Amplify your success with these 10 self-mastery solutions for postgraduate students


I am a big fan of self-mastery, being able to control my feelings, impulses, and desires that ultimately affect my life course. Of course, external circumstances come our way, many of which we don’t have control over. Our biggest control is over our internal environment. Sometimes, we can’t change a situation or how others feel or what they do. Still, we can optimise our internal environment and have a battle half won.

Over the years, many researchers have worked hard to identify the predictors of success and failure in postgraduate students. Let me take a few moments to explain this real-life problem. Researchers Liechty, Liao and Schull summarised the barriers and facilitators of dissertation completion, and although they zoomed into doctoral students in the social sciences, these factors are relevant to other subject areas as well. 

They divided these barriers and facilitators into three themes: individual, relational and structural factors.  Individual factors included fear and anxiety, self-criticism and self-doubt, procrastination, dependency, unrealistic thinking, relationship stress, perfectionism and defensive reactions. Relational factors involved the availability of peer-support groups, academic support from faculty advisors, misunderstandings between supervisor and students, expectations about progress and timelines, and clarity of roles between student and supervisor. Structural factors included access to workshops on academic writing, motivational strategies, time management, organised academic support groups, “boot camps”, retreats, awards to recognise outstanding mentors and dissertations, dissertation policies, annual tracking of students’ progress, and financial support.

From the above, we can relate to the challenges that postgraduate students face throughout their journeys.  Many of these barriers are bigger than ourselves, and change requires us to be activists for bringing structure into the postgraduate programmes and policies and procedures supporting postgraduate students.  However, we are on the road to success if we can optimise our internal environment. This blog post will give you a glimpse of something you can do to improve the situation. Amplify your success with these 10 self-mastery solutions.

As with everything, I need to start with a few disclaimers. Not everything works for everyone. Although I share these 10 suggestions with much confidence, I always have room for growth in how I approach my internal environment. We all have excuses, but our excuses do not serve our goals. And lastly, these 10 solutions are not an exhaustive list.

#1 Create Positive Habits

How do habits play a role in our lives? We are creatures of habit, and more optimal habits make our lives easier. Although deep-seated psychological theories are behind our behaviours, we can do a lot by changing our habits. 

How do we react to stress? Do we close our laptops and go and watch TV? I once saw a tweet from someone saying that she was really stressed and needed some salad and yoga. Many others would have replaced those two behaviours with a glass of cola and a hamburger. We reinforce a particular behaviour by repeatedly taking action in a certain way and, in this way, turning a behaviour into a habit. For example, strategies against procrastination can work in our favour. Instead of walking away from our computers when we feel stressed or overwhelmed, why not create a habit of acknowledging the need to procrastinate, grab a cup of tea, return to your laptop and sit through the uncomfortable feeling while starting the next task (much easier said than done, I know!). When we do this repeatedly, a new habit is born.

Even our routine comprises a series of habits: when we get up in the mornings, when we brush our teeth, when we open our laptops, and the order in which we do these activities. Our conversations with ourselves and our thinking can be turned into positive habits. Being solution-focused in itself can become a positive habit. 

There are many different theories about habits. One of them, from Robin Sharma, who wrote “The 5am Club”, says one needs to stick with a behaviour for 66 days to turn it into a habit. Well, I’m translating that into 66 consecutive repetitions, as not everything happens daily. If we can use our habits to serve us, those things we don’t like to do will become an ingrained part of our lives, and we won’t have to go through internal negotiations each time we face them. Good habits can make our lives easier.

#2 Get (and Stay) Organised

Walking into your study and having to search for a spot where you can put your laptop down is just demotivating. Your physical workspace relates to your well-being, and well-being is related to productivity. Many studies on the link between productivity and a cluttered workspace found that a cluttered and disorganised workspace drains our cognitive resources, reduces the ability to focus, triggers procrastination and avoidance strategies (like watching tv and snacking on junk food), is associated with high cortisol levels in the blood and consequently, stress, anxiety and depression. Use your physical workspace as a facilitator of academic success.

Choose a platform for doing your "big picture planning", whether it’s a whiteboard, Trello or Microsoft Planner. Also, decide on a platform for your calendar, to-do lists and notes. Whether you choose to do it in hard copy or through the use of software, explore a few systems and get them implemented. Another time stealer is email. Find ways to optimise how you work with your emails, when you answer them and what you do with them. Manage your inbox to avoid it managing you.

Dive into the Research Masterminds YouTube Playlist called “Getting Organised” to access a few useful videos. 

#3 Focus on what Matters

We can keep ourselves busy with many things, and this “busyness” sometimes makes us feel productive, although we often don’t have much to show for it. With a little bit of planning, implementing more of a strategic approach, and being aware of the busyness trap, we can change how we work and focus on what is essential. In his book, "Eat that Frog", Brian Tracy explains that when we start our day, we should ask ourselves what the thing that we are most likely to procrastinate on (which is also often the thing that moves the needle the most) and start with that one thing. Completing it will give you a sense of accomplishment which is great for dopamine release. Dopamine is a hormone that makes us feel good and plays a big role in motivation. Exactly what we need!

