The world of postgraduate studies is an often-confusing place, filled with new challenges, experiences and potential pitfalls, writes An Focal's Declan Mills.
Those on taught postgraduate programmes get the benefit of module outlines and course descriptions, while research postgraduates often find themselves thrown in at the deep end.
To help both taught and research students, here is a quick guide to your rights as a UL postgraduate. It is very important that all students avail of the rights and support systems that they are entitled to in order to help them have the best university experience possible.
Many departments and faculties offer internal funding in the form of fee waivers and scholarships. These often come with conditions attached, one of the most common being that research postgraduates in receipt of such funding have to tutor for a certain number of hours a week.
Make sure to ask for the conditions of your funding in writing when you are first offered it, so that there can be no subsequent confusion.
Beyond that, the university occasionally offers other sources of funding, such as the UL40 scholarships for taught Masters programmes in 2012.
At the state level, your best bet are the Irish Research Council scholarships, but remember you can only be rejected twice before being disqualified from future applications.
Another source of income for postgraduates is working for the university. The Centre For Teaching and Learning and the Disability Office will employ postgraduates for various jobs including note-taking, working as an Orientation Guide, peer tutoring in the Regional Writing Centre and working for the First Seven Weeks programme.
Students working in these positions are generally paid through the UL payroll system, which involves filling out a Casual Temporary Setup Form and getting it signed off on by your employer so you can fill out online claim forms for the hours you worked.
You need to have claimed your hours by the second Friday of the month in order to be paid by the end of the month, which means that if you work during the end of a month and finish work on the last day of that month, you won’t get paid until the end of the following month.
Bear in mind that often your employer will be handling a lot of administrative work and you may need to politely remind them to process your pay claim. You should also ask for a contract when you begin.
You can also work indirectly for the university by being hired by Unijobs as an exam invigilator. These positions are only open to research postgraduates, and while the hours are long, the pay is quite reasonable.
They pay out on the 25th of each month and operate their own system for claiming hours that is independent of the UL payroll system.
Just bear in mind that as you will be earning a lump sum of several hundred euro in two weeks you’re likely to be emergency taxed, and you will need to claim that tax back yourself.
The final source of employment on campus is as a tutor in your department. These positions are mostly open to research postgraduates, although taught postgraduates have also been known to work as tutors on occasion.
In departments that offer fee waivers, many tutors will be working unpaid for at least some of their teaching hours, while those that are payed use the same Casual Temporary Setup Forms as other postgraduate employees.
Most UL faculties have template contracts for their constituent departments to use when employing postgraduates, and those that do not have firm contracts have guidelines on employment conditions.
It is University of Limerick Postgraduate Students' Union's position that all postgraduate tutors – whether paid tutors or teaching in exchange for fee waivers – should be given a contract to sign, and we are working with faculty and department heads to this end.
It is worthwhile noting that neither tutors’ pay nor duties are standardised across the university, so tutors in different departments and faculties are likely to have widely varying experiences.
For taught postgraduates, the question of assessment requirements is very clear-cut, and works along the same lines as the undergraduate system.
Assessment requirements will be on the module outline at the start of the semester and will be from the usual selection of lab work/group project work/presentation/written assignment/performance piece/exam.
With research postgraduates, generally the only assessment they have is their thesis (although STEM postgraduates will also often be drawn into existing group research projects).
During the course of a research postgraduate degree, most research students will attend yearly progression panels which determine whether they have completed enough work to progress to the next year of their programme.
The metric for determining progression should be explained to students and information regarding any change to that metric should be distributed clearly and quickly.
Health, welfare and quality of life
All postgraduates are entitled to use the Campus Medical Centre (which charges a subsidised rate) and the Counselling Service (which is free).
Students suffering from difficult financial services can get in touch with ULPSU about availing of the Student Hardship Fund and the Childcare Bursary as appropriate.
All postgraduates, whether taught or research, are entitled to join as many of UL Wolves’ clubs and societies as they like, and also have the use of the PSU Common Room, which provides a microwave, kettle, and seating area with comfy couches and coffee tables.
ULSPU also runs social events such as the PSU Ball to help provide a context for postgraduates to meet and socialise with each other.
Postgraduate students have a number of options available to them when it comes to dealing with problems they encounter. Any queries about a module should be first directed to the module head, and any thesis-related queries to one’s supervisor.
If that does not work, the next step for taught postgraduates is to turn to their elected Class Rep (and it is vitally important that people put themselves forward for Class Rep positions).
If the Class Rep needs help resolving the issue, they turn to the appropriate Faculty Rep on the ULPSU Council (there is one for each faculty in UL), and the Faculty Reps in turn can go to the Faculties Rep on the ULPSU Executive.
At this point, if the Faculties Rep feels more support is needed, they turn to the PSU President for assistance.
For research postgraduates, the start with their Faculty Rep as there are no classes and therefore no Class Rep. If a student is having serious trouble or simply is unsure as to who their representative is, they can of course go higher up the chain by themselves, contacting the Faculties Rep, Vice-President or President.
It is worthwhile noting that many department and faculty heads are open to being approached by individual postgraduates about issues they are facing within their department, so that is another available route.
In the event that a dispute arises that requires a sit-down meeting involving members of staff and postgraduate students, the postgraduates are entitled to request that a representative of ULPSU attend the meeting with them to help advocate for them.
Any student who is employed as a tutor by the university on an ongoing basis is also entitled to join UNITE if they so wish.