How to be professional

Time to step up your game

Why you should treat your postgrad studies like a job.

by Rockwell McGellin

More than 300,000 students are working away at their postgrad degrees this year. When they graduate, half of them will keep pushing boundaries with research in academia – the rest will end up using their expertise hands-on in their chosen field. Set yourself apart, and you could be one of those graduates – but you’ll need to take your degree seriously to get there.

A postgrad degree builds the foundation for the job you hope to have – so why not treat it like a job right from the start? A professional attitude will help you work better, feel better and, when you’re ready, get a better career. Here’s how to be professional while you’re still at uni.

How to be professional and work better

A postgrad degree takes two years for a Masters, and up to four for a PhD. It might not be broken down into neat, timetabled units especially if you’re doing a research project rather than coursework.

Tackling this amount of work takes a very different attitude to an undergraduate degree. It’s up to you to make your plan and up to you to stick to it. 

University of Sydney PhD candidate Amy Vassallo recommends getting started early, and having a regular routine.

“Take it seriously from the start and put in the hours along the way. Getting dressed, turning up, maintaining some sort of structure to your week and setting yourself milestones, just like any other ‘real job’, is important,” she says.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” 

Having a professional attitude isn’t just better for your work. It’s better for you, too.

“One of the most difficult parts of a PhD is maintaining motivation and enthusiasm to consistently work on the same project for three to four years,” Amy says.

Setting achievable goals, and letting yourself celebrate when you reach them, is one way to stay motivated, and avoid burning out. Taking time out from your studies, and leaving your work behind at the end of the day, can also be helpful.

“I like to think of my PhD as my job. I refer to it as work, and I try to be in my office or the lab from 8.30am to 5.30pm every day,” says Ellie Sugden, a speech pathology PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. “I aim to fit all of my PhD work into these hours, and avoid taking anything home with me if I can.”

“You can’t just drop everything when you start a PhD, it’s only one part of who you are,” Ellie says. “There needs to be some downtime, otherwise your health and the quality of your work suffers.”

There’s research to back up this attitude. Studies show that people who have some detachment from work during their downtime are happier and less stressed, without being less engaged while at work.

How to be professional and have a better career

There are real bonuses to being in the office or the lab every day. Being a postgrad isn’t just about getting the work done, it’s about taking advantage of the things that crop up along the way.

“A research degree is not only about taking opportunities to learn more things, but to build yourself as a person and as a researcher. Volunteer for lots of things – like student committees, conferences and teaching – these experiences make you more well-rounded and able to have some perspective on your research,” Ellie says.

You never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to discover in the office or at the lab – but whatever amazing career opportunities are out there, you aren’t going to find them by sitting at home. 

Recommended for you: How to succeed when everyone’s got a degree

“A degree is not only about opportunities to learn more things, but also to build yourself as a person.”

 

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