Postgrad research students: keys to success

This year, I have the pleasure of supervising a PhD student and an honours student. As I’m sure you know, each has an associated research project and, particularly for the PhD student, the objective is to discover something genuinely new.

I know that when I started my PhD, I felt very daunted by jumping into a new research area AND then having to somehow do original research. Since I’ve come out the other side, I wanted to give you my top few tips for success as a research student.

Write early and often

Basically all research projects have a dissertation/thesis/report component. As with most uni assignments, it’s a bad idea to try to cram this all in at the very end. In particular for maths research, if you don’t write up things as you go along then there’s a good chance you’ll forget the proof of that fantastic theorem you proved four months (or three years!) ago.

Writing up along the way gives you a chance to solidify what you’ve learnt (in the case of a literature review) and write up your proofs in a way for other people (like your advisor) to understand.

Keep track of your deadlines and milestones

Another reason to keep up with your writing is that research degrees often have milestones you must complete along the way. Of course, there’s your final thesis/dissertation/report deadline, but there may also be a mid year review (in honours or masters), or a confirmation meeting and annual reports (in a PhD program). You should keep on top of these so they don’t sneak up on you – try adding an event to your calendar for each upcoming milestone.

Get good at asking questions

One of the biggest mistakes I made when starting my PhD was not telling my supervisor when I didn’t understand something. I always assumed that it my fault for not understanding, or for that particular gap in my knowledge and that I should always figure things out in my own time.

While there’s certainly a lot of background reading to be done when diving into a new area of research, it’s often not worth spending hours struggling to understand something your supervisor has said when they can probably explain it in 5 minutes. It is sometimes hard to strike the right balance between being independent and knowing when to pick your supervisor’s brain, but I encourage you to err on the side of asking questions, or let them know when you’re not understanding something so they can give you some guidance.

If you’re stuck on something that really is elementary, it’s also good to make use of more senior research students in your area.

Communicate effectively with your supervisor(s)

The number one thing that set me up for success in my research degrees is to keep lines of communication open with my advisors. In the first instance, regular meetings are important, so you and your advisors are on the same page about how you are going.

Time can be a bit limited in these meetings, especially if you have a lot to discuss. I would always prepare a one page summary on what I had been working on since the last meeting – successes, failures and things still in progress.

It allowed me to give an overview of what I’d done and provide a sort of agenda or talking points for my meeting.

I would always write my summary sheets by hand in my honours and masters – but use LaTeX if you’re feeling extra fancy.

So there you have it! Those are my four tips for success in postgraduate research. Let me know if there are other things that have worked for you!

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