What I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Masters

Tiger Chan
A masters is an amazing but daunting opportunity. When I started mine at the University of Cambridge, I thought I would find the adjustment to postgraduate study easy. I had just completed my undergrad and thought spending a year longer in Cambridge would be a piece of cake. I found my experience…anything but that!   

I wish I had reached out for more advice before starting, and most of my friends feel the same. I’ve spoken to six recent Cambridge masters graduates to find out what their tips are. These should be applicable to those considering a masters both at Cambridge and beyond! The names have been changed. 

1. Decide what you will specialise on before you start

At masters level you manage your own time, so it’s good to know where you are aiming to go. This was highlighted by James (MPhil Film and Screen studies), who found himself playing catchup as he hadn’t picked a focus for his end of year dissertation. Going from his undergrad experience he thought he had time to think of what he wanted to study. However, in a 9-month program ‘you really need to hit the ground running!’ So, decide on a topic to work on before you start, whilst you can usually change your topic, its invaluable to have something to move towards!

2. Be an initiator 

If you wait for things to come to you, it will be hard to make the most of the opportunities that a masters offers. Ellie (MPhil Sociology) was slow to involve herself with department reading groups, or to initiate relationships with others on her course. She justified this shyness by thinking that she didn’t need these people socially: ‘I had plenty of friends outside my course’. However, as the year went on, she ‘really felt this lack, I wished that I had been less embarrassed and had reached out’. She feels her cohort could have massively benefitted from more collegiality: it would have made the heavy workload more enjoyable. 

3. Don’t buy into imposter syndrome: work to soothe those feelings 

Everyone is in the same position; you will all struggle with some things more than others. At the beginning of Elliot’s course (MPhil Economics) the whole cohort took it in turns to give their names and to say what their research was. He ‘felt intimidated’ by the summaries everyone gave and felt ‘inferior and anxious’ when his turn came. After he eventually got to know others on his course, they revealed they made up something that ‘sounded okay’ but didn’t perfectly encapsulate their research. So, from then on, he developed a sentence to crudely summarise his research. He reports that, ‘rather than dismissing my feelings of imposter syndrome I acknowledged them, identified their root and worked to make them better’. 

4.  Don’t be a perfectionist 

The graduates I spoke to found out the hard way that focusing on perfection keeps you stuck in indecision, procrastination and isolation. For instance, Katie (MPhil English studies) missed out on opportunities for feedback because she didn’t want to turn in an essay she wasn’t proud of. In retrospect, she argues ‘I wish I swallowed my pride and actually got that constructive criticism’. It’s better to turn in something than nothing at all!

5. Ask for help

If you don’t ask for help, you probably won’t get any! Sally (MPhil Political Thought and Intellectual History) found it ‘difficult to come to terms with the fact that [she] was struggling with the workload and needed to ask for some help’. When she overcame her perfectionism, having ‘found education up to that point relatively easy’ she found that others revealed their struggles to her. Overall, she found that asking for help not only benefitted her performance but meant ‘everyone felt more able to be honest’.  

6. Take time out if you need it

If you don’t give yourself rest, it will catch up on you. Emilia (MSc History and Philosophy of Science) found that, try as she might, she kept hitting a brick wall with her research. Having gone straight from school to undergrad to masters she was suffering from burnout. Ultimately, she found that ‘the only thing I needed was to allow myself to rest’. Ideally you should be building in regular rest time, if you have failed to do so, there is no shame in taking as long as you need to get back some stability! 

My Final Advice

From listening to the fascinating advice of these masters graduates, I wish I’d been able to speak to them before starting. My takeaway is:   

Hit the ground running, it’s okay if you fall!

Tiger Chan

Tiger Chan is an MPhil student in the department of sociology at the University of Cambridge. She also works as a tutor, freelance writer and editor. In her spare time she enjoys swimming outdoors and cooking for friends.
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