Tips to Successfully Completing a Virtual Master’s

MSc Information and Library Studies student at RGU, Ayzel Calder, gives her top tips to successfully completing a virtual master’s as well as general tips for student life.

To start, I would like to say that I am sure some of these tips might not be for you; you might be completing your bachelor’s, or you might be attending class in person. But as someone who completed their BA in-person and is completing their MSc online, I have found most of the following (aside from maybe #6) are helpful regardless of the degree or method in which you are taking it.

So, without further ado, here are some tips to staying on top of things and remaining sane through your degree:

Familiarise yourself with the online learning environment

I spent my first week going through every page and clicking on every link my Campus Moodle had.

Figure out where the forums are, especially if they require weekly posts, where your reading lists can be found, and where your course leader uploads lectures. This will save you in the long run. Trust me.

In my experience, not every class Moodle page is going to look the same. Yes, they will be similar, but I had one where lectures were under weekly headers, where another had them under the Panopto menu on the side. Things like that. While it may be a bit tedious, it’s better to do it when you have just a bit of extra time than when you need to submit an assignment before the deadline that’s five minutes away and you just can’t seem to find the link to the submission page.

Find a calendar that works best for you

I am an equal opportunity calendar lover. I like physical calendars the most, like the massive desk ones that you fill in the days of the month yourself, but I also enjoy digital calendars. With both, I found colour coordinating my tasks and due dates to be the most effective way to remain organised. Of course, digital calendars are better at prompting you about upcoming events; still, it can be quite satisfying to cross days and assignments off on physical calendars. I have used both but tend to rely more heavily on physical calendars. In my undergrad, I used day planners and would get tremendous joy out of selecting a new one at the beginning of the academic year. And at one point during the peak of classwork in my master’s, I was using three calendars, two physical and one digital. I don’t particularly recommend this or using more than two (or even one if you are sticking to one type), but there you go.

Fill in said calendar

Step one is to procure a calendar but filling it in is the vital step two. It will help to have all your due dates in one spot instead of across multiple syllabi. In my first couple of years as an undergraduate, I would just write up a quick Word document with all the due dates chronologically and colour coordinated by class (a bit extra, but it worked for me, and it was so satisfying to cross everything off once I submitted). Once I started using digital calendars, I moved away from the list, but the idea is the same and has not led me wrong in my years as an academic.

Read your syllabus.

I hope that if you’re a master’s student, you already know to do this. I learned to read and frequently refer back to the course syllabus in my first ever undergraduate English class when I (and 90% of the class) showed up without having read the work detailed in the syllabus. So learn from my mistakes, and don’t be the me that sat in that second-floor classroom confused when my professor started talking about Late Nights on Air instead of the poetry classics from the day before.

Email your Lecturers. No, seriously. Do it.

Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? If you are an undergraduate, and I know you have been told this at least once, but the best thing you can do, especially if you plan on doing a master’s, is to build a rapport with at least a couple of your tutors. You’ll need at least one reference for all postgraduate applications, and you’ll want them to remember you (for good reasons). Aside from that, your tutors are there to help you learn. If you have questions, they’re there to answer them. Remember, you are not supposed to be or expected to be an expert on the courses you’re in. You are there to learn, and your lecturers and course leaders are there if you need clarification on something. So don’t be scared, just be professional. Compared to my undergraduate, I went a little wild with emails in my master’s. For a while there, I don’t think I went a day without sending an email. You may wonder if that drove my lecturers crazy, and you may be correct. However, I was thanked by one of them for all my questions, so I like to think it wasn’t that bad.

Start a list of topics or ideas that interest you for your dissertation

There is nothing worse than coming up on the day in your Methods, Metrics & Analytics class where an idea for your dissertation is due, and you’re blanking.

I felt the pressure of this a bit more than usual, I suppose. The full-time programme doesn’t give you that much time to develop an idea, especially if the content is as new to you as it was to me (a BA in English and History doesn’t prepare you that much for an MSc in Information and Library Studies). So I got my handy dandy sticky notes (yes, they were colour coordinated too) and would write down anything I found interesting. This helped remind me of topics I liked, draw connections between different topics, and find themes between them.

It made the jumping-off point a whole less daunting, even if I did look a bit like Charlie Day in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia while trying to explain how things would eventually connect.

Reach out to peers

Especially if you are doing your degree virtually and/or by distance. I am Canadian and made the decision to attend RGU via online learning due to COVID, and while there are many aspects of online learning I appreciate, it can be pretty isolating, especially if you are in a different country and time zone. In an effort to avoid this, I volunteered to be a course representative. The role required me to be more outgoing and interact with my classmates more than I usually would. Of course, this can add to your workload, so if you’d rather not take that approach, you could simply connect with your peers via a group chat on a messaging platform like Discord or WhatsApp. These channels allowed us in my cohort to have an area where we informally discussed assignments, topics, and deadlines (with frequent meme breaks, discussions about Marvel, and pictures of pets). At the very least, you’ll have a resource you can access to double-check about a deadline or a formatting question, but it could also be a place where you might make a new friend or learn something bizarre and obscure, but also incredibly cool.

people looking at laptop computer

Trust me on this. As someone who is incredibly introverted, I know the idea of being part of a large group and feeling the pressure to interact is uncomfortable and maybe a little daunting. But the support and having people to reach out to will make your experience as a student a lot more positive and a lot less isolating.

Try and have a little fun

Of course, a master’s will be more demanding than a bachelor’s and requires significantly more time and effort. Still, it doesn’t mean you should sacrifice your entire life and dedicate every waking hour to your degree. You need to take care of your mental health. If that means sacrificing that third extra article that you don’t necessarily need to be reading so you can get an extra hour of sleep, do it. You can’t retain information with a sleep-deprived brain. It’s just science. Don’t be an unnecessary test subject for a study that’s already been completed. You don’t need that t-shirt.

At the end of the day, the best thing to do is enjoy the process. Try not to get overwhelmed, but it’s okay if you do (trust me, I had my fair share of cry fests). And remember to believe in yourself, because often difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations.

“Go forth and conquer
for the world is small
and you are the giant,
and in every step
you take will make the ground shake
as it rises

Atticus Poetry, Love Her Wild

Ayzel Calder

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