I signed up for my MA degree last year on a bit of a whim. I’d been thinking about doing an MA for years, but circumstances always got in the way of me being able to make the commitment. Last year, however, I finally felt in the right place at the right time, and thought, why not just do it now? So, without giving myself time to doubt the decision, I filled in the form and sent it that very same day. Within just a couple of weeks, I’d attended an interview and accepted my place. It all felt very sudden, and when the idea actually became reality, I panicked. What if I wouldn’t manage to fit all the work in? What if I would be the idiot at the back of the room, with everyone else already being experts? What if I couldn’t write MA level essays and ended up failing the course? What if I didn’t enjoy it and found the research I would have to do completely boring? What if this was all just a terrible mistake?! After a night of crippling self-doubt, I pulled myself together, pushed the nagging fear of not being clever enough to the back of my mind, enthusiastically bought all of the books on the reading list, and embraced the idea of becoming a mature student, going to the pub after lectures with my fellow students and spending my weekends in the library. This was going to be an adventure. And just like a rollercoaster, even if parts of it were going to be terrifying, and a little bit unpleasant, I knew, deep down, that I would love the experience. I’d already done the hardest part by getting on the ride in the first place.
One term in, and I can report that I have absolutely loved every second so far. I chose my course carefully, and it has exceeded all of my expectations. The difference between my MA and BA is enormous; my BA course was large and many of the texts we studied were not my cup of tea. I often felt disinterested and demotivated by having to study periods or genres of literature I found boring or impenetrable, and it was frustrating to have to skate over the surface of the things that really interested me because we had to gain a broad knowledge of a huge subject area in a relatively short amount of time. Doing an MA gives you the luxury of specialism, and I have found every week fascinating, as I am learning about the precise period I am interested in: the nineteenth century. I am having my eyes opened to so much, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn, and each seminar leads me down so many paths of interest that I take such pleasure in pursuing in my own time. Having very small seminar groups is also a considerable change from my BA, where groups were often pushing 20 students. Now there are less than 10 of us in each group, giving everyone plenty of opportunity to share their ideas and for us to bounce theories and interpretations off each other, creating fascinating and enlightening discussions. As all of us are mature students and have made the decision to pursue this qualification at no small sacrifice to our finances and leisure time, everyone is committed and engaged, and there are not the silences I experienced so often in my undergraduate seminars, when it became very obvious that all of us had been far too busy partying that week to read the assigned text! What’s more, we get to choose our own essay topics, and I’ve had such fun picking my topics and hanging out in the gorgeous University of London library, Senate House, which has an amazing rare book collection and incredible art deco architecture. Getting lost in books, finding undiscovered gems and spending evenings doing research has been brilliant. I love the experience of finding something that then leads to something else and then something else, sending me deep into a labyrinth of Victoriana that I could happily wander in forever.
When I started telling people about my decision to sign up for the MA, a lot of people asked me why I was doing it. The assumption from most was that I was doing it for a promotion, to improve my qualifications so that I could get a job in a more prestigious school. When I said no, I was doing it purely for pleasure, I received some interesting reactions. The concept that education was something to be pursued purely for pleasure, rather than for some sort of economic or practical advantage, seemed to be a novel idea. Why on earth would I spend so much time and money on something that offered me nothing of tangible benefit in return? This was something I thought about before I began the course; unlike my BA degree, an MA is not a requirement for me to be able to pursue my chosen career path. The teaching profession doesn’t really reward higher education beyond BA level, largely because the subject knowledge you gain doesn’t really get used on a day to day basis, unless you happen to be able to teach the texts you have studied. Having an MA in Victorian Studies wasn’t going to propel me up the career ladder. It wasn’t going to get me a promotion, a pay rise or any kudos from the kids I teach, who already roll their eyes and sigh the minute I begin the sentence ‘actually, I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but did you know that in the nineteenth century….’ In a world where so much value is placed on what we can measure economically, the concept of investing a lot of time and money in something that has no intrinsic value beyond enjoyment, is, for a lot of people, a waste. But for me, this MA course has been the best value for money I have ever received. It has given me so much more than I have paid out. It has revealed whole swathes of subjects I had not known about before, and that have inspired, excited and given me enormous pleasure in the pursuit of their discovery. It has set my brain on fire, reigniting the embers of interests I have had to dampen over the years thanks to not having enough time to look into them properly. It has opened my eyes more fully to the rich layers of history around me, and made me stop and think and question and not take things at face value. It has also surprised me by how much it has taught me about myself. With every passing week, I have grown a little more confident, a little more bold, a little more self assured. I have come to believe in the value of my own voice, and to trust in the value of my opinions. As someone who is constantly telling their students to believe in themselves, to trust in themselves, to have confidence in themselves, I was surprised by how little confidence I had in myself at the start of the course. I was convinced I would find it too hard, and that I would have nothing insightful to say, and that everyone else would find me stupid. Going back to an academic environment after so long sent me right back to my unconfident eighteen year old self, convinced that I wasn’t clever because I didn’t get into the university of my choice. Though I have no problem standing in front of a class of children and talking about my subject, being with an audience of my peers terrified me. But from the very first seminar, I found that my passion for my subject overrode my lack of confidence; to my surprise, I found myself initiating discussions effortlessly, so keen was I to share my interpretations, or to point out particular lines I had found interesting. As each week went by, I spoke up more and more, enjoying the experience of talking and debating and developing other people’s ideas. I was so focused on the subjects we were discussing, I forgot to think about what I thought about myself. And that has probably been the greatest gift this course has given me so far: freedom from the limitations I had placed upon myself.
For anyone thinking about studying as a mature student, I would say, go for it. Don’t overthink it, and don’t focus on the logistics, because you’ll be surprised by how much time you can find to do something you love, even if your schedule seems overloaded as it is. As long as you prepare in advance, use your time wisely and don’t set yourself unrealistic expectations, you’ll be absolutely fine. It’s the best decision I’ve made in a long time, and I love that I still have over a year and a half of it left to enjoy!