Also, consider the Pareto principle that says 80% of our results come from 20% of our work. Figure out what that 20% is and focus on that. Do a thorough review of the tasks on your to-do list in terms of what is important, unimportant, urgent and not urgent. Stephen Covey, in his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” explains this approach well. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when everything around us went haywire, I created a quote and stuck it up in my office. It says, “Marginal gains persistently lead to high impact consistently” – the few bits and pieces that feel like nothing add to something more significant over time. Keep that in mind.

#4 Sharpen your Skills

Lacking the much-needed skills to complete your postgraduate studies will put you back a mile. The most important starting point is to figure out which skills you need to succeed. To identify the gaps in skills, you can ask your supervisor for advice. You can also become aware of your learning needs by carefully considering the feedback from your supervisor on your research project – if your supervisor suggests that you need to review the structure and flow of your literature review, then maybe a good course or a few blog posts from a reputable science writer will go a long way.

As you work on your research, become aware of your weaknesses. Maybe you feel like you don’t know what you are doing when it comes to the “sample size calculation”, then “sample size calculation” should be added to your list of skills needs.

Be intentional: make a list, find some resources and allocate time in your calendar to learn about the areas of need. Seek formal courses or informal information from reputable websites or publications. Some skills that postgraduate students greatly benefit from are project management, time management and scientific writing skills.

#5 Nurture the Student-Supervisor Relationship

The student-supervisor relationship plays a significant role in the success or failure of postgraduate students. Realise that you can’t change another human being. If you don’t get along, you can voice your concerns and even suggest that your supervisor be replaced. Not really a pleasant solution.

The one thing you can do is to optimise your side of the deal. Clarify expectations between the two of you at an early stage and throughout the journey whenever needed. Mismatched or hidden expectations can really mess with something that can otherwise be a happy story. As a student, you may expect more guidance; however, your supervisor may believe in independent work. Or your supervisor expects you to provide continuous updates while you are under the impression that you should not bother them.

If your supervisor has not set up a meeting for you to clarify expectations, take charge and get this discussion going. Ask your questions and pave the way forward. Become familiar with the university policies and regulations, including the memorandum of understanding or statement of principles of postgraduate supervision (if such a document exists).

Communicate effectively via email, phone or face-to-face meetings. Know what you want from the interaction, state that clearly, and justify your requests.

#6 Communicate Effectively

Be clear and concise in your communication, whether to a research assistant, a fellow student or your supervisor. When we provide too much information, the most important information tends to go missing. If you are uncertain of anything, ask the other person to clarify. Be open, honest and mutually respectful – all things we should be and do in real life, also applies to graduate school.

A lot of our communication is via email these days, so when you type an email, start by adding an appropriate subject line. For example, you need some guidance in choosing a venue for your data collection. You are uncertain whether you should ask participants to travel to the university’s cricket fields or whether you need to go to their home clubs. The subject can be “Data collection venue to be decided”. Start your email (after your greeting) with “I’d like to get some advice on whether I should…”. Then give more background and explain why you need your supervisor’s advice. Maybe you are worried about the weather or construction work at the original site. Whatever the reason, explain it so that the reader understands your motivation.

#7 Work Smart & Hard

Get your head around these two principles and see how you can marry them. Working hard refers to long and intense hours of grinding. Working smart involves being strategic in your approach and spending your time on what matters most.

Working hard alone is not ideal as the sacrifices we need to make are big, and we often must compromise on our personal domain. Working smart is great and will allow us to achieve more in less time. But what if we can incorporate both of these concepts into our lives? We work hard in the timeslots that we intentionally allocate for working while limiting overflow into our personal lives. We also work smart and therefore get lots more done in the time allocated for work. Sounds like the perfect combination to me.

#8 Don’t go for Perfect

Perfectionism is one of the barriers to the completion of a dissertation. Being aware of perfectionism is the number one place to start. Let me give you a practical example. You finished your methods chapter a week ago; however, you keep going through it repeatedly. Each time you make a few small changes that do not really influence the overall quality but keep you from just attaching it to the email and clicking the send button. In this case, your tendencies toward perfectionism are standing between you and your progress.

I believe in having high standards when writing your dissertation, but when those standards become a hindrance, we need to step back and let them go. As they say, “a submitted thesis is better than a perfect thesis”. Find the balance between submitted and perfect.

#9 Create Accountability

Accountability is something that can help you achieve your goals. When we set deadlines for ourselves, we are inclined to break them because “who will know”; however, when others know about our goals and check in now and again, we are much more inclined to stick to our deadlines and achieve our goals and conquer our dreams. Appoint an accountability partner. One way for you to go about this is to partner with a friend who is also doing a postgraduate degree and to be accountability partners for each other.

#10 Look after Yourself

A healthy body houses a healthy mind. Look after yourself by sleeping enough, eating healthily, and exercising regularly. And, of course, doing the things you love!

You now have 10 tools in your toolbox that you can employ to make this journey easier and to optimise your internal environment by changing what you can control. Know that there will be ups and downs, but in the end, the rewards will be worthwhile. Hang in there.

The Research Masterminds website  and YouTube channel  are useful resources to get going. Please, share this post with someone who will find value in it.

If you are a (post)graduate student working on a master’s or doctoral research project, and you are passionate about life, adamant about completing your studies successfully and ready to get a head-start on your academic career, this opportunity is for you! Join our awesome membership site - a safe haven offering you coaching, community and content to boost your research experience and productivity. Some of the Live Workshop recordings available to members relate to getting organised, dealing with your supervisor, and effective communication, to mention a few. Check it out!

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto 


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