In 2018 I started my Honours degree in biodiversity and conservation at Flinders University. I had completed my Bachelor of Science in 2017, after being accepted in the Honours stream through my Year 12 Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).
I will not sugar-coat it — I was a bad Bachelor student. I scarcely attended classes and at times submitted sub-par work. I believed that as long as I didn’t fail anything I would still be able to do my Honours, so I did the bare minimum and just got by. However in the last semester I discovered I needed an average GPA of 5.0 to secure my Honours position, regardless of what stream I was doing. Panic ensued, I was already too deep in my final semester of not achieving to pull my grades around. Thankfully, I was eventually accepted, after having to plead my case with the Honours board.
In the end I managed to score myself a First Class Honours and a PhD candidature (and hopefully soon a publication). Honours was definitely a struggle, but it was also one of the best experiences of my life. I just wish I had known these 10 things before I started …
1. You will fail
Not the brightest note to start on, but don’t fear, everyone fails. Honours is full of ups and downs, and at some point, somewhere along the line, something in your project will go wrong. But it’s okay! It happens to every person that has ever done an Honours or a PhD. Whether the failing is small or catastrophic, remember this happens all the time.
More importantly your supervisor or co-ordinator sees it all the time. The best thing to do is tell your supervisor and your co-ordinator early on. It may be a simple case of steering your research in a slightly new direction, changing the scope of your project, or even taking some extra time. It’s okay to fail, just keep pushing.
2. You will be treated differently
Again, not as bad as it sounds! One of the biggest things I noticed during my Honours was how much I was treated as a colleague instead of an (undergraduate) student. People will start asking your opinion on subjects, especially on your research. Take these opportunities to test your skills learned during the Bachelors; it’s a great way to build networks for your career. You will also be a representative of your lab or supervisor, so you may be sent to conferences or be asked to represent them at different events. Take this time to shine.
3. You will be independent
Being independent during your Honours is a tricky balance. On the one hand, you will need to be an independent thinker and problem-solver — this is the big leagues after all. But on the other, it is important to have a good working relationship with your supervisor(s). In my case, I would pre-plan the number of times I would attempt something or the amount of time I would allocate to trying to solve a problem relative to the size of work. I found that when I presented something to my supervisor, or was frustrated at something not working, they were more willing to help because I had attempted it myself first to the best of my abilities.
4. You’ll make great friends
Friends at uni are so important for the overall experience, but especially so in Honours. The cohorts are much smaller and so you get to know your peers on a personal level. This is beneficial for many reasons. First, they understand your struggle like no-one else (“how many words is your lit review?” “When are you going to start writing your thesis?” “What form is your thesis in?” “Want to get coffee?”). Study groups or even lunch-break groups ensure that you still have social connections and help with independent problem solving. These friends are also able to check up on you when you go MIA into a thesis-writing vortex. Basically, they get it.
5. You will develop a caffeine addiction and become anaemic
Okay, this one might be just me, but it is a cautionary tale. I know that the 6th cup of coffee and the 2-minute noodles or mi goreng might seem like the best option for a meal at the end of what seems like a 72-hour day, but trust me, there are consequences. Make sure to take AT LEAST one day a week off your uni work. I called these days personal admin days, usually a Sunday.
Cook something nutritional, such as easily freezable meals (my personal favourites are soups — anything with beans and curries). You are not productive when you are sick and tired. Similar with caffeine. If you are staring down the barrel of your 5th coffee or energy drink for the day, perhaps take a walk instead, or simply call it a day. And get a good feed and night’s rest and come back the next day ready to go.
6. You will have no time at the end of your thesis
Be prepared to have your life consumed by your thesis and research for the last few months (if you have no time during your whole Honours year, you might have to reassess your workload). Fear not, it should only be for the last few months of “crunch time” during the actual writing phase. In this time, be honest with your friends and family, let them know that you may not be able to attend everything because your thesis must take priority in this time. But it will all be over soon and they can go back to having your undivided attention.
7. At some point(s) you will hate your thesis
Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? It is the feeling that you have accidently ended up where you are and that you are unqualified or not deserving of your success. It is something that I suffered for most of my Honours. This thought process made me hate my thesis at some points; I felt that it wasn’t good enough or that I had no right to be talking about my research.
But guess what? I didn’t get to where I was by accident. I worked hard (see opening paragraph). It is normal to hate your own work sometimes, but you have to work through it. Talk to your supervisor or peers, get them to re-read your work and help you with some constructive criticism or praise. It can sometimes also be beneficial to take some time away from writing your thesis: try formatting it, doing some other work, or just taking the day off to come back the next day and go again. Whatever you do, DO NOT FREAK OUT AND DELETE EVERYTHING — it is never as bad as you think.
8. People will listen to you
As I wrote above, you are not where you are by accident. You have worked hard to get where you are (repeat until you believe it). Guess what? You are now rapidly becoming an expert in your field. You have a Bachelors degree, you know (or should know) what you are talking about, and people (including your peers) are going to find your research interesting. You are now more a peer then a student yourself, so be confident and willing to share your knowledge. Remember that you stand on the shoulders of giants who have previously shared their knowledge with you. Pay it forward.
9. It’s actually great!
Yep, Honours is actually a really great experience, and something that I recommend to everyone thinking about it. I know that it can be daunting, because you often talk to Honours students while they’re in the midst of their writing, are sleep-deprived, and who are probably jacked-up on caffeine (see point 5). This is like asking a parent what it’s like being a parent when they have a three-year old who is in the throes of toilet training, has a fever, and has decided she no longer wants to sleep in her own bed. But I promise you, the skills, experience, networking and future opportunities far outweigh any of the negatives
10. You can do it
A positive note to end on! Yes, you can do it. It will be tough and you will struggle at times, but you can do it. Remember that your co-ordinator and more often than not, your supervisor, has been through this. Draw on their wealth of knowledge and keep good communication so they can help you if you are slipping or need to readjust your study load or research question.