First of all, congratulations you have decided to take on the HUGE commitment to achieve some ambitious goals. Studying a Master’s degree alongside full-time work is not easy, especially in Computer Science. A lot of this advice stems from my own personal experience specifically studying the Online Computer Science MSc at The University of York thus I will share these top tips to help you on your journey. Please bare in mind that everyone is different; everyone requires different things, learns in different ways, at different paces and struggles or excels in different areas but I hope some of these tips can be helpful even if not all.
It’s been about 2 years since I started my Master’s Degree in September 2020 and I have to say it’s been an absolute rollercoaster. After not studying for over 10 years I’ve had to learn how to study, learn how to learn, learn how to manage my time, learn the actual content and most of all learn how to manage my emotions. It’s not been easy and I’m still learning how to do this all now but I wanted to write a post to help those who are completely new to studying, haven’t studied in a while or are studying a completely new field. I want you all to feel as prepared as possible because studying such an interesting domain is very rewarding especially if you love tech and I’d hate to see anyone struggling because of York’s incompetence in delivering a quality master’s program.
1. Understand Your Own Learning Style
Understanding your own learning style, how you take in information, retain it etc is important because it will help you structure your learning the best way possible so you can get the most out of studying. I can give you all these tips that I’ve learnt from my own experiences but we may learn differently. Therefore figure out whether you learn via visual, auditory, reading/writing or kinesthetic methods and then configure the learning and studying around yourself.
For example, I am a visual + kinesthetic learner who learns through “doing” the task and being actively engaged in the learning. Reading kills my focus so I either have to highlight the text as I go along or watch videos about the topics then re-read the bits that I need to specifically learn for a task etc.
To ensure maximum benefit it’s the implementing part I find retains the most information because of my learning style. Thus when I learn I try to do the “implementing” part the most. i.e when we learnt different algorithms – I found writing the program out made me actively learn the steps and making it functionally worked much better than just reading the pseudocode.
2. Plan Your Study Schedule
The second most important thing when studying on top of full-time work is having to juggle your time. A schedule is helpful when things get overwhelming. When I am overwhelmed I don’t know what to do and I get into a “frozen” state and I don’t start – a schedule can act as a mindless guide you follow when your emotions are all over the place.
Thus building a schedule of 1) when you are going to study and 2) how long and 3) what you are going to study (study plan) can really help build some structure into your life so you know what is to be expected each day. When you study full-time without any job to distract it’s easier to just doss around and study when you “Feel like it” but when you study Part-time ontop of a full-time job you have to be wise with your time. It’s easy to just tell someone to build a schedule so here are the steps you can take to start building one. The modules are split into weekly “lessons” regarding specific topics.
After many modules of just winging it and cram studying in the last few weeks from panic and procrastination. This was a calendar plan that my partner help me make that helped SO MUCH I’ve been using it for the past 3 modules and it’s changed everything. As I am now doing a little bit each day rather than everything in the last 2 weeks.
It builds a schedule for 1) when I was going to study and 2) how long for. I kept to it as much as I could which really helped with getting into a flow – but I was also not completely strict. And some days I just took the whole day off to recover because I was out of steam. It made a huge difference and I highly recommend it and will continue to use it until the end of my studies.
For 3) What you are going to study here are some tips to start you off if you don’t have an idea yet of how to create a study plan:
If you are studying a module with an exam at the end here is a guide: on the first day of your module I would go through every single module and then list the main topic headlines, outline the learning objectives/outcomes and then all the topics you are going to learn. Then I would open the reading list of chapters and print out every single thing on that reading list. Staple it and label each chapter of the week you are supposed to study. Then I would schedule each topic into your 2 months timeline so you know what you are studying on what day and just give yourself a bit of extra time for each one in case you enjoy it and what to explore further.
If you are studying a module with an assignment at the end. I would do the same thing as for an exam but skim-read everything and note what each topic is about and what you learn about. Plan accordingly but at 2x speed to get all the skim reading done before at least the 6th week it doesn’t matter if you don’t really understand everything. This leaves at least 2 weeks to focus purely on your assignment. I would read the Summative assignment as soon as it comes out (I think in the 2nd week) and divide the tasks as headline/titles into a word document. Then list the topics you have to learn from your module under each headline/title that you think might be what you are required to know in order to answer the question. Also as you study make bullet points under each headline/title that contribute to asking those questions or tasks.
Once you roughly know how long it takes you for each topic then you can adjust your study plan accordingly.
I’ve also written a basic guideline in my Research Module post (you can scroll down to it) on how to break an academic report into chunks to tackle it easier.
