The PhD voice

My MSc Thesis advice

Hi all! This post comes in the same line of my “lessons for my freshman self” post. If you read it, you’ll know I entered college 10 years ago, and I graduated from my Integrated Masters in Biomedical Engineering 5 years ago. Actually, it was on November 16th that I celebrated 5 years of that defining moment in my career. I went out to have dinner to mark this day. But anyway, since the MSc Thesis period was a very challenging period of my life and I know some of you are going through it right now, I want to list some advice I want to give to you…and what I’d say to my MSc Thesis self now.

1. Rest while you can

I started my MSc Thesis precisely 5 days after coming back to Portugal from my Erasmus in Prague. I could have waited one week more since the semester only started officially back then. However, my anxious and overly eager self spoke louder and I wanted to learn the new techniques as soon as possible so that I could get results soon. After all, I only had 8 months from the start of the thesis to delivering the final document. However, I later learned that I had not rested enough, since I had a lot of work after and had virtually no holidays during the MSc thesis period. So yes, don’t rush if not absolutely mandatory, since you may pay the bill for that later.

2. Start writing as soon as possible

My MSc thesis was done in a lab and, while I had always some free time during experiments, I often spent it searching for papers to try to explain my results, result analysis and yes, procrastinating on social media. I even closed my Facebook account for a period during the MSc thesis. Guilty! I had a ton of papers read and knew them almost by heart, so when I finished my experiments on August 15th that year, I headed with my family towards the countryside for two weeks and I wrote the Introduction of my thesis without any access to Wi-fi. Anyway, I had until October 15th to deliver the thesis and I can’t even tell you how hard it was. I didn’t leave home, I spent all day writing. While I eventually delivered the thesis on time, I feel that the burden could have been relieved had I started writing earlier. Now, as a PhD student, I try to allocate some moments of my time for writing. One of my favorite ways is joining the bi-weekly Shut Up and Write Tuesdays sessions on Twitter. Make sure to look into the several times (I always join the UK timezone sessions) and one hour every 15 days can help a lot since an early phase!

3. Organize your time even better than during courses!

So during MSc thesis, at least in my case, a regular part of life was repeating experiments and going to the lab on weekends and holidays. I swear, during 3 months I didn’t take a single day off. Was this healthy? Of course not! Why did I do this? I had to repeat some experiments with weird results and with some mistakes. Anyway, still I tried a lot to keep up with a busy social life, but at a point I had to become some kind of hermit. I now know that, had I been more focused during weekdays and put the social time more towards the weekends, this could have been more effective. So the goal is to really organize yourself. We all know experiments often go wrong and some changes of plans have to be made, but if you stick to some schedule you will avoid burnout especially in the later stages of the thesis (and also having friends angry at you for missing yet another dinner, since you must stay in the lab the last night an equipment is available…sigh).

4. Don’t let stress get to you

This will be the hardest thing I ever posted online so support me. I ended my MSc thesis with a very good grade and the final presentation went super well, but during the work things didn’t go very smoothly. I was often very stressed and I felt I was doing plenty of stupid mistakes I didn’t know how to deal with, I thought I was the only one doing mistakes. I was very determined in doing better though. Anyway I had days I felt like crap because of criticism about my work and, even worse, my own criticism. I had days I almost started crying in the lab and I cried so much at home after I was told that maybe lab work was not the deal for me. I only worked in programming afterwards and I also feel I’m more suited to programming now, but I think that the main part that exacerbated my problems was being very stressed and not organizing so well my time. We all want to do well, but is it worth it sacrificing your well being for that? I have very close people to me who ended up with depression during the MSc Thesis. So, in order to avoid burnout, be very focused and be humble to learn from your mistakes. Always ask others how you can do better, don’t assume you know things before you really do. Don’t run from place to place all the time, this will make you even more stressed. This is also an advice I’m writing myself since I am in a very challenging period of my PhD with plenty of work too and I want to make sure I won’t end up with the anxiety problems I had back then.

5. Most of all, it’s a learning experience!

Most of us, perfectionists in academia, really want to do impactful things from the start. Well, probably an MSc thesis with a period of 6 months will not make any groundbreaking contribution in science, or maybe you don’t want a science related career and still have to do the thesis to complete your degree. Maybe what you did in the MSc thesis will not be what you will do for the rest of your life (for me it wasn’t) but chill out and think of this as a learning experience, like any other courses. For me, as I said, I gathered a lot of lessions on how to focus, control anxiety and manage my time. I also learned a lot about bibliography research and how to have both critical and creative thinking. I got skills in LaTeX and learned how to write a research manuscript. I also learned how determined and strong I can be when things do not go as expected. So, 5 years later, I feel these lessons inspired me to be a better professional and person in several domains of my life!

Was the MSc thesis also a challenging period of your life? How did you overcome it? If you’re about to start, what do you think is the main challenge for you?

Cátia

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