I finished my master’s degree a few years ago. It was a two-year program. I was able to finish it in 5 semesters instead of six. I later learned that a lot of my classmates had to stay longer than six semesters. That made me think about some of the strategies that helped me finish master’s degree early.
Having work experience makes you more efficient in academia
Having real-life work experience before starting grad school helped me a lot. When you work full-time and are paid to produce real outcomes, you become much better at time management than when you are a student. You also focus on the important things instead of focusing on things that don’t really drive real outcomes. You have a better understanding of what matters in the world, to the clients, to the employer and what does not. You can be selective about what you focus your time and energy on. People without real-life work experience tend to focus on everything which makes this process more overwhelming than it needs to be.
“What matters in grad school?”, you might ask. Well, it depends. What do you want to do after your master’s? Get a well-paying job? Then connections to the industry are important. Research that can be applied in the industry is important. Grades? Irrelevant. Want to do your Ph.D. afterwards? Then you need to focus on academic outcomes – published academic papers. Grades? Again, not nearly as important as published work.
Get inspired by Cal Newport’s books
I read all of Cal Newport’s books around that time. I’ve read “How to Be an A-Plus Student”, “Deep Work”, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. These books helped me tremendously. I still re-read some of them every year. I highly recommend them, especially “Deep Work” and “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. I was so influenced by his work that I pretty much applied the major principles from his books to my master’s degree:
The first one is, of course, time blocking. I did it religiously from day one of my master’s. I had a clear timetable every week. I tried to keep it similar so that I can get used to the same routine. I like to do all my deep work in the morning. Before lunch, I would have 2-3 hours of reading, writing, or data analysis for my thesis. I would do the hard academic stuff early in the morning because that’s when I have the most mental capacity.
Not only doing time blocking but also keeping it similar from day to day and week to week allowed me to build a certain rhythm that contributed to my consistency of effort. It also allowed me to have my evenings and weekends free. That allowed me to recharge and do some quality leisure activities that later on led to a more productive week.
Quit social media
Another principle that I’ve religiously adopted from his books was the dislike for social media. I decided to quit Instagram for the duration of my master’s. I really needed to do that. When I started doing my master’s, I had to read a lot of academic papers. It had been 5 years since I had read the last academic paper in my undergrad. As a result, it was really hard for me to understand these difficult academic papers. I would be able to read them but my brain was not capturing all the ideas. It felt like it didn’t have enough “capacity” to process them.
After reading Cal’s books, I realized that our brains are so dumbed down by social media these days that when we are presented with more complex, difficult information, our brain doesn’t know what to do with it. We’ve been conditioned by social media to only understand short, easy-to-digest, one-idea-at-a-time pieces of information.
If I wanted to be able to understand difficult information presented in academic papers, I had to stop dumbing down my brain with social media. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work. Social media and comprehension of complex information are two opposite mental activities. Social media shortens our attention span. Academic research requires a long uninterrupted attention span.
After this realization, I quit Instagram. I also limited the time I spent on YouTube. It was the best decision for my grad school. After a week or two, my brain slowly readjusted to reading long academic papers without needing to break after every paragraph.
Deep work peer group
I was introduced to the writing group by my thesis supervisor and they kindly accepted me. It was a group of professors who got together once a week for two hours to write their research. They used the Pomodoro technique to run these meetings: 25 minutes of deep work, 5 minutes break, repeated 4 times.
That was incredibly effective. You are surrounded by people who are working on their research. They are not checking their emails. They are focusing on difficult tasks. And it rubs off on you. You don’t want to check your email or Facebook because people sitting next to you will see it. You can’t be checking your phone. So you are forced to actually open up that Word file and start typing.
If you can find or form a group with peer grad students and/or professors where you meet once a week to do deep work on your thesis for 2 hours, you might find it extremely useful.
Choose the right thesis supervisor
The main reason I was able to finish my master’s degree early was that I was picky with choosing my thesis supervisor. I truly believe it was the #1 differentiating factor between me being able to finish earlier and some of my classmates who had to postpone their graduation dates.
The number one complaint you hear from master’s students is that their thesis supervisor is never available to meet with them. As a result, they are stuck with their thesis.
When you get accepted to grad school, you might get assigned a thesis supervisor. A lot of people think it’s final. That’s not really true. You can change your supervisor.
In my case, it was very frustrating trying to arrange the first meeting with my assigned supervisor. He took forever to respond to my emails. He was late for our meeting. Turns out he forgot that we even had a meeting scheduled. It was a huge red flag. If this is what’s happening in our first meeting, imagine how difficult it’s gonna be to set up appointments with this person when I’m doing my research and need him to review and give feedback on my work! After a few more similar instances, I decided to find another supervisor.
My main criterion was how organized a person was and his/her track record with previous students. What results did previous students get with this professor?
I ended up working with a professor from a completely different department. He presented a clear path we would follow if I wanted to finish earlier. He was able to meet with me on a regular basis. He helped me to set goals for each month. He gave me feedback very quickly. That’s what I was looking for, especially after having experience working with Scrum and Agile.
Use Scrum principles to finish master’s degree early
I knew that I wanted to approach my masters the same way the tech company I worked for approached product development. I decided to apply Agile principles to my thesis. I broke my thesis project into sprints. Each sprint would last a month. My thesis supervisor helped me to establish goals for each sprint as well as the definition of done. He helped me do sprint reviews. I didn’t call it a sprint, or a definition of done, I just asked the right questions that allowed me to define these things for myself. No need to be weird about it 🙂
Start working on your thesis from day one
A lot of my classmates chose to take all of their courses in the first year and then focus solely on their thesis in the second year. From what I’ve seen, it wasn’t a very successful strategy. I decided to spread out my courses over two years. I was taking fewer courses, but I was working on my thesis from day one. It was the right decision because some of my studies didn’t work out. I was planning on running 3 studies but I ended up having to run 5. You never know how your studies will go, so plan more time from the very beginning.
In addition, not having courses in the second year can affect your rhythm. These courses help you shape your week and bring some consistency. I think it’s much easier to procrastinate when you don’t have any other external commitments going on.
I have very similar advice for pretty much all the life scenarios that you can have:
- Do the time blocking. You can do the flexible way or the strict way.
- Limit social media.
- Have high-quality leisure time (evenings and weekends)
- Find a good manager, mentor, or supervisor who you will meet with on a consistent basis.
- Use sprint planning to break down the project you are working on. Ship work fast and get feedback quickly.
- Do sprint reviews to get better at what you do.
- Have a clear definition of done for each of your goals.
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