How to survive postgrad: Survival tips from postgraduate students

Change the direction of your thesis if things have changed in the world – don't stick with something that isn't working

Change the direction of your thesis if things have changed in the world – don't stick with something that isn't working

Choose a research topic that really fascinates you

Different postgraduate qualifications require different levels of commitment from students. The kind of support they require in order to be completed can vary enormously.

One thing is clear: whether you are doing a postgraduate certificate or diploma, an honours degree, a master’s degree or even a Phd, there are similarities in the kind of support that postgraduate students need, as well as strategies employed to help them cope.

Here are 12 tips from students who have or are completing a postgraduate qualification:

1.Choose your research carefully

It is important to think very carefully about the kind of research you want to do. Siphiwe Thwala, who is doing a Phd in Astrophysics at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) says that research takes a lot of time and energy. It can become extremely challenging and many times, things will not go according to plan.

“If you have a passion and a genuine interest in what you are doing, it is easier to take ownership of your research,” Thwala says. “So when things get tough, you have the motivation to keep going.”

“It takes so much time and focus,” adds Alexandra Flusk (joint honours in Physics and Computational and Applied Mathematics). “You must love what you do and you must see the value in it, beyond just getting your degree.”

“Choose your course very carefully,” Keneilwe Mokoka (honours in Computer Science, University of South Africa (Unisa)). “Think about the value it will add to your life. For example, are you doing it for self-enrichment, to advance your career, or both?”

2.Choose you supervisor carefully

Who you choose as your supervisor is as important as your research topic. Make sure to choose an institution that allows you to choose your supervisor.

“For research degrees, your supervisor plays a pivotal role in your studies being a success,” says Ndivhuwo Musehane, who completed a master’s in Computational Differential Equations at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2018.

Musehane says that you need to have open discussions from the beginning with your supervisor about each other’s expectations.

Treat this process with the same kind of importance you would when going into any other kind of relationship.

“Your supervisor will be in your life for at least a year,” Flusk says, “and that is a long time to be in an unhappy relationship.”

“Make sure you choose a supervisor who will respect you,” William Mokone (Phd Chemistry at Wits) says. “Someone who will respect your time and yet pushes you to finish.”

“Cultivate this relationship with care,” says Nomonde Ndwalaza, who’s studying towards a master’s in Global Media and Communication at the London School of Economics (LSE). “And if the relationship is not working, speak out in time and ask for a different supervisor.”

3.Know yourself and be honest with yourself

It is important to know what kind of person you are. Let this guide you in helping you choose your supervisor, for example.

“If you need to be micromanaged,” Flusk says, “find a supervisor who will do her best to help you through every stage of your research. If you work well on your own, find a supervisor who appreciates that, but still offers you quality support and direction when you need it.”

4.Things change

When you are doing research for the first time (particularly on a bigger scale than before), you have to accept that there will be plenty of unexpected challenges and changes along the way.

“As an example,” Mokone says, “if you are not getting good results for your research, it is okay to change direction.”  Do not stick with something that is simply not working.

5.“Guestimatable” outcomes

Ensure that you and/or your supervisor are able to estimate, or at least make a very good guess, of what your research outcomes will be and how to achieve these.

The last thing you want to happen when you have limited time is to do a research project that will take you too long to complete.

6.Get a mentor

In addition to your supervisor, it can also be helpful to get mentorship from people who have recently gone through the journey you are going through yourself.

“This can be a valuable source of support,” says Musehane. “These are usually the people who are still young enough to remember what you are going through. They will share with you what they did to get through their studies, and will know in which direction to point you if things are not going well.”

7.Map out your studies

Try to map out your postgraduate studies into smaller pieces instead of one big chunk that will come at the end in the form of your qualification. Divide the journey into smaller, manageable milestones — and celebrate those milestones.

8.Do your research

“The support systems are there in the universities,” says Ndwalaza. “We are the ones that usually don’t go out looking for them. Or, if we get emails about workshops or seminars, we don’t attend them.”

It is important to find out from your department or your faculty or even your postgraduate association (if your institution has one) what kind of support or programmes they offer. These can be in the form of workshops on academic writing, applying for funding, coping with mental illness, how to find journal articles, how to improve your relationship with your supervisor, and so on.

“Always ask for help when you need it,” says Amelia Mogashoa (Postgraduate Certificate in Education, Wits). “There are always people around who can help you with what you are struggling with, or know people who can help you.”

“Postgraduate students also need to be orientated,” Ndwalaza adds. “At LSE, there are a number of programmes that offer support in terms of plotting a career trajectory, writing your dissertation or even putting together a theoretical framework for your research.”

Take the time to find out what all your available resources are.

9.Believe in your research

According to Ndwalaza, the best work that we do is usually the work that matters to us. Research requires you to be curious and willing to learn.

“Don’t have the mentality that your supervisor must tell you what to do,” says Mokone. “In most instances, the supervisors don’t even know, because it is research that no one has done before.”

“One of the things that got me through my master’s was knowing that my research is important,” says Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane (Master of Law, specialising in Law and Sexuality, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA))

10.Choose your institutions carefully

When choosing where to go to study for a master’s and Phd degree, it is important to remember that an institution that is a good fit is better than one with a big name. Just because a university is generally renowned, it does not mean that it is the best in the field that you want to go into, or if it is the right fit for you.

“I went to UCLA because they are the only ones who teach what I wanted to do,” says Mokgoroane.

“A solid university is not necessarily a well-known one,” adds Ndwalaza.

11.Build good relationships

At honours and master’s level, the coursework is much more intense in terms of its quantity and difficulty compared to undergraduate courses. It is important at this level to form good relationships with your classmates.

“I learnt so much from my peers,” says Flusk. “And studying with them saved me more times than I can count.”

“The people you surround yourself with will make all the difference,” says Musehane. “Other people were always integral in helping me understand complex concepts when I was doing my master’s.”

“Surround yourself with a solid support system,” says Mogashoa. “It gets hard and you’re gonna need people.”


Most importantly: take care of yourself! Eat a well-balanced diet, exercise and take time out for yourself every now and again.

“Be patient with yourself,” says Mokgoroane.

“If things get really tough,” Mokone says, “it’s okay to take some time off.”