Is a Masters an Isolating Experience?

It is with abject trepidation that I begin my Masters dissertation. Obviously it’s a puny document in comparison to a PhD thesis, but it’s significantly longer than any piece of academic writing I’ve attempted thus far and therefore more than a little daunting.

First published in The Independent 5th June 2013

It is with abject trepidation that I begin my Masters dissertation. Obviously it’s a puny document in comparison to a PhD thesis, but it’s significantly longer than any piece of academic writing I’ve attempted thus far and therefore more than a little daunting.

The first thing my tutor said to her quaking group of supervisees was ‘remember to talk to other people… it’s the only way of staying sane’. Initially I scoffed at the drama of the statement, but at four weeks into dissertation term, I’m beginning to understand what she meant. It’s just you and your pile of epically proportioned reading and the hand-in date in September seems to be light-years away.
It’s not just in dissertation term that the Masters year can feel like an isolating experience, particularly if you’ve moved to a different university where you don’t know anyone and have first-year nerves all over again when trying to locate your tutor’s office. The course numbers are significantly smaller in comparison to undergraduate and I certainly felt that the euphoric circus of fresher’s week (or fortnight) was not something that postgrads were included in.This sense of both separation from undergraduate antics and feeling unprepared to handle the more solitary experience of a graduate degree is not uncommon. A friend of mine cites an increased workload, decreased contact hours and a severely stunted social dimension as the main reasons for feelings of loneliness and isolation among postgraduates. She describes her social life as going ‘from one busy extreme to a very lonely one’ and maintains that ‘universities need to help MA students to find a balance between them’. Feelings of loneliness can spawn serious depression and anxiety related issues, trapping sufferers in a cycle of silence and isolation.Financial pressures intensified by the fact that the Student Loans Company does not offer support for most postgraduate students, leads to many students choosing to commute from home to complete their Masters degree. Another friend says that it’s not being able to afford to live in the city where he studies that exacerbates his feelings of isolation. He says that ‘it’s been very difficult for me to make friends and socialize, much more so than at undergrad. Back then, we were all lumped in together but at postgrad it requires what feels like a monumental effort to make those connections’.

I have four hours of contact time a week on my taught MA course (dwindling to five hours over four-and-a-half months in dissertation term), leaving a lot of time for private study. Self-motivation provides the backbone of a postgraduate degree, in preparation for the move up to doctoral study and research, should you choose to go into it. Solitary study is what you sign up for with an MA, but the importance of making time to socialise with course peers, to share your research interests and academic highs and lows cannot be overlooked. Your course itself can turn you into a recluse: there can be separation in priorities between yourself and friends from undergraduate days. All of your friends have left university and gone into work, even though you are still following the exam and coursework craze they no longer have to worry about.

Any MA or MSc students feeling a sense of loneliness or isolation on their course, I would urge to take advantage of the graduate ice-breaking events offered by your university, and if they aren’t enough, unleash your inner extrovert (even if that’s not usually your style) and organise it yourself! Study groups, coffee meetings and even having a few people round for a glass of wine can be really valuable in establishing a sense of connection with others in the first year of postgraduate study, particularly when dissertation term begins. Taking my tutor’s advice and reaching out to my course mates made me realise that although my study was solitary, I didn’t have to feel alone.

The Insider’s Guide to a Humanities MA

Days of wild clubbing abandon and blagging your way through reading are no more when it comes to a Masters degree, but that doesn’t mean your old life is gone for good.

First published in The Independent 22nd May 2013

Days of wild clubbing abandon and blagging your way through reading are no more when it comes to a Masters degree, but that doesn’t mean your old life is gone for good. There’s a lot to look out for, so here is my insider’s guide to an MA in the humanities.

Prepare to have no money, ever
That euphoric feeling when a loan instalment flows into your bank account is merely a fond memory. The Student Loans Company does not offer loans, grants or bursaries for postgraduate degrees, with the exception of PGCEs. Daunting though this may seem, I’ve definitely learned some valuable life skills in making a poncho out of duvets in winter and forgoing the gym membership I’d only spend the term berating myself for not using anyway.Go to the lectures
Go to as many extra-curricular lectures by guest speakers and panel debates as you can. Even if they don’t directly relate to your specific research interests, they provide a good way of keeping up with the kind of topics current PhD students are interested in and the ideas can provide breadth to an essay later on. An added bonus is that sometimes free wine is on offer.Nights out are no longer such a regular occurrence
Wading through crowds of freshers wearing neon face-paint to procure an overpriced beverage in a darkened space that smells ever so slightly of sweat and vomit becomes MUCH less appealing when there’s a stack of articles at home that you haven’t really understood and a meeting with the dissertation supervisor looming.

