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Why should one consider postgraduate studies?

Postgraduate studies require a significant investment in terms of work, time and money. The first question to ask before embarking on postgraduate studies should be a careful consideration of the question: Why?

Presumably you are reading this page because you are considering postgraduate studies. Then you have a series of questions to consider in addition to the Why? How should one select a topic? How should one select a supervisor? What is a realistic timeframe in which a postgraduate degree can be completed? These are just some of the questions - and not all of these will be discussed below… However, please read on as a starting point on your journey, to get some additional pointers and/or if you wish to pursue postgraduate studies under my guidance.

Who should consider postgraduate studies?

A good starting point is the realisation that postgraduate study is not a good idea for every student. Beyond an honours degree, it is quite possible that subsequent study will not lead to a higher salary. You may even be labelled as an academic, which may mean that you are deemed incapable of doing 'normal' practical work - especially in the case of a doctoral degree. Studies are expensive. Studies may also interfere with your job, or delay the start of your career&hellip

Despite negative tone in the paragraph above, there are two primary categories of people who have little choice, but to consider postgraduate studies. The first group is those who desire a career in academia. In many ways a doctoral degree is the 'entrance ticket' into an academic career; until you have earned the title 'doctor' you will be deemed to be an academic in training (in the vast majority of academic disciplines, but certainly in computer science). The second group of people are those who simply do not consider themselves 'complete' until their qualification matches their self-perception. The academic world is indeed an interesting one that (hopefully) enables one to work on the cutting-edge of a discipline. The chances are good that one will meet others (and, indeed, some of the 'great names') working in one's discipline. Given that the journey is not an easy one, completing it yields a sense of accomplishment - one that bodes well for future endeavours. In addition to these two primary groups, completing a postgraduate degree may also be meaningful for a third category of people: those who, for career purposes, wish to achieve something that places them a notch above peers in the same work context. An additional qualification is often a worthwhile addition to a CV. However, for this third group postgraduate study is often a means to an end that may interfere with other means to the same end (such as spending long hours at work). If you are in this third category, think carefully about the costs (especially the non-financial costs). You may easily find yourself on a journey where the competing demands of study and work (and life) may lead to a frustrating journey stretching over many years.

Supervised by whom?

In order to study towards a master's or doctoral degree (by research) the university will typically expect you to identify a potential supervisor who is willing to supervise your studies. Supervisors' willingness to act as your supervisor may depend on many factors. They may include your academic performance during prior studies, the extent to which your proposed topic of study interests them, and the capacity of the potential supervisor to accept new students at the time of your application.

Students often underestimate the importance of picking the correct supervisor. Postgraduate study typically entails an extended journey through a new landscape; embarking on such a journey is often akin to an act of faith for both the student and the supervisor. What will happen when the going gets tough? Working through rough patches (or even terminating studies) is not easy for either the student or the supervisor. However, keep in mind that the supervisor usually has a lower stake invested in the relationship.

As one example of supervision styles: I tend to allow students significant freedom (within the topic of their research). I try to guide students, rather than supervise them. For some students this works well. Other students prefers a much more involved supervisor who steers their research. Neither approach is better than the other, but your personal style may cause you to prefer one style over the other. I tend to be a stickler for correct grammar. I tend to question assumptions based on 'best practices' and prefer deductions from scientific or other logical principles. It is best for you to get to know my supervision likes and dislikes before embarking under my guidance. Ditto for other potential supervisors. I try my best to ensure that I only accept students who seem to fit my style through project-based exercise that is intended to determine the compatibility between my guidance style and a potential student's guidance needs. Note that my views about research are written up in the book Information Technology Research - A Practical Guide for Computer Science and Informatics, 3rd ed. Reading parts of this book is highly recommended before choosing me as the supervisor for your degree. The book is available in most university libraries in South Africa.

Another crucial requirement for a successful supervision relationship is that the topic of your studies fit into the research interests of your potential supervisor. Note that supervisors typically 'live' in the community that works in a certain subject area. This not only provides the supervisor with the requisite knowledge to guide your research - it also (and more importantly) means that the supervisor is acutely aware of the problems that are of interest in a certain community at a given time. Some problems may have received so much research attention that they have become boring or abandoned; you should not base your studies on such a problem, because you will find it harder to publish (if publication is required or an option). It may be harder to obtain funding. External examiners may also be rather critical of your work even before examination begins. On the other extreme, a community may not yet be ready to consider certain research. As an example, consider Fred Cohen's seminal work on anti-virus mechanisms; funding was problematic because the community had not at that time experienced the threat of computer viruses yet. Any attempt to jump too far ahead is dangerous - again in terms of funding, getting publications accepted and the need to convince external examiners of the value of your work. Trust your potential supervisor's advice in this regard.

The fact that supervisors specialise in specific fields may mean that you are tempted to pick a topic from the field of a supervisor whom you deem to be particularly suited as a supervisor. This too is dangerous: You will work on your studies during late nights, over weekends and through holidays. If you do not find the topic fascinating, it is hard to keep up the momentum required.

