There are so many different undergraduate degree courses to choose from; then if you choose to stay in academia after your undergraduate degree, there are so many different paths you could take. For example, taught master's degree, research master's degree, and a PhD. Transitioning through university can, therefore, be a stressful period for a lot of students.
I will offer some advice on how to transition through academia (undergraduate, taught master's and PhD), and hence potentially prevent increased anxiety when things don’t go as you planned. As usual, the list is not exhaustive, and I would love to hear some of the things that helped you keep up with your intense courses!
1. Undergraduate degree workload
I came to the UK as a slightly more mature undergraduate student at the age of 20, because instead of doing A-levels or a foundation course, I opted to do two years of an undergraduate degree back home (Russia). If you are from a country with a similar curriculum (I know in China the timetable for students and the workload are quite similar to the one in Russia), you might find yourself being underwhelmed with how an undergraduate schedule works in the UK. As long as you don’t leave your essays, reading or revision until last minute, planning your time while attending a UK university is relatively easy in comparison. At least in my experience, the only truly stressful time of the year was May (the exam period).
However, if you have not experienced an undergraduate course prior to coming to the UK, make sure you take the time during your first year to organise a schedule that works for you and enables you to meet the expectations of the course. Cramming never works in the long run, so instead try and complete your submissions or exam preparation in plenty of time - this will ensure you still have time to enjoy yourself and take care of your mental health. See my article ‘Stress for success: achieving a perfect balance for coping during exams’ that offers more advice on how to cope during the examination periods too!
Undergrad is the time of your life – enjoy it!
With all that being said, I personally believe that the few years you will spend doing an undergraduate degree will be the best time of your life! This is because you get to study at a university institute, have lots of opportunities to experience future careers and spend time with lots of new people – and make lots of new friends and memories. So as much as it is important to schedule your workload – don’t forget to schedule getting involved with university societies, external events, and volunteering opportunities.
I am sure you will have heard it during your A-levels or pre-university courses: extra-curriculum activities are really important for your CV and future career prospects too. It is, therefore, important to use your time wisely during your undergraduate degree to boost your future prospects when applying for master’s degrees, PhDs or a job. The development of soft cognitive skills is becoming increasingly important and recognised in the job application process – and may be more significant with the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of a glut in the job market. Some of my friends have also expressed how difficult it is to quickly and successfully obtain a job if you do not have additional experiences alongside your degree grade.
However, it is important to also be aware of how hard it is to find a balance between overwhelming yourself and not doing enough while at university (and balancing your social life alongside this!). Both these two extremes can have a negative impact on your mental health – so finding the middle ground is really important. The best time to find a balance and what works for you is to do this during your first year of your undergraduate degree and this will help to reduce your stress as you transition through academia.
2. Master’s degree workload
Often you might hear people saying that master’s degrees are more intense than an undergraduate degree in terms of their workload. This is true! Expect to have a workload all year round that is similar to the undergraduate exam periods, especially if you are working alongside your degree. As a result, it is important that you find a good work schedule from the start of the course. Find out when your submissions are due, when your exams will be, how many contact hours you have a week (lectures, seminars, laboratory experiments etc) and schedule a routine around this information. And make sure to have a break every now and then!
Don’t be afraid to reach out to people for advice
Starting a new course can be an extremely scary and lonely experience, particularly when you are transitioning from an international undergraduate degree to a master’s course in the UK. The uncertainty surrounding which course may suit you best can also lead to enhanced anxiety.
I suggest making a LinkedIn account (if you don’t have one already) and message people who have done the same course. I have received dozens of DMs from people interested in my master’s course and I’ve responded to absolutely everyone. You can also call or email the course coordinator and ask to speak to some of the current intakes students. Reaching out to people will allow you to understand the course demands, see if it aligns with your interests and career goals, and determine if you will enjoy the course. After all, no matter how intense or demanding your course is, if you hate what you do, your mental health will always suffer and you are less likely to perform well.
3. PhD workload
PhD research requires a significant commitment in terms of workload. It may include long working days, and sometimes requires you to work at weekends. It is important to remember while undertaking PhD research – you are not alone – and your fellow colleagues will happily have a rant about their workload too. Compared to an undergraduate or master’s degree however, you are in control of your own time completely. It is, therefore, vital to have a work plan, and to set your own goals over the course of your PhD. Discuss this with your supervisor so they can organise regular meetings and check your progress.
Talk frequently to your peers and supervisor
Over the pandemic, I was feeling very unproductive and sometimes I felt like I would never be able to complete my PhD. Talking with other people in my department helped me to realise that everyone was also struggling, and that I shouldn’t be putting too much pressure on myself. So, my main piece of advice is to communicate throughout your PhD with your peers and supervisor about your work, as well as any struggles you are facing – including, but not limited to, your work environment and external factors which made impede your progress. And remember – PhD research is very difficult because nobody has done it before – so things are never going as badly as you might feel!
A.V. is a Psychology PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London working on student mental health. She previously completed a BSc Psychology and an MSc Clinical and Mental Health Sciences at University College London. She is a member of the British Psychological Society and an aspiring clinical psychologist, currently working as a crisis counselor.