Six Lessons I Learnt from my Master’s Degree


Two years ago I was enthusiastically preparing to plunge into earning a master of education. I was a part-time student with a full time job and I knew I’d face time management challenges … surely that was going to be my only problem.

As I reflect back on the last two years, I can see how much my thinking and approach to life has evolved because of my tenacity to complete a graduate degree in the same amount of time as full-time students. Today, I arrived in Victoria, BC to realize a dream that slowly emerged while working on my master’s degree … embark on a Ph.D. in education.

I’m know that the valuable lessons I learnt along the way will help me wade through the Ph.D. challenges that I’ll face over the next few years.

When things go bad, don’t get mad.Yes, things will go wrong. It will feel as if the entire project is falling apart. It happened to me … a number of times. The first time, I became angry and frustrated, but that didn’t solve the problem. The second time it happened, I turned into a puddle of tears, but that didn’t solve the problem. The third time it happened I went out for a coffee. I spent an hour and half away from home, and away from the computer. I sat in a coffee shop and tried to think of possible solutions to the problem. By the time I returned home I had a game plan and I felt as if I’d used my energy to solve a problem and not wallow in it. The forth time it happened, I just sighed, and put my thinking cap on to find a solution.

Talking about it helps.Sometimes friends, who are not fellow students, can be a lifesaver. They helped me keep the thesis in perspective. No, I wasn’t going to change the world. No, my research isn’t top of mind for other academics. It is very important to me, but keeping it in perspective to world hunger, and housing issues helped remind me that my thesis and me are not the centre of the universe.  Additionally, my friends provided me with valuable feedback on my thesis. I was too wrapped up in it to see it clearly, while they were distance enough from the topic, but care about my success. Input and feedback is valuable.

There is always a solution.As you can see from point three, things don’t always go as planned. Problem solving is the key completing a master’s degree. Things don’t always go as planned, and someone my, unintentionally, throw a monkey wrench into the project. While I have no intention of ever becoming a project manager, I know that I can solve problems, create solutions, and meet timelines. It all hinges on creative thinking and working within the rules and knowing the criteria for success (see point one).

Create a rough plan, because a detailed one will fail.When I began my master’s I knew that I wanted to write a thesis and specialize in curriculum design. Upon completion of the first semester I knew what my thesis would be on. Because not all courses were offered every semester, I couldn’t make a detailed plan, but instead revised my plan based on available courses. Towards the end of the second semester, I decided to complete all the requirements as quickly as a full-time student. If I had to create a meticulous plan to reach this objective, I would have had to rewrite the plan several times over. That would have been a waste of time and energy. Instead, I kept a list of administrative deadlines that were unbreakable and I consulted with my supervisor, who helped me stay on track. As the hard deadlines approached, I had to make sure all my ducks were in a row, or figure out a way to line everything up. A detailed plan would have fallen apart quickly.  Trust in your supervisor and keep the hard deadlines in clear view at all times

Help is all around … just ask for it. My supervisor was fantastic. He was available to answer quick questions via email, and we met a number of times on Skype and in person. I always had questions for him. That is the best way to learn. When I needed help with the administrative processes, I found the right people and asked them to help me reach my goal. They were all too happy to help. When I needed an external examiner, I reached out everyone I could think of and asked for recommendations. I was lucky, but I also created my luck.  My soon-to-be Ph.D. supervisor had a colleague who happened to free. If I hadn’t asked for help from a number of really great people, I’d still be working on my thesis.

I don’t have to know everything, but I have to know where to find it. Undergrads are tested for information retention; graduate students are tested on information application.Just as I try to surround myself with people who can help me, I also surround myself with sources of knowledge. I don’t need to memorize the APA Publication Manual, but I do need it beside my computer. I do not need to know the intricacies of SPSS, but I do need a number of sources, including my cheat sheets, to help me wade through using the software. I figured out what I needed to know, and what I needed to know where to find things. I know how to use the APA book and have a number of pages bookmarked, but I don’t have the time or energy to try to read and comprehend every page.

My upcoming Ph.D. experience will add to the list of lessons, and I know that my positive attitude and approach to life’s challenges will help me succeed.


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