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MSc to PhD: from student to colleague

Last week Sharday blogged about transitioning from Undergrad to Grad school. This transition in particular is probably one of the biggest you’ll face in your education. But another big transition, if you decide to take the plunge, is moving from a Master’s program, into a PhD program.

When I applied to start a PhD at Queen’s, I was happily completing my MSc at Queen’s in the same department. I was under the impression that life as a PhD student would be like life as an MSc student, just, I would live that life for 4 years, not 2 years. Well, that was a slightly naïve attitude, and today I wanted to take some time and blog about my experience transitioning from one student role to the other.

When I was an MSc student, I took courses, I met with my Supervisor, discussed my project, and was a TA for 2 courses. It was an overwhelming experience at first. Finding a balance between courses, teaching and research was a challenge, but it certainly wasn’t impossible. Check out previous blogs I, and others, have posted about managing your time and staying productive here, here, and here. When I became a PhD student, I was still responsible for doing everything I was before. Although I was not required to take courses anymore, for my own benefit I still did. I was still responsible for my project: collecting, managing and analyzing the data. I was still a TA. But suddenly more responsibilities piled up. I was supervising Undergrad projects, managing lab volunteers, and being asked to do more within the department as a higher level, experienced graduate student. I also had to study for my comprehensive exam, and now publishing wasn’t just something neat, it was pretty much a requirement. Of course, these responsibilities are different for every student’s experience, but they certainly increase from most MScs to PhDs and time management is as important as it will ever be.

My relationship with my Supervisor changed too when I started my PhD. We used to set deadlines together, and he still held my hand a little bit throughout the entire process of my MSc. Now everything I did was largely driven independently. Of course he was there whenever I needed him, for help or advice, but this project was my own now. What I did with my time was my choice and I just had to keep him in the loop. In addition to the increased independence, he began treating me differently too, and not in a bad way by any means, but certainly a different way. Suddenly, I was not a student, by the traditional definition anymore. He started asking my opinion on papers he was writing, and most of the other projects in the lab. He asked for and valued my feedback with the courses he was teaching. I started being treated like a colleague and not a student. This even bled over into my experiences with other faculty members. When a visiting Professor from Australia came to Queen’s, my Supervisor introduced me to him, and his first remark was “It’s so good to meet you, I’ve read your work and really like it. Can I ask you about something I am working on?” That was certainly an out of body experience for me. Someone reads my work, someone values my opinion? Am I a real scientist???

After polling my close PhD friends we came up with three main things to watch out for when you transition from an MSc into a PhD program:

  • Managing your workload: An MSc, for the most part, is a shorter degree than a PhD. One thing to think about when you start a PhD is that you aren’t doing the same amount of work in a longer time, you are doing more work, in more time. Set goals, and keep a timeline to completion to stay on track. When you are making that timeline, factor in a lot of time for roadblocks and other unexpected problems.
  • Managing your (mental) heath: There are challenges in all levels of graduate school that could affect your health and mental health. Check out some of our past posts for advice and resources for dealing with these challenges.
  • The end goal: Why are you getting a PhD? Tailor your time and your activities to that end goal. These goals may change throughout, and that is A-OK, but always keep them in mind and make sure your Supervisor is kept up to date on the same page as you.

Of course, my experience is unique because I stayed in the same lab. I would love to hear your experiences changing schools or departments, and some of the challenges you faced when moving into the PhD program. Share your story in the comments!


Posted in All, General, New Students, Staying Well, Student Perspective Tagged with: ,
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  1. […] transitioning from undergrad to grad school; and Amanda has highlighted the changes that occur moving from the Master’s to the PhD. Professional programs typically have this final stage in the training process where many of the […]

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