If you would like me to supervise your postgraduate degree, please look at my current research interests. In order to maximise synergy, I only accept students that align very closely with my own research interests. Currently I am most interested in questioned digital documents (also known as forensic digital document examination). Related fields that have counterparts in the physical world, such as digital autopsies (or serious digital adverse event examination) and digital ballistics (in terms of the expected 'trajectory' of a digital object) are also of interest. The project based application exercise already mentioned above is intended to help ascertain that potential students are on the same page in terms of my vision of digital forensic science.

When should you study towards a postgraduate degree?

The question about the best time to start with postgraduate studies is not always simple to answer. This decision is influenced by (at least) three factors: One is the fact that one's responsibilities in terms of work, towards family and financially (for example, mortgage payments and contributions towards medical aids) tend to increase over time. The other is that one's life experience, access to resources and other benefits of maturity also tend to increase over time. And, thirdly, there is often pressure to move from being a student to starting with a career; reasons include career opportunities that may arise, funding from parents or loans that cannot bear further stretching or a relationship with a life partner that cannot forever remain on hold.

For many the most dangerous option is to start a full-time career immediately following honours studies, and simultaneously starting to study part-time towards a master's degree. Navigating the competing demands of these two endeavours is difficult. However, it is not impossible, as had been demonstrated by many students. However, I venture to guess that there are many more tragic stories to be told about this course of action. The simplest, if possible at all, is to complete a master's degree as soon as possible, and to study full-time. There ought to be no reason why a master's degree cannot be completed in one year of full-time study. A number of bureaucratic hurdles should be navigated, though. Often universities allow students to register fairly deep into a new academic year. If your studies only commence in March or April, completing the program by December becomes hard; then it automatically rolls over into a new academic year and deadlines seem far away; studies tend to fill the available space… Another hurdle to contend with is the deadline for submission. That deadline has shifted earlier over the years and students are often expected to submit by September of the year in which they want to complete their studies. Even if one starts studying early in the year, it is unlikely to meet all the requirements by September. A more practical approach is to aim for submission around November. It is indeed possible to meet all requirements by November. Submitting in November may mean that the examination results may not be available by the next graduation ceremony, but waiting a bit longer for the degree certificate does not matter much. Try to avoid aiming to submit in December, because academics prefer to disappear as early as possible in December for the summer holiday break in the southern hemisphere, and actual submission in December may translate to effective submission in February of the next year.

A word of warning: As a full-time master's student you may be offered a position as a part-time assistant lecturer during your (full-time) studies. Teaching may be very taxing in the sense that it requires weekly preparation, the 'delivery' of lectures, setting tests and examinations and marking all of those. The deadlines when teaching are strict: You have to be prepared by the time the next lecture is scheduled, tests have to be set by the time the test is scheduled, and so on. On the other hand, the deadline for your thesis or dissertation may be months or years into the future. This may mean that your part-time lecturing will almost always trump your full-time studies when the two activities are prioritised. I have seen far too many full-time students who were excellent lecturers over years of study, but with little to no actual progress to show in terms of their studies.

It is harder to give advice for when to start with PhD studies. The same challenges apply, but a doctoral degree is a significantly more complex undertaking than a master's degree. Officially a doctoral degree is supposed to take about twice as long as a master's degree. Completing all the degrees from an initial degree to a doctoral degree consecutively takes 'postpones' one's career significantly. Starting a part-time PhD degree concurrently with full-time employment is fraught with the same challenges previously mentioned for a master's degree. An apparent simple solution is to start doctoral studies as soon as possible and then start a full-time career once the studies are underway; the supposition is that it should be relatively easy to 'write up' the results in the evening while working. However, studies have shown that such part-time completion of a doctoral degree is not as easy as it seems; in fact, one study found that it takes students on average seven additional years to complete a doctoral degree once they start working fulltime and studying part-time…

The simple truth is that studying part-time is not easy. However, for many, part-time study is the only option. For them considering the reasons why they want to study towards a postgraduate qualification is even more important. While hard, it is not impossible. However, it takes planning, commitment, and perseverance. And many students have to reconsider the Why? question seriously when their plans do not pan out as expected. Is the qualification worth the free time and costs that may be incurred over the better part of a decade? Sometimes it is.


It is time to return to the original question: Why should one consider postgraduate studies? Let us consider the utility or merits of postgraduate studies. Where does the value lie?

The most marketable skill that is certified by a masters or doctoral degree is that of problem solving. The holder of such a degree has demonstrated the ability to take a non-trivial problem, analyse it, and solve it using scientific methods. This is a valuable skill in academia, the business world, and in life in general.

Remember that the half-life of any IT knowledge is about five years. The value of a degree therefore has to primarily lies in these higher-order skills. However, sometimes such a degree also has more immediate benefits. The more immediate benefits of studying in 'my' area as described above and elsewhere include the following:

Another benefit of the field of digital forensics also stems from the fact that the field is relatively young. This makes it somewhat easier to come to grips with the underlying field. It also enables one to develop a view of the entire field. This is typically much harder to achieve in older disciplines. And there is something inherently satisfying in knowing more about a field than just the narrow scope of one's own focus.

Most of our students have been able to present their work at international conferences. In addition to the joys of seeing unfamiliar parts of the world this also often helps you to begin to establish an international network of contacts which may prove very useful later in your career.