I wrote my official “hooray I’m done this year of school” post last week and it was mostly ramblings about doing a Masters in Fine Art and balancing a creative life. But now that I’ve had some more reflection and decompression time, I’ve been able to see some of what I’ve learned this year a lot more clearly.
For anyone who’s considering taking the plunge into a master’s degree or a PhD (I applaud you), here’s are a few things I’ve learned after my first year back in school.
1. Figure out your time management. Grad school is the most independent learning I’ve ever done. I have deadlines at the end of every month, but it’s up to me to figure out how much work I have to do every day in order to meet them. I really enjoy this type of independent learning because I feel that it's preparing me really well for a future freelance career. That being said, I’ve had to experiment with different routines and sometimes it’s been a struggle to balance work, school, and play. I’ve taken what I already know about my work habits and developed a pretty good system. For example, I work well when I set myself daily goals and I work best from about 10am-6pm. I try and get as much done as I can first thing in the morning and then reward myself with Netflix at the end of the day. For some people, this system would be a disaster. I know plenty of people who can’t get any quality work done before 9pm. The key is knowing yourself and your working style well enough to know how best to manage your time. It’s a lot of trial and error at first but it’s one of the most important things to figure out early on in your career as a graduate student.
2. Find a designated workspace. This I cannot stress enough. When I started grad school I had no place to work in my home. We didn’t have a dining room table, let alone an office in our tiny studio. It took some creative rearranging but we managed to squeeze a desk into our space between our sofa and some bookshelves. Even though our apartment became seriously overcrowded it made all the difference in the world. Don’t underestimate the psychological power of a designated workspace. It frees the mind and allows it to focus on the task at hand. It also allows the other spaces in your home to be free for fun and relaxation. When you work from home five days a week, compartmentalization is seriously important. Now that we’ve recently moved to a bigger apartment and I have an office I feel seriously spoiled! But if space is at a premium for you and you can’t invest in a desk or you have too many distractions at home, find a designated space at a nearby library or local coffee shop and make it your own. When I can’t concentrate at home I’m a regular at the coffee shop in our local arts centre around the corner.
3. Figure out how to define your thesis topic in one sentence. This is majorly important for three reasons. 1: It will make your thesis better. Focus and specificity are key in any creative endeavour but they’re especially important at this level of academia. Even in a creative program like mine, it’s essential to have a clear understanding of your topic and specificity is what will help set your work apart from all the other stuff out there already. 2: If you’re ever going to seek publication for your thesis either in academic or trade publishing, you’ll need to be able to explain your work in under 30 seconds. Nowadays we’re living in a word where everything important needs to be said in 140 characters or less. (Thank you, Twitter!) A snappy sales pitch will go a long way when it comes to introducing your work to the world at large. 3: Everyone you meet from the second you start grad school will ask you some version of: “What are you working on?” It’s best to have a quick answer at the ready so you don’t spend the first ten minutes of every cocktail party struggling to explain the lifecycle of a sea anemone or the definition of creative non-fiction or whatever it is you spend your days writing about.