2. Taking Your Reading Out and About
Leading on from the previous point of printing out all your reading material, having your chapters printed out means you can take them anywhere and everywhere with you. You can even save your course books onto a kindle but I find it more helpful to have it on paper since I can highlight them whilst I’m reading.
Usually, in the slack channel, someone will post the illegal PDF where you can download it or you can try and find it on pdfdrive.
Printing out your chapters so it is away from the computer, can help you cram some study time in when you may not always have access to your computer but have some down time available. For example, I would read a chapter when I’m waiting in a long-ass Post Office queue to send off eBay items I’ve sold. This way you can fit in a study where ever you go and make use of your time.
2. Schedule in Your Hobbies
In your timetable, I would schedule in any hobby that makes you feel relaxed or happy. I just scheduled in “relaxation time” with nothing in mind. When those times pop up do not to mute it – actually just mindless follow whatever you have scheduled in even though you don’t feel like it or don’t want to. Try to counter the feeling and force yourself to do something other than study because I guarantee you feel much better after.
Having to work hard at work, then go home and work hard to study – it is exhausting. If you do a computer-related job like me then some days your day could look like studying from 7-9am then working from 9-5.30pm then something studying back again from 6pm-11pm. That’s over 14 hours a day your eyes can be glued to the computer. This is a path to destruction if everything you are doing in your life requires energy; you will get burnout! Thus you HAVE to implement something that brings you up to balance out those vibes. For me, it is the gym, window shopping on aliexpress and tweeting random shit 🙈.
Thus scheduling dedicated time to the gym, painting or even doing nothing and closing your eyes and just relaxing can help make the study experience be much more balanced.
4. Learn How to Think “Critically”
Critical thinking is where you form a judgement based on a collection of facts, evidence, and observations from everything you consume. Perhaps you already understand how to write or think critically since Computer Science is a theoretical, logical, analytical type of field. But personally? this one got me bad on so many assignments.
We have a lot of academic reports in this course. All of these are focused on critically evaluating tools, techniques, methods and solutions thus you have to get good at critical thinking. What that means is reading up on existing research, books, watching lectures and consuming anything that covers information on whatever *piece of tool* you decide to use and how it was used, the results of that, limitations encountered, biases, viewpoints at all possible angles and then using this to decide for yourself if this *piece of tool* is worthy for what you require it for and then sharing this in written form.
Our thesis requires it, making a decision requires it and being creative requires it! I would recommend taking advantage of the resources that University of York provide and having a read before/whilst/throughout you do your assignments.
- Writing an academic report: This one helped so much with understanding what an academic report involves. I did not know how to write an academic report until I saw this. I wish I had been linked to this in my first few modules. Alas!! Better late than never.
- Using evidence to write an argument: This one is a great one to know how to back up any statements you make.
- Critical Writing Help: As you can see I am not well versed in critical writing or any sort of academic writing so a lot of writing a good research design is combining research, pitching them against each other to form new ideas and understanding those limitations. The slideshow walks through how to think critically.
- My uni friend linked me to these and they really helped a beginner like me – so give them a click and have a read-through.
One good way to implement this so you improve on critical thinking is when anyone tells you something in a “factual” maner of way – critically evaluate what they are telling you. You don’t have to be annoying and try to catch the person out but take a mental note of what they say you could even ask where their source is from and go and do your own research to evaluate the proof of their statement.
6. Build a System
If you struggle with focus building systems in everything you do can really help remove the stress of trying to figure out what to do, when to do it and how to do it. That includes your study schedule, your study plan but also your approach to a new assignment or task. Some people do this naturally by how they approach new tasks but personally, I’ve had to write this out and build it manually.
Building a system to answer a task is difficult if you’ve never done that specific task before for example our uni assignments. Think about what do you when you first tackle a project or question that you don’t know the answer to. Do you first research the question? Do you analyse what the question is asking? Do you ask a friend what the question means? Do you find a question that is similar what someone else has answered? Do you sit on it for ages confused and hoping at some point it will come to you? Do you do all of the above ??
Breaking down your process of how you solve things that you don’t know or understand will help with the anxiety (personally anyways) because you have a system and a process put in place to tackle these scary things. For me I created a system to tackle writing assignments which was built from just -doing them- and reading up on how to write better, asking coursemates and trial and error.
Part of your system could include finding a location or place where to study. This includes where you sit, your desk area, the music you listen to, the times you study (when you feel most energised). You can even buy new items for this study location so that it motivates you to study better knowing you have a comfortable chair to sit on. It may be hard to devise a system if you have not studied in a while that’s why it can be helpful as you go along to implement other people’s systems, review how it went, re-adjust and build your own through experience.
