• Abbie Tibbott

Eternal Student? Masters Degrees and Reality

I chose to do an MA in history straight after finishing my BA, and although I don't regret my decision, I would hesitate to recommend an MA or MSc to everyone, especially as numbers of postgraduate students are predicted to rise due to the current pandemic. The job market is tough for young people right now, and it's daunting to compete with recent graduates over so few positions.

However, a postgraduate degree is not a simple continuation of an undergraduate degree. Funding is different, and it may not be financially viable for you to continue. As well as this, there are a host of other realities I found when completing my MA that did not match with my experience on my BA. I loved my MA and would do it again, but I am cautious to encourage others to take the plunge if they have not thoroughly weighed up the pros and cons.

In this blog post, I'll go through some of the major realities of Masters study, so you can decide for yourself.

Reality 1: It's expensive

My MA was the most financially challenging part of my education so far. Apart from an alumni discount, I was eligible for no extra funding, scholarships or bursaries. My course cost around £7,000 for the year, but the loan I received from the government (not means-tested) was only around £10,000. That meant the majority of my living costs to live on campus had to be funded by a different method. My parents made up the shortfall in my rent, and I worked several part time jobs to pay for food, transport, clothing and anything social.

Having spare money was rare, and I was definitely worse off compared to my undergraduate years. I lived a relatively cheap lifestyle but rent was expensive. I relied on bulk cooking, reduced food and cut-price supermarkets for my shopping, hardly ever bought clothes and relied on cheap ways of socialising. I didn't go home often, or travel to see friends in order to save money. I sold my car to do my degree, and I don't regret it. I've always had a job at uni, and I was lucky I was able to earn a decent amount to cover my living costs. Working odd hours around my studies did make it hard to have a solid routine, but it was a sacrifice I made in order to live on campus and cut out transport costs. I was lucky that my parents offered to pay some of my rent, otherwise I would have never been able to do the degree. I know that makes me much better off than some, but I still struggled to live the life I had in undergraduate.

My advice: Price everything up if you are considering a course. Cost of living, average rent and course fees are the basics. Then look at bus costs if you need transport to campus, as well as any luxuries you're unwilling to live without. Getting a job, unless you have lots of savings or parents willing to lend you money will be essential, so look at offerings on campus and the local area, and work out if that could fit around your studies. It's easy to get burnt out when you're doing so much, but if you can figure out the money side of things, it takes the pressure off once you get there.

Reality 2: You won't like everything you do

This is like undergrad, in the sense that you probably won't enjoy everything you study. The cohort will be smaller and there will be people both part-time and full time. It does create a bit more pressure, as there are less options to choose from and compulsory modules can be fast-paced and heavy at times. It can be quite unmotivating to study things you don't enjoy, which in-turn fosters bad habits. I made the effort to attend everything I could, but I won't lie and say I enjoyed every seminar. Sometimes I was just there in spirit, with a million other things on my mind.

My advice. Turn up and engage, every time. The last thing you might feel like doing when you've got lots to do is sit down in a seminar you couldn't care less about, but it's worth doing. Building a good relationship with staff in the department is really important, as well as the fact you're paying for your seminars too! If you can't manage all the reading (I've been there) try and make sense of the main text, sum it up in a paragraph and don't be afraid to mention something you don't understand if you're asked to contribute, as someone might have the answer! You may feel like you have wasted valuable time, but it's important to attend any teaching you have.

Reality 3: You're on your own, a lot

Of course there is a lot of pastoral support and academic help, but in reality, a taught postgraduate degree is there for you to expand your research skills within a teaching framework. It will be different for every subject, but there's lots more responsibility and emphasis in coming up with your own questions and essay titles within a topic, so you can write about the things you want to research. Speaking of study, there's a lot of it, which didn't surprise me, but caught other people out. I love to read, and tend to over-research, which isn't too bad of a habit, but some people I knew struggled to keep up with weekly reading and essay work at the same time. The first semester is a big jump from undergraduate, and many people would find it hard to adjust. Self-discipline is very important in getting things done on time. I'm not perfect, but I wouldn't recommend a postgraduate degree unless you were sure you could commit to it, as there's no-one to catch you this time.

My advice: If you struggled with the independence of study during your undergraduate degree, an MA or MSc is not for you. Unless you know you are prepared to work really hard and perhaps miss out on things you would otherwise enjoy, you would be better placed getting a job.

Reality 4: It might not be useful

I want to stay in higher education, and hopefully teach one day, so an MA was a necessary step. If life doesn't turn out that way, I know my degree will be an asset in applying for career fields I'm also interested in. Doing a degree for the sake of it is never a good plan. Unless you need the degree for a specific job or next step, there are probably less stressful ways of achieving your goals. Higher education as an industry is highly pressurised, and it's not good enough to just do your degree at postgraduate level, as you're expected to get more involved in the academic community. Attending lectures and talks, doing placements, volunteering and work experience help to make a well rounded student. Treating your degree like a day job will mean you won't get the most out of it!

My advice: If you don't need a postgraduate qualification to enter your career field, and you don't want to make any sacrifices, I would avoid a Masters degree entirely. There may be other ways to advance your prospects, and you can always return to university at a later date when you have some money and stability behind you. Rushing into further study or following the crowd will not do you any favours. Many people take a gap year in order to decide if it's the right decision, and I think that's a sensible thing to do.

My verdict

Unless you are 100% sure you need the extra degree for your intended job, and you are sure you can cope mentally and financially, I wouldn't recommend postgraduate study. There are better ways to spend your twenties I'm sure, so only choose the programme if you feel like it would be a direct benefit. Undergraduate study was a completely different experience to postgraduate, and although many people cross the gap and do well, it is stressful at times.

I made the right choice at the time. I spent a lot of time planning and figuring out whether it would be a good fit, as well as making sure it would be partially affordable. I won't lie, the money aspect is probably the biggest barrier to most, which I don't believe should be the case, but I'd never advise someone to get into serious debt over a degree if at all possible.

I hope to write more reflective posts on my experience as a student, so watch out for more over the coming months!