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Posted on 4 Mar '21

Who's Afraid of Postgrad Study? – Mastering Common Concerns

A Masters degree is an exciting prospect, but it can also be a little intimidating. If that's how you feel about postgraduate study, you're not alone. I know this for three reasons:

Firstly, because it's normal (and sensible) to be wary of taking on a new challenge. Secondly, because I regularly talk to sensible people who are wary of stepping up to postgraduate study. And, thirdly, because when I was preparing to do my Masters, I was definitely wary. To say the least. This actually led me to do some things that weren't entirely sensible. More about those below.

A little caution can be an important part of the step up to Masters-level study. But it's important to draw the line between postgraduate preparedness and paranoia.

This post will help you do that.

#1 It's a step too far. . .

Let's start with an obvious worry: that the step up to a Masters degree will be one you'll struggle to manage.

It's true that studying a Masters will mean 'stepping up' a level. But that doesn't mean you'll struggle to do so. There's a simple reason for this.

Students 'step up' a level in their studies all the time. You've already done it, in fact.

You did it when you went to university. You did it when you left the first year of your degree and went on to more advanced material in your second and final years. You did it in a big way if you tackled an undergraduate dissertation or 'long essay'.

Will it be different this time? It's easy to think so. After all, postgraduate study is very advanced. Lots of people study at undergraduate level, but less of them go on to 'Masters' level. It's in the name, right?

That's actually true. Masters study is for a certain group of people. People who've prepared for it by studying a relevant undergraduate degree (or developing relevant professional experience). Just like you (will) have.

Postgraduate study will be a step up, but it's a step you'll be ready to make.

#2 I don't understand all of the course material. . .

Given that you're on this website, there's a good chance you've already browsed some programmes and taken a look at what they involve. You may even have picked a course and looked at its outline and module descriptions in detail.

If doing so has made you worry that what you're reading is complicated, difficult and includes lots of unfamiliar ideas, don't panic. It's likely that one of the following is the case:

  • You're a lost Physics student looking at a Masters in English Literature and wondering what on earth 'metaphysical poetry' is
  • You're looking at the right course, in the right subject. . . but you haven't actually started it yet

The first is fairly unlikely. The second is guaranteed, and it can actually be quite intimidating.

Before I started my Masters, I checked the module descriptions for my course. That was fine. I then checked the secondary reading list (the critical and theoretical works we'd be consulting). That was also fine. I then tried to work my way through that entire secondary reading list over the summer. That was a bit daft.

Some of it was helpful (there's a reason this stuff is available in advance, after all). But the attempt to try and get to grips with a huge amount of material, on my own, probably did more harm than good.

It was a bit like trying to tackle a Masters without actually studying it. That's guaranteed to be difficult.

Eventually I came across all of that secondary material again during my course and - thanks to the guidance of tutors and the structure of seminar discussions - it made a lot more sense.

The same will be true for you.

By all means, use course descriptions to pick the right Masters and see what it's going to offer you. But don't treat them as an entry test.

#3 I'll be 'the stupid one'. . .

It's time to talk about 'imposter syndrome': the belief that you've somehow made it somewhere you don't belong - and that you're always on the verge of being found out.

This is a common academic problem. It underpins the worries, discussed above, that you're not good enough, or prepared enough, for a Masters. And it can cause problems further down the line.

You might be personally confident that you're ready for a Masters, and you might be enthusiastic - rather than intimidated - by challenging course material.

The problems can occur when you get onto your course and meet your fellow Masters students. What if they're more confident and enthusiastic? What if they're more prepared for the course? What if they're simply better than you?

My first Masters seminar was for a module I was particularly interested in. In fact, it was one of the specialist topics that had led me to choose this course. I went in, sat down and enjoyed getting to know my fellow students and discussing the class with them.

Then the course tutor arrived and asked each of us to quickly introduce ourselves, our backgrounds and our interests.

This was exactly what we'd all been doing over the previous five minutes. Yet it now felt as if my classmates were impossibly articulate and intelligent. I went last and mumbled something about my favourite topic, followed by a bad joke about 'not liking talking'.

Not only was this a fairly silly thing to kick off a discussion group with; it was also nonsense.

Thankfully the group laughed it off and we moved on to discussing our first set of materials. I soon became more comfortable and the course tutor later became one of my PhD supervisors. True story.

#4 I'll never manage the dissertation. . .

Whatever your subject, your programme will usually conclude with a research task, or equivalent extended individual project, submitted as your final dissertation (or thesis).

A Masters dissertation can take several months to research and run from 15,000 to 20,000 words once written up. There's a good chance this will be the most extensive piece of independent academic work you've ever completed.

It's also the task that makes your Masters a 'Masters', both in a literal sense (programmes without a dissertation tend to award a Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma) and in a philosophical sense (this is where you demonstrate independent 'Mastery' of your subject).

All of which can easily make the dissertation sound quite intimidating. You probably don't feel ready. That's fine: you aren't.

Before my course started I had absolutely no idea what I'd do for the dissertation. Not a clue. I couldn't even think of a topic that I thought would work for a dissertation. By the end of my first term I had more ideas than I knew what to do with. By the end of the second term I knew what to do with them. You will too!

#5 It won't be worth it. . .

It's true that a Masters is expensive. It might cost less than a Bachelors (it's shorter and fees per year may actually be lower) but it's harder to fund. If you're a UK student you'll find that your postgraduate loan probably only covers part of your tuition and living costs. If you're an international student you'll find that funding is harder to find (not impossible, but harder).

On the other hand, there is some evidence that a Masters will improve your earnings, but this is really hard to pin down for specific subjects, let alone different courses. I'd be very suspicious of anyone who tries to do the latter, by the way.

So, is it worth it? I can't tell you not to be concerned about this (if you are) but I can suggest some practical steps for responding to that concern: look at the transferable skills you'll gain from the course (check the description); consider whether they'll be useful for the kind of jobs you want to get (ask an employer); try to see what people do with this Masters (ask graduates, or a course tutor).

And if you aren't worried about this, don't feel you necessarily have to be. I actually had no idea what I wanted to do with my Masters, but I knew the course would engage me and improve my existing skills.

#6 I'll struggle to settle in. . .

This will probably depend on your route into postgraduate study.

You might be a current (or recent) undergraduate, preparing for a Masters at a new university (or even a new country) and worried about making that move.

There's nothing you can really do about this (short of studying by distance learning, perhaps). But the transition might not be as difficult as you expect.

For one thing, you've already made a similar move. It may be three years (or longer) since you started university for the first time, but settling into postgraduate study won't be all that different.

You'll still be able to join societies and get to know other students on your course. You may also find that your university, or department, runs specific postgraduate welcome events.

The situation may be a little different if you're returning to university after spending some time working. Your lifestyle and social interests have probably changed in the meantime and perhaps you aren't sure if you'll 'fit in' back 'at uni'.

Well, first of all, studying a Masters as a so-called 'mature student' is more common than you might think (and it can be very rewarding). You'll also fine that postgraduate study often involves 'more sober' social activities: from academic seminars and visiting talks within your department to health and fitness activities elsewhere around your campus (social distancing guidelines permitting, of course).

Whatever your situation, the trick is to do some research in advance. Once you've found a Masters, get in touch with the university. Ask about postgraduate societies (or societies in general). Find out if there's an orientation event for Masters and PhD students. Take a look at your course reading list and have something to discuss with fellow students and tutors.

Just don't try to read all of it over the summer.

Editor's note: A version of this blog was first published on 22/03/17. We've expanded and improved it for current readers.

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