After my first seminar as a Masters student I knew I was going to write this blog post. There was no way I could predict how this year would turn out and I am glad I have waited until I finished my degree to write this because a lot has happened. This has been the most academically challenging and soul-destroying year of my life. Would I do a full-time Masters degree again? No. Do I regret postgraduate study? Not at all.
I went straight into my MA after finishing my BA for a few reasons: I want to be an academic and doing a Masters degree is the next step towards that career goal, I didn’t want to give up studying just yet, and I really didn’t want to move back to my hometown. I went to a different university for my MA and also moved city. My old university was amazing and in one of my favourite cities but I wanted to try something new so I moved and the MA course at the second university I have attended perfectly matched my research interests.
Before going to university, I did not know anyone who had studied for a Masters degree. Even when I started my Masters degree in September, everything was new to me because I had no one to ask about their postgraduate experiences. This is why I am writing this in the hope I can help someone who was in my position.
I moved from a fairly small university to a university holding over 27,000 and a much larger city in comparison to the one I had spent the last 3 years of my life. I was aware this would be a massive transition so planned to dedicate time during my intro week to get to know the city and the university. It was a bit of a disaster. I was told the wrong times for the city centre tours so missed those, missed out on postgraduate meet-ups and didn’t receive my student card until the Friday before I started my seminars so had no idea how to navigate the libraries because you needed your student card to access them. Although the first week wasn’t smooth sailing, I made friends with the people I was sharing a flat with and we decided to spend time together and discover the city ourselves. I also joined a couple of societies so I could meet new people and just feel a bit more at home in this new environment.
The week after intro week I started my course. Both of my seminars were scheduled for the same day so the rest of my week was free. I thought that was great because it meant I could plan my entire week around these seminars; however if I was to do this again I would definitely not want my seminars on the same day. At Masters level you do not have lectures so you have 90 minute seminars for each module each week. The seminar discussions were a step up from undergraduate level but not as bad as I thought they would be.
I knew the reading load was going to be a huge step up from undergraduate but nothing could prepare me for the amount of reading I had to do each week. Across my two modules, I was easily reading over 1000 pages a week – and that is with me not completing all of the reading provided for us. As an undergraduate, I read every single book I was assigned. At MA level, I had to pick and choose what I had time to read and prioritise my reading. A notable example was the week we read House of Leaves. It was the week of my birthday, I had an assignment due, plus other reading for uni so I did not read this book; however, I watched as many reviews of the book as I could and analysed the secondary reading thoroughly so I could still contribute to the seminar. At first I really beat myself up for not completing the reading but over time I realised my writing was more important and if I can provide relevant theory in a seminar on a book I haven’t read, that is more important than stress reading a book and not understanding it.
I will admit, I cried after I left my postmodernism seminar in semester one. I entered my Masters (and also exited it with) a massive case of impostor’s syndrome. People were using words I didn’t understand, theories I was not familiar with and talking about books I had not read. I transitioned from English literature to American literature during my MA and did not take into account how little I actually know about American history, politics and popular culture. I wished I had done more background research and I convinced myself the university accepted my application by mistake. Thankfully I entered my seminar the next week feeling a lot more confident and my confidence grew as the semester continued.
As there are few contact hours during an English Literature MA, I did not know my classmates and it made me feel uncomfortable not knowing people’s names and instantly I assumed they all thought I was stupid. By the second or third week, I talked to people outside of my seminar and was open about how difficult I was finding this module – and everyone I talked to said the same thing! It turned out all of us were suffering in silence worrying what everyone else thought of us and found the module difficult. We all created a group chat so we could socialise and also talk through our MA worries. I cannot stress the importance of talking to your coursemates because they made my Masters experience so amazing. A lot of people I met in semester one were in my classes in semester two and knowing we all found this experience difficult and we were all here to support each other made the whole experience less isolating.
Although I found semester one challenging, each week became easier as I figured out how to manage reading, researching and writing for my assignments. I found semester two a much more enjoyable experience because I felt more comfortable in my new teaching environment and I could manage the work load as long as I didn’t pressure myself to be perfect. During semester two I took a work placement module and my placement was external. This meant I had less reading each week and I could have a breather from the university environment. Personally I would recommend doing a work placement – especially if it is outside of the university – as it helped me build more connections in the city I live in. Overall, after surviving semester one I felt like I could manage my time better and felt more confident entering semester two.
Although I did find second semester easier to manage, it wasn’t that simple for me. I suffered from stress-induced insomnia during my assignment period and it continued throughout the semester. By Easter break, I was lucky if I was sleeping 2-3 hours a night and I could not function. The final straw was when I almost fainted at my work placement and my work day was cut short. I was humiliated but it was a sign I needed to look after my health before my deadline period. I went to my GP and the university’s wellbeing team and my health declined as the weeks progressed. Before long I was worried about my writing ability and being able to meet my deadlines. The perfectionist in me felt like a failure for getting this ill and I questioned if I was strong enough to complete this degree. I was granted an extension, and then another extension because I couldn’t meet the first one, to complete my assignments. I felt undeserving but the English department were so understanding and supportive. In hindsight, I definitely needed those extensions but at the time I felt like I didn’t deserve them. It was difficult as my insomnia was still alive and well but these extensions granted me sick days so I could recover from burning out.