Part of my study system for writing assignments includes using the Pomodoro timer + ADHD music and action -> cue -> reward process during my 5 minutes off to double reward myself by window shopping on Aliexpress and then buying the item once I finish off a paragraph or a page or a section I said I would.
Also, each week is split into about 3 lessons. I split individual lessons aka Lesson 1 into 2 parts the reading part and the activity part. So first I read the chapter in the book, then I youtube concepts I don’t understand then I go and do the activity it requires.
7. Use Tools
The tools you pick up, use and trial throughout your course can be a complete game changer. From saving time to studying more effiently these tools are yours to trial. I really recommend trying things out for yourself to see what works. Perhaps you can do some critical evaluation of the tools available in each area to see which one fits your needs the best. A lot of these applications also provide student versions which either unlock a pro version or something similar and most of the time for free or at a discount!
Here are some areas that tools to try out Ive put a * next to the ones I use.
Using Zotero was a massive TIME SAVER (I previously used to use BibGuru and then Mendeley ) but Zotero was so much more efficient. It looked really complicated but I am so glad I gave it a go. It has really helped my writing process and made organising and referencing all the reports and citations a complete breeze. I recommend downloading the app and then combining it with the Zotero Google Chrome Plugin where if you press the icon and it would automatically loads that specific paper into the Zotero app (where it automatically fills in all the required info), then yo can open that paper within the app and highlight everything. Then you can use Zotero within Google Docs to add citations which automatically builds your References AND updates the numbers in order as you go along!!!!
8. Make Friends / Meet People / Connect!!
Meeting others in this course has been some of the highlights of joining it. These people (you know who you are ladies!!!) have literally helped me throughout this entire course I would not have made it without all their support, encouragement, tips, help, advice, being there to talk to, celebrate with and just basically being there emotionally as a friend also. No other people in your life will understand what you are going through more than your coursemates. Studying online was one of the perks of this online degree which means it can be a lonely and solo act. But networking has so many benefits. Sometimes you are stronger in some areas, sometimes your coursemates are stronger in others together you can dominate 💪.
There are few people in our cohort who have taken it upon their own hands to teach the weekly modules in group study sessions and I’ve attended a few and they are welcoming, inclusive and help A LOT.
This master’s degree does not deliver ANY live lessons, no teaching and nothing. So asking questions requires waiting time. In these group sessions, you get to ask live questions, discuss, counter-argue and really dig deep and learn much better through each other. I wish I had attended more of them!
9. Use The Formative Assessments to your Advantage
Formative assessments are non-graded mini assessments at the midpoint of each module that test your knowledge so you can review and see what areas you need to brush up on. These are usually in the form of a short assignment, an exam that is marked but returns no actual *mark* or a group task. I’ve done all but the ADS one (I missed the deadline) and I totally recommend them if you have time to do them.
Some people decide to not do them since they are not marked and take up a lot of time but if you are unsure of how well you are doing or whether what you are doing is write or wrong I would recommend using these to share what you know and get some feedback on it before the end of the module is up. For example, if you have an assignment about a certain topic and there are areas about that topic you don’t understand just write about those areas and hand in a half-finished formative assessment assignment. It doesn’t have to be neat or perfect. Even use just bullet points to make your point. If you’re not ready still do the exam, EVEN if you know you’ll get most of the questions wrong. You might actually surprise yourself. Don’t put too much weight or emphasis on making it perfect just put in there what you know, and send it off. Even if you get everything wrong the act of having to do something “marked” in the middle of the module kicks your butt into action if you may have slacked *shifty eyes*
I think the tutor feedback has been valuable for these formative assessments and the group task we did showed so many areas where I thought I was right but was not 😅 but also it showed me that I should be more confident in my ideas and find evidence to back up what I think. Because there was some idea I had discussed but were countered by everyone in my group, but when our feedback came around it turned out I was the correct one – so I felt like I should have been more confident to argue back, reason and clarify.
10. Ask For Help!
There will be times where you would like to clarifying of concepts and these kind of situations you might need another mind to bounce ideas. Don’t be afraid to reach out whether in the slack channel, your tutor or even post somewhere in a forum. The slack channel is the best place to discuss ideas, share knowledge, ask for help and connect with other students.
Furthermore, doing a Master’s degree alongside with full-time work can also really affect your mental health. You are physically and mentally exhausted as you’re constantly performing at work and then to study so your energy may be lack. Be gentle and kind to yourself, ask for help when you need it from friends and partners whether it is for more space, be excused from certain chores, ask for help at work if the workload is too much. Everyone is here to help no one wants to see you in pain so please do not suffer alone.
Remembered when you complete your Masters you will have also have mastered..
- time management
- project management
- critical analysis
I hope these tips helped and that you max out your studies and get everything that you want from it and more!