Getting your undergrad degree just wasn’t enough, was it? There’s a little bug gnawing at you that you can’t ignore. You want to beef up your resume, move your way into teaching, kill some time between journalism jobs, or learn something new. Sounds like you want to get a master’s degree. I completed a thesis, survived graduate school, and got my MA. It wasn’t the easiest thing I have ever done. But if you are considering this endeavor, here are five things you need to have to make your journey easier.
Journalists are notorious for waiting until the last minute to get things done. In graduate school, that needs to stop. Focus on long term goals and break them down into smaller steps. What’s my specific thesis/project topic? How long will it take to research previous studies? How long can I spend gathering new data? How long must I spend analyzing my data? Set dates for when you want these accomplished and meet them.
You can’t finish an entire thesis or a project in one night. I tell people that a thesis is like a brick wall. Every day I worked on it, was one brick. When you have your finished product, it is quite the sight, and you wonder “how did I do that?” It is one step at a time.
Time management means budgeting out your day/week. Portion out your day to know how much you can dedicate to reading what’s required for your classes (wait, there’s classes I have to take?!) Know when and how long you can work on that, and when you’ll work on your thesis/project. This requires a little self-reflection, which ties into the next tip.
If there’s no self-imposed deadline, a thesis/project can drag on endlessly. Force yourself to reach your deadlines. This means buckling down on days you don’t want to work.
No one said you had to work on weekends, but even a sliver of work is good. Saturdays in the fall, I worked one hour in the morning on something I could easy finish. I felt a sense of accomplishment for the day, and I could relax. The rest of the day it was me and college football with friends. If you insist on taking off both Saturday and Sunday, maintain an adequate amount of time during the week to work.
Find a way to motivate yourself. This is hard. If you put off work, insist on a time where you promise to make it up, and stick with it. Every person is different, so I can’t tell you what’s the best way to get you motivated. What gets me going is by the end of the day, I felt I was productive. Sometimes it was working hard during the week to give myself more free time on the weekend.
People tend to think they work best at night. That may be true. I assume those people are just procrastinators and they would always late to the last minute to get work done.
In grad school, I had an internal clock that basically wouldn’t let me work after 7:00 p.m. My brain shut off by that point and I couldn’t get anything done that late. I was sharpest in the morning. Determine your personal clock, and find out when you are your most productive.
Put yourself in a place where the most interesting thing going on in your environment is the research in front of you (in your books, on your computer). Create a physical space that is your work zone and nothing else. I rented out a “cage” at my school’s library. It was bland, drab, quiet, and there was nothing stimulating about it. That meant it was distraction free. I’ve never read more in one place on Earth. This is where you should accomplish your most work. I took the occasional nap in there to rest my brain, so you can make that work. Just make sure that space doesn’t turn into a crib.
It’s never been easier to save your work. I’m sure you’ve heard the horror stories of someone busting their laptop the day before their presentation, and they didn’t backup their work elsewhere. There’s no excuse for that anymore.
I saved nearly hourly on my cheap flash drive. Even an hour of work is a lot to do-over. At the end of the day, I e-mailed the new research, or whatever I worked on, to myself. That creates TWO copies. It is in your inbox, and in your “Sent mail” folder. Also, if you have an external hard drive, update it at least monthly, even more frequently is better.
Finally, maintain a social life. I had good friends that kept me sane during graduate school. Saturdays and Sunday was always playtime, but even during the week we hung out. Remember my 7:00 p.m. deadline? After that, I would unwind with friends. Trivia night on Tuesdays, Must See TV on NBC Thursdays, and Friday night…well, it was Friday night! Just because you are a graduate student doesn’t mean you can’t have fun!
If you are able to identify all five of these topics, and make them work for you, then you will have a successful graduate school experience.
Mike Brannen is a morning newscast producer for KIRO7, the CBS affiliate in Seattle. He finished his thesis Motivational Use of Twitter in 2010, and received an MA from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He received his Bachelor of Journalism degree the year before. Previous to Seattle, he worked multiple positions at KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri for four years. He shares more about his life at mikebrannen.com and on Twitter: @MikeBrannen.