By: Priyanka Varma, former MPhil in Education, Globalisation and International Development student at the Faculty of Cambridge
With my dissertation officially submitted and my graduation ceremony approaching in a few short weeks, now is an opportune moment for me to step back and reflect on my past year at Cambridge, during which I pursued a Master of Philosophy in Education, Globalisation and International Development. My 10 months at the Faculty of Education truly flew by, and so here’s a little bit of what I learned along the way to help those who are just beginning their MPhil degrees:
During Michaelmas and Lent terms, MPhil students partake in thematically focused lectures and research methods sessions. While these classes are meaningful on a standalone basis, in order to make the most out of them, I recommend that MPhil students also use these lessons to help shape their dissertation preparation. For example, prior to entering Cambridge, I identified my dissertation topic, which focused on high primary and secondary school dropout rates amongst low-income, labor family children in India. As such, I used my research methods sessions to not only gain a broad-based understanding of different research approaches, but to also better identify which methodologies would be most appropriate for my dissertation fieldwork. My notes from these lessons, including the related reading materials, proved valuable for me a few months later when conducting my primary-based dissertation research abroad.
Each term, MPhil students are given three hours of supervision, generally divided up into three one-hour sessions. While the quantity of students’ one-on-one time with supervisors is limited, these sessions can be incredibly valuable. In order to make full use of this time, MPhil students should plan their supervision out in advance.
Each term, students should develop a mutually agreed upon essay timeline with their supervisors. This entails setting deadlines for submitting their essay outlines and essay drafts to their supervisors for review, and then scheduling supervision a few days after each submission to allow supervisors enough time to read and provide comments. Given that each term is only eight weeks long, it is important to set deadlines and stick to them in order to stay on track each term.
Prior to the supervision, students should create an agenda to take full advantage of each meeting. In my case, in addition to developing a detailed agenda for the supervision, I also included specific questions to discuss with my supervisor, which I shared with her in advance of each meeting. Doing so helped create structure for our supervisions and ensured that our time together was as meaningful as possible.
I advise MPhil students to take notes during their supervision and share those notes with their supervisors after each meeting. I tried to capture detailed notes during each of my supervisions. I would then go home, condense my notes into key takeaways, and send those to my supervisor to review. Doing so was mutually beneficial, for it helped me confirm that I captured my supervisor’s main feedback while reminding my supervisor of what was discussed during our supervision and what she could expect in terms of next steps.
The dissertation is arguably the crux of the MPhil degree, and for those conducting primary research, fieldwork during Easter break is a fundamental aspect of the academic year. I recommend that students who are planning on conducting fieldwork begin planning a few months in advance. Doing so involves developing a clear research proposal and project plan; garnering research permission from local authority figures (i.e., written permission from the principal at the school under investigation); submitting relevant paperwork to the Faculty of Education for approval (i.e., risk assessment, ethics, and travel authorisation forms); and preparing research materials (i.e., research subject consent forms, interview questions, observation forms, etc.). Supervisor involvement is required for each of these steps, and so students should take initiative to carve out enough time for supervisors to support them in their fieldwork preparation far in advance of their departure to avoid having to rush the planning process.
Once on the ground, my main piece of advice to incoming MPhil students is to stay calm. Fieldwork will not always go as planned, and new obstacles will likely arise once abroad. In my case, I encountered a few unexpected hurdles with my school selection process, but maintaining close contact with my supervisor helped me navigate these roadblocks, and together, we quickly developed solutions to ensure that my research continued to run as smoothly as possible.
A picture from the fieldwork at a school in Haryana, India
A common misconception amongst MPhil students is that given that there are no classes during Easter term, there is plenty of time to prepare the dissertation. However, the dissertation is a huge undertaking, one that requires much more time than one would expect. Moreover, Easter term is much more social than prior terms, with Caesarian Sunday, Easter Bumps, May Week, and other Cambridge traditions largely taking place over the spring and summer months. As such, students should start their thesis preparations early and plan around these social events to take full advantage of their final few months on campus.
In terms of thesis preparation, I recommend that MPhil students begin by exploring existing Faculty resources. For example, the Education Library has a collection of theses from past MPhil students that are incredibly helpful to review. In my case, I looked over a few dissertations for guidance when structuring my own thesis. In addition, I recommend that MPhil students set clear deadlines for themselves. Rather than working towards one major draft deadline in early June (i.e., the full draft), I would advise students to set multiple draft deadlines throughout Easter term (i.e., individual chapter drafts). Doing so will help students break their work into manageable pieces and will help supervisors ensure that students’ dissertations are on track throughout the term.
Overall, studying at Cambridge is a once in a lifetime experience, and so I hope that my advice regarding the MPhil coursework, supervision, fieldwork, and dissertation can aid incoming MPhil students in making the most of their time on campus.
Priyanka Varma completed a Master of Philosophy in Education, Globalisation and International