Receiving my marks for semester two was terrifying because I was so ill but I managed to perform really well which was a huge relief. It was the first time I proved to myself I can still achieve while being ill. During that period I also presented my first conference paper at my university’s postgraduate colloquium. It was a massive achievement but I was terrified because it was more work to add onto my already humongous deadline. I wrote a 4000 word paper in two days less than a week before I presented my paper and felt like a fraud because I knew everyone around me had worked on their papers for much longer than I had. Now, I am super proud of myself for managing to pull off that paper considering the stress I was under and how physically weak I was at that point.
As I had a two week extension, I had no time to have a break before starting my dissertation so had to dive straight into it. I was very fortunate that my idea did not change too much since I first submitted my proposal in February. I was still burnt out and attending wellbeing sessions. I was also lucky enough to present a paper at another conference and conduct an interview. My paper for this conference was part of a draft for my dissertation so it made my life a little bit easier because all of my research was linked. Whilst writing my dissertation I had to also find a job and a house which was incredibly stressful. At first it was okay to juggle but then I got a job. Working full-time (sometimes 45+ hour weeks), doing a full-time degree and trying to find a place to live was horrendous. I had no time to socialise or basically do anything except go to work or write my dissertation so it was incredibly difficult and draining. Again, my mental and physical health suffered massively. I stopped my wellbeing sessions and went to see my GP who was an incredible help. I was honest with my dissertation supervisor and emailed my department and they were all incredible understanding. I received an extension on my dissertation because there was no way I could submit my thesis whilst working and sorting out life admin. I cannot thank my university enough for being so understanding and helpful. I had a week off work the week my dissertation was due so I did not sleep and spent every conscious moment writing and packed up my belongings to move house when I should’ve been sleeping. I handed my dissertation in two weeks ago. I still haven’t recovered because I’ve had loads of massive tasks to deal with but it’s done. I am proud of what I have created but I am disappointed it isn’t as polished as I would like it to be. I am trying to not be too hard on myself because this degree has taking everything out of me and it is amazing I managed to write a 15,000 word piece whilst going through hell.
So that was my Masters experience in a nutshell. I have suffered with mental health problems since I was in college but my health really did suffer during this degree. However, I want to emphasise I made it and I have finished it and I am incredibly proud of myself. I want to stress if you feel like your health is suffering let your university know. I was convinced I wouldn’t be taken seriously but my department were prepared to move mountains for me to make sure I could complete my work and receive the grades I deserved.
Although it was an incredibly challenging experience, it was also a really rewarding one. I have made new friends and I have joined a great network of academics. Attending conferences and using twitter has allowed me to meet academics and feel less like a student and more like a contributor to the world of academia.
I was convinced my writing had somehow gotten worse since undergraduate but that is a lie. I don’t know my dissertation mark (wish me luck, everybody) but my grades have improved so obviously that means my writing has improved and so have my ideas. I have developed more original ideas and I have also grown in confidence in my ability to form academic arguments. I wrote an essay on postmodern cowboys because I like Westworld. I submitted an essay on walking in the city because I read one book on walking and thought it was cool. I wrote a dissertation on music memoirs because I love Patti Smith. During my undergraduate degree, I would not have had the confidence to say these ideas to academics. Some of my ideas are pretty niche (I’m looking at you cowboy essay and my dissertation) but I had to learn to trust myself and that has been rewarding. I entered my degree feeling like I meant nothing to the wider academic community outside of my university but now I feel like I can take the academic world by storm. I still suffer with impostor syndrome and I am still convinced my writing is terrible but I know my ideas are worth listening to.
My pieces of advice for anyone starting a Masters degree: talk to your coursemates and make a group chat so you can support each other, ask questions no matter how silly you feel because I bet you other people are thinking the exact same thing, make an academic twitter account, share ideas, and let your university know how you are feeling and don’t be afraid to say you need support.
Although I spoke at two conferences during my MA, do not pressure yourself to do extra-curricular stuff. Getting through your degree is a massive achievement so do not force yourself to do anything more because you need to dedicate a lot of time and do a lot of work to finish your Masters degree. Put yourself and your health first because your degree can wait.
I hope my experience does not put anyone off studying a Masters. Although it was difficult, I am still so happy I did it and I do not regret doing my MA at all. However, I do not want to sugar-coat the experience. It is so important to remember you are apart of a community and you are not in this alone.
I want to end this post with this piece of knowledge I gained during my studies. Your coursemates are from different universities, had different life experiences and have different interests. People are experts in different things. Just because you are not an expert in the same thing as your coursemates doesn’t make you less valid as an academic. Once I realised all of us are experts in different things, I felt less intimidated and more inspired when attending seminars. If you wrote your undergraduate dissertation on Allen Ginsberg, of course you are going to be an expert but don’t expect your colleagues to be. However if someone is an expert in Marxism it doesn’t mean you are a failure for not knowing much about Marxist theory. Realising the individualism in academia and you are not in competition with the people around you makes studying a much more positive experience.
I am uploading this unedited because I have spent the last year of my life editing and I deserve a break. If you are going into postgraduate study or hoping to in the future, I wish you the best of luck. You will learn a lot about yourself and you are the future of academia.