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 by Lydia Chantler-Hicks
, posted on 13 Sep '18

Getting Practical as a Postgraduate – Exploring a Professional Course

Not all postgraduate degrees focus on 'traditional' academic subjects - and not all students study the same subject for their Masters. In this blog, Lydia reflects on her transition from studying English Literature to a more obviously vocational Masters in Print Journalism at the University of Sheffield.

When I began studying for a BA in English Literature, I felt confident.

Every 18-year-old in the country has, to some degree, studied English since they first sat cross-legged on the carpet to be read The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

My education had already brought me a long way from those days on the carpet. I felt certain that I could build on my learning, and grapple with degree-level reading.

When I started an MA in Journalism earlier this year, things were very different. Suddenly, I was dealing with topics and equipment that my education had never taught me anything about.

At first it was unnerving to be so out of my comfort zone. I have since learnt however, that when starting a course in a subject you haven’t studied before, it’s okay to feel clueless. To some extent, you probably are.

It is important to remember that this is why you are doing the course.

If you’re thrown in at the deep end, don’t panic

Vocational courses train you to develop a particular skill set, for a particular profession.

In my case, this meant entering the unknown realms of Teeline shorthand, media law, and DSLR cameras.

This can all be a bit of a shock to the system. If you come from a humanities background like I do, you’re probably used to dealing with the theoretical, rather than with the practical.

I spent my undergraduate years in lecture theatres and seminar rooms, speculating as to the symbolic significance of things like snails and the colour green.

So, the humanities student inside me panicked when, on the second day of my Journalism course, we were told to go out onto the streets and interview the good people of Sheffield.

With less than a year in which to cram the course however, there just wasn’t time for a gentle start.

There are benefits to being thrown in at the deep end like this.

One of them is that you will make the most of the relatively short time you have on your course. Another is that it will take less time for all the things that initially seem so alien to become second nature.

At the end of the day, it’s not sink or swim. Your lecturers were once in the same position as you, and if you’re struggling they will be there to help out.

More contact hours can be a good thing

Undergraduate courses in academic subjects (like English) may have less than 10 hours of lectures and seminars a week.

Postgraduate courses in professional subjects (like Journalism), tend to lay the contact hours on thick. After all, they aim to teach a vocation in the space of a year. Shorthand classes begin for me at 8am every morning, and most weekdays I don’t finish until 6pm.

This might seem extreme, and at first the early starts were enough to make me think twice about the path I had chosen.

But the structure helps to propel your learning; more contact hours mean more time to get acquainted with all the information that is thrown at you.

Plus, a more intensive Masters like this is a great way to get prepared for the 9-5 structure of a typical working day.

Covering a lot of ground in little time also keeps things fast-paced and interesting. One day we might be out on our own, gathering stories from reporting patches. The next day, we might be trained in using Photoshop.

The course structure does, however, mean getting on top of time management.

Learn to balance studying with a social life

During the summer, I met someone who had recently quit her job as a journalist. I was alarmed by her jaded view of the profession she had left behind.

'Say goodbye to these girls now,' she laughed, gesturing to my friends. 'You won’t have time for them.'

Initially, this made me worry.

As an undergraduate, time management wasn’t my strong point. If I wanted to go out I could put off doing an essay, then burn the midnight oil to finish it, and have a nice lie-in.

With a packed postgraduate schedule, that is simply no longer an option.

If you want a healthy work-life balance, you need to be organised, and to structure your time efficiently.

As long as you work hard, you will always have time for friends; the prospect of spending time with them might in fact be the brilliant incentive needed to spur you on.

Get to know your course mates

Postgraduate courses are an excellent place to meet new people. For one thing, they are generally much smaller than undergraduate courses, which can comprise hundreds of students.

My MA course only has around 20 people.

A lot of postgraduate students come from different universities, which from my experience means they are especially keen to make friends, and to make the most of living in a new city.

No matter how overwhelming your workload may feel, you can usually count on your course mates to be in the same boat as you. They’ll also probably be just as keen as you are to unwind over a pint at the end of a long week, so it’s a good idea to put effort into getting to know them early on.

Focus on the bigger picture

Becoming trained in a specific professional field makes the small sacrifices, like sometimes having to choose a night in over a night out, seem worthwhile.

For me, the past few months have whizzed by. I have learnt so much, and have met some amazing, talented people who I hope to someday work alongside.

I am sure the rest of this year will pass by just as quickly. Before my course mates and I know it, we will be graduating once again. This time however, we’ll be in a stronger position than we were last time around, because we will be trained in skills that we can apply directly to our chosen profession.

Until then, much like the good old hungry caterpillar, we must try to absorb as much as we possibly can.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this blog was first published on 12/04/2017. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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