparing a conference paper – all very different projects where you can be ‘at’ different points in each project at one point in time.

So this morning I’ve been putting together that third layer, writing out my inventory. and the key, of course, the real key, is to make sure you keep working with each of these three levels – at the beginning of the week, evaluating what needs to be done from the Inventory, from the diary, and creating a weekly overview, then from that, every day, doing a daily to do list. If that is done, slowly but surely, the big projects come together, almost like magic, almost without you looking. And what you’ll find is that this, once learned, is a key life skill – with applications far beyond university and study. Every successful person does this – they may do it in different ways, with different tools, with different levels of complexity, but what they all have in common is that they have developed their own way of working that suits THEM.

How do you organise yourself? Do you use pen and paper, or do you prefer dedicated tools and apps via technology? Share what works for you! Either email me deafstudentuk at gmail dot com or grab me on twitter @deafstudentuk – lets get a conversation on this started today!