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Independent Graduate: Buckle down, or buckle under

Self-discipline is often one of the hardest skills a postgraduate student must acquire. But it can be learnt, says Emma Williams
HOW MANY times have you, as a student, heard the jokes about knowing Richard and Judy better than your own parents, and been asked which recipe from Ready Steady Cook will be on that evening? Quite simply, self-discipline is tough and - let's face it - opting for daytime TV is often a more tempting option than writing an essay.

No wonder, then, that panic can set in at the very thought of postgraduate study, where most - if not all - of your research is expected to be done from home. You know you want to do the course, but you're just not sure if you've got the motivation. So should you make a decision based on your track record so far, or is self-discipline a skill you can learn?

Pat Atkins, regional advisor for Open University South, believes this is a major concern for potential postgraduates, but insists that self- discipline can be taught. Indeed, the study skills course offered by Open University aims to provide students with the necessary tools. Learning to plan out essays carefully, to study effectively rather than just read, to plan your time and to explore which activities you feel you could sacrifice, can all be effective methods, she explains. It's simply a case of working out your particular problem areas.

Atkins also advises anyone considering postgraduate study to take into account their education history. "If we are looking to take students who haven't been awfully well served by the education system in the past, then they, perhaps, have not developed these habits."

Louise Marian, 30, a PhD student at Bristol's Brunel University, is a case in point. "If, like me, you didn't get into studying until 23, motivation is hard." It's all very well, she explains, for people who have sat down to do their homework every night since their pre-teens, but for those who haven't, self-discipline must be re-learned.

Maintaining motivation for research is important, adds Andrina McCormack, senior lecturer in the School of Education at Northern College: "What motivates people to start a project is not always the same motivation for them to continue."

McCormack's research into motivation and education reveals three fundamental issues in keeping your self-discipline at a peak. First, since family pressures can hinder motivation, the support of colleagues and partners is essential. Second, ensure that you are able to allocate study periods. This will mean informing friends and family that you cannot be contacted at particular times, so avoiding any distractions, and helping you in not being tempted to do anything other than study. Finally, the allocation of study space - even if it's just a small corner - will help you achieve this.

Carrie Myers, a PhD student at the London School of Economics, agrees. "Having my own personal working space at home is very important, especially considering the allocated space and workstations for PhD students at university are always limited."

Both Myers and Marian argue that passion can be the greatest motivator of all, but also that this can depend largely on your relationship with your tutor. "Your supervisor can help you get motivated when they see that you are not putting enough work into your research," Myers stresses.

After all, they will know which areas of your subject will renew your interest. It is, therefore, essential to ensure that you build on this relationship as early as possible.

Hugh Foot, professor of psychology at Strathclyde University and specialist in self-motivation, adds that setting short-term objectives is invaluable in the development of motivation. Tutors can assist with this, he says: "Supervisors are obliged to follow a code of practice which includes setting tasks at regular meetings with students." He advises taking note of the fact that students have rights too.

Foot also claims that having a circle of students with whom you can discuss concerns is also helpful, as they can act as a support group at the same time as alleviating some of the social isolation that students often experience. Indeed, the moment you feel isolated can be the moment you lose interest in your studies altogether.

Clearly, then, motivation can be rediscovered: if you can't find it on your own, help is at hand. After all, it's not just the Open University that is offering self-help courses. An increasing number of higher education institutions are jumping on the bandwagon.

"I think study skills training is something that more universities will find they have to do, if they want to retain students and help them to do their best," concludes Pat Atkins.