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Quality study tips for postgraduate engineering students

James Davis

Postgraduate engineering courses can be quite difficult, even after completing a bachelor’s degree. Fortunately, there are some nice ways to cope.

You don’t need anyone to tell you engineering can be rough. If you’re coming from undergrad engineering and are looking to grow your career with higher qualifications though, your experiences will make life a lot easier. Most of the study techniques and habits you developed will be highly applicable to a Master of Engineering, regardless of specialisation. What this article aims to do is help refine those skills and offer advice in areas you may not have considered. So, without further adieu, here are some study habits postgraduate engineering students can find invaluable.

Take detailed, handwritten notes

It’s tempting, intuitive and natural to type notes when you’re in engineering. The convenience of filing all lectures notes away on your hard drive or cloud, combined with the likelihood that your typing speed is faster, make it an easy choice. Science from the last few years brings this decision into question though. A study published in Psychological Science found handwritten notes to be superior when it comes to information retention. This is due to the inherently slower process. A student typing notes is able to dictate exactly what a lecturer or slide says, whereas handwriting requires selectivity. It requires parsing the information on the fly and only writing what’s relevant because it’s not possible to record it all. Postgraduate engineering students from most specialisations can benefit from this, but software engineers for instance might have a rough time. So, try handwriting only where applicable.

When would you have time for detailed notes then? It’s a good question. This requires you to go back over your notes immediately following a lecture, seminar, meeting or otherwise and add to them. The sooner the better. The process of filling in details will consolidate what you’ve learned and you won’t have to juggle as much in your mind. It’s a simple habit to pick up that many students overlook, but with so much to memorise, engineering students of all varieties can benefit. When expanding, feel free to type, as you’re recalling information in your short-term memory rather than parsing anything external.

Preempt and brush-up on required math for each topic

It’s fairly reasonable to forget mathematical techniques you used in second-year of your bachelor’s. Having the foresight to inquire about future topics, be it before you enrol in your program or during, is a great way to give yourself some space to revise. You’re a postgrad, or about to become one; they’re likely to assume you’re well-versed in bachelor-level material. Can’t hurt to make sure!

If you’re not learning from provided materials, find others

Unless you’re a prodigy, just about every step of the engineering journey involves rigorous reading and re-reading, but sometimes the material you’re given isn’t enough. It might even be downright bad. It sucks to write-off lectures, tutorials or seminars you’ve paid good money for, but if you’re struggling with a concept or problem, it pays to look elsewhere. You may find a book, paper, lecture or some other source that helps you understand a concept. Plenty of engineering students at this level are stubborn and will blame themselves for not getting something, figuring pouring more time in is the solution. A time-tested method, but consider the possibility it may not just be you. It could simply be the course material.

Regularly meet with classmates to discuss problems

Engineering problems are rarely straightforward equations with one correct answer. The kind of design thinking you need to be successful as a professional engineer is something that just needs to be honed by iterating on responses, checking your work, double checking your logic and triple checking alternatives. You likely had group projects during your bachelors, but if you’re doing something like a research masters where it’s not mandatory, feel free to make it mandatory. Schedule a weekly time to sit together and work through any problems you all might be facing during the week. Working on other people’s problems is a chance to get away from yours while still sharpening your problem solving skills. Having them ask questions of yours allows you to check assumptions, calculations, science, design or any other perceived holes.

You should now have a better idea of how postgraduate engineering can be a more productive experience. A bachelor of engineering has put you in good stead, but it pays to not underestimate this next step by taking the advice presented. No matter your specialisation, engineering as a skill requires abstract design and problem solving skills common across each. If you can record what you learn effectively, stay on top of prerequisites for each unit, branch out to other learning materials and share your problems, it’ll go a long way to being successful.