You become an old hand at living in a student property
Until early March, our bath became the evening home of choice for a battalion of black slugs. A year or two ago I might’ve found it horrifying, but I just shrugged and ruled out evening showers. I’ve begun to allow the unsavoury details of student housing to simply wash over me, not expecting the landlord to fix anything and responding with acceptance when faced with a dormouse or a blanket of black mould in the bathroom.

It’s all about personal study
Having only seminars rather than a combination of seminars and lectures means that ‘doing the reading’ becomes crucial, rather than an inconvenience when faced with an invite to the pub. Self-motivation is key but it’s helpful to break up the hours staring at a laptop screen with regular rest periods and contact with live humans. Feeding campus wildlife does not count.

Trust the PhDs
Chat to the PhD students auditing your seminars, living in your house or milling around the postgraduate study area. They can be a mine of information regarding your dissertation and applications for doctoral study, although asking regularly how their thesis is coming along might not always be welcome!

Go at least a little wild
Unless you plan to follow an academic career and therefore have three/four years of a PhD to look forward to, this might be the last year you spend in formal education. I like to show my appreciation for my still-student status by dip-dying my hair blue and pink with regularity.

Don’t get intimidated!
It might feel like everyone is cleverer and more clued up than you, particularly when you’re in contact with PhD students. They’ve read more, written more and hobnobbed with some academic celebrities – my PhD housemate’s MA supervisor was J. M. Coetzee – but remember that they’ve been playing the game for much longer! A taught Masters is about growth and rigor, allowing you to bridge the gap between undergraduate and a higher level of academic study and find your niche.

The nightmare of Masters funding

You have to be serious when you’re a Masters student. It’s about knuckling down, focusing and not dyeing your hair a different colour every two weeks. So said my mother.

First published in The Independent: 30th April 2013

You have to be serious when you’re a Masters student. It’s about knuckling down, focusing and not dyeing your hair a different colour every two weeks. So said my mother.

Despite the academic step-up from your bachelor’s degree, the sense of superiority when faced with an unwashed and hungover population of undergraduates and a dissertation hand-in date in darkest September, it becomes quickly apparent that the really thing serious about being a Masters student is that the people holding the educational purse-strings have overlooked you. There isn’t any money.

We know this and we know that every time George Osborne opens his mouth it’s going to be painful, but I always believed that working hard and aiming high would be rewarded. Waking up to reality was uncomfortable, to say the least.

According to this, MA humanities students can be funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council or ‘sometimes’ by charities and other trusts. In this statement, ‘sometimes’ is the operative word. These grants and bursaries are like gold dust. Like magical pixie dust. They are not a reality for most students pursuing a taught MA in the humanities. The Student Loans Company offers no support for postgraduate degrees unless a career in teaching is what you’re after. The only option is to get a bank loan and cry yourself to sleep at night with thoughts of the interest accumulating.

A taught Masters degree is an essential milestone on the road towards a PhD and a possible academic career. You can’t move forward without one but it is an area of education that has been woefully neglected when it comes to funding and support for students. A good MA is tough, and rightly so. The rollercoaster of intense mind-expansion and long periods of solitary study can seriously knock your academic confidence. It is quite challenging enough without any added financial pressure.  

Get a part-time job, you say! Fair point, and of course I would if I could guarantee that the hours spent perfecting the art of pint-pulling wouldn’t jeopardize my degree, the very reason I took on the work in the first place. But perhaps my degree is in jeopardy already.
MA students are squeezed from all directions by very real financial pressures including rising tuition fees, rent, bills, food, travel, books and other course materials, plus their heavy workloads.

Many of those who start their MAs and experience financial pressures are becoming anxious, even depressed – and they are underperforming as a result. And let’s not forget the very able graduates who would have chosen an MA were it not for the cost. Higher education should not be a frivolous privilege for those wealthy enough to afford it. The fact is that people who can and should fly high aren’t gaining the academic altitude that they should. Part of Britain’s academic future has been clipped and the fact that it is due to money seems crude to me.

A highly-qualified workforce can benefit the economy and society generally, energising businesses and driving innovation. A meritocracy rewards the most gifted and hardworking, not a fraction of the most gifted and hardworking and those with the dumb luck to be from a wealthy background. I’d like to ‘knuckle down’, as my mother said I must, to some serious study without the constant worry that I can’t pay my heating bill or buy a key course text.

But it’s difficult. I worry for myself, of course, and my finances. I worry for my degree and more than that, I worry that future generations of students will face a pared down, dumbed down academia, that is only half up to the job and only available to those who can afford it. That, I believe, is serious.