• Abbie Tibbott

Starting your MA? My advice for new postgraduates

It’s that time of year again when we are back to education, and some of you may be starting your first postgraduate degree this year. I did an MA in history, which put me on my current path of being a PhD student in Conservative Cabinet politics in the interwar period. There are some key differences in the environment, expectations, and independence of taught postgraduate degrees, so I thought I’d share some things I’d wish I’d known before throwing myself in the deep end.


To start, postgraduates will make up a smaller percentage of your university’s student cohort than undergraduate students, so be prepared for your course to be significantly smaller this time around. Most undergraduates are fresh out of school, but postgraduates hail from a variety of backgrounds. Some will have just finished a BA or BSc; others will be older, and some may have switched subjects completely from their undergrad course. This makes the environment a bit different, as some of your course mates (or you) may be juggling a full-time job alongside their degree. I’d say that everyone will be pretty focused on doing well, as doing an MA is a big financial commitment for many of us. This makes for an intimate yet productive atmosphere, especially if there aren’t many people on that specific course.


Expectations will vary regarding the number of hours required, but all taught content, such as seminars and workshops, will be compulsory. I had six hours of teaching each week, the rest being self-directed study or meetings that I arranged with staff. I enjoyed spending lunches and afternoons with those on my course as well, as we would often discuss complex reading or bounce dissertation ideas around. Finding a routine that encompasses all of this will take a few weeks, but I’d advise getting in some productive social time with your peers, as they’re the only ones that really know what you’re going through. Preparation for sessions will also need to be built into your schedule, and I’d recommend getting into the habit of reading and researching regularly. If you’re coming back to higher education after a break, let yourself have a few weeks to ease yourself into it again. It will come back, I promise!


One thing I had to learn to navigate was the sense that everything was under my control. What I mean by that is for the first time I could create my own essay titles and fully direct my own research without being confined by a bibliography or module structure. Boundaries are certainly not a bad thing, but as a taught postgraduate, being able to fully tailor my learning to my needs as a researcher made all the difference to my enjoyment of often complex subject matter. If you’re already feeling a bit overwhelmed, go and speak to the lecturer of that module or the convener of your degree, as they’ll be able to offer you some direction. Getting help before you’re asked if you need it is a proactive approach that saved me time when trying to figure out what I was meant to be doing.


Alongside your studies, there’s also the option of working a part-time job, taking on some work experience or other forms of personal development. If you’re thinking of next steps, getting some work experience will look good on your CV, and may even lead to career opportunities down the line. It doesn’t need to be more than a couple of hours a week either, so see what your university has to offer. Working on campus is a great way to eliminate travel costs and have a flexible schedule, and it’s something I have done since I was an undergraduate. Having an income stream takes the pressure off a little bit, which is welcome around Christmas or when your rent is due.


Another thing I’d like to add is that it’s okay to go home, visit friends or take some time away from campus. It can feel all-consuming in the first semester, but escaping the campus ‘bubble’ will remind you that there’s more to life than sitting in a library all day. Self-care is important, so don’t neglect your needs. Popping home for the weekend or organising a day out with a friend are valid ways to relax, so don’t feel guilty for needing a break. Also, don’t listen to those people who feel that you need to spend all your time working in order to get a distinction (first class) in your degree. Excessive working at the expense of your mental health and physical well-being should not be celebrated, so ignore those that try to make you feel guilty for spending time away from the books. The only pressure you should feel is that which you put upon yourself, so don’t be afraid to take a step back and evaluate how important your degree is to you.


Need more support? That’s okay! If you’re struggling to keep up with the reading, please approach your peers for help. Nobody likes a leech, but I was always happy to help someone if they were genuinely struggling. No-one can help the occasional illness or personal emergency, so be generous with your research and others will do the same. The community might be smaller than undergrad, but that will lead to more meaningful conversations and a feeling of support that can be hard to achieve on a bigger course.


Regardless, I hope you’re all settling into your new courses, and your campus is beginning to feel like home. Keep your eye on my website for more postgraduate advice over the next semester, as I feel ready to spend some more time writing about my MA experience now I have some distance from it.


Happy studying