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How to prepare for Postgraduate studies as a mature student

How to prepare for Postgraduate studies as a mature student

by Brett Cherry

Deciding to take on postgraduate studies once you've already left university and started a career is never the easiest choice to make. As time wears on, things like employment and family become more important, and going back to university is lower down your list of priorities.

But for others who realise their passion is to do postgraduate level academic research or always wanted to make the world a better place, the stakes are high. These folks see postgraduate study as a massive opportunity, not only to enhance their career, but also to make a lasting contribution to an academic field they love.

They may see it as a way to ‘make a difference’ in the world, move up a career ladder, or simply have a drive to do research.

If this is the trail your considering to take or have already started to walk down, at least mentally, here are a few tips to help you prepare before the journey begins.


Find your healthy work-life balance

There are many things you can do as a postgraduate student that you couldn't do working a regular job. While in some cases you may be working more hours than you ever have, there is also more freedom in how you approach and enjoy life.

Depending on the nature of your degree, although you will likely have a little more flexibility in your working pattern, it’s your responsibility to lead on a project of your making. While no one’s going to do it for you, your supervisor is there to help during good times and bad.

Remember – they’ve walked the path before you so will have some sage advice on how to deal with tough times if and when they occur. They are also, in many cases, the ideal person to bounce ideas off before you set any research plans or writing into motion.

The last thing you want to do during your Masters or PhD is ‘waste time’ which means following a lead that goes nowhere. Mind that these may happen anyway, but giving close attention to the advice of your supervisor, and second or third if you have them, could help you avoid unnecessary pitfalls.


Remind yourself why you're doing this

There are many reasons for doing a Masters or PhD, keep close to heart the ones you have. The reasons may be common with others, but they are unique to you.

It may help to write these down and keep them close to you. That way, if you ever have second thoughts or are struggling, you have them as an important reminder no matter how hard times get.

As an example, one of my reasons to do a PhD research project based in Geography at Newcastle with close ties to Engineering and Politics is to:


Make a difference to society and the planet by doing research that has an active role in fighting for social, environmental and climate justice.


I list some others in a previous blog, why I chose to do a PhD midway through my career.

Another way to remind yourself is to build your network of contacts over time and ideally before you even begin year one. Become aware of the scholars and experts in your field who may be people you can approach and discuss ideas with openly.

Importantly there will be others pursuing similar topics to you, whether at your home university or elsewhere, that may be worth reaching out to.

Follow the literature and see where it takes you – it is likely that a warm email or LinkedIn message introducing yourself and interest in their work will lead to useful connections. Connecting with a community of peers will likely encourage you to take your Masters or PhD to new heights.


Prepare to budget again

Depending on your financial situation, if you're used to cashing in on a decent salary every month, you'll probably need to think back to when you were a student earlier in your academic career.

In those days it was probably easier to live a relatively frugal lifestyle - I don't think I saw a hairdresser for more than once per annum and pasta was a much more regular part of my diet! Ironically, during the Covid-19 crisis, history seems to be repeating itself once again.

You're likely not going to be able to afford the luxuries you once had. Think differently about your budget and be honest with yourself about what you can afford.

While having 'things' may seem like a great freedom, as a student this will burden you - with the exception of practical ones like a bicycle, toothbrush and cookware. Have an in-depth look at what you can get away with cutting out and enjoy the new freedom that goes with it!

You may want to consider giving up the car and cycling instead; if you can avoid paying monthly for public transport as it can really add up. Go with the cheapest option - walking and cycling are FREE and also conducive to good mental health.

The key message is to find a budget that works for you and stick with it.

There is no one proven route in preparing for a Masters or PhD and it is likely you will be challenged no matter how well you prepare. But getting to grips with it before taking the plunge will help make the academic journey a little smoother and more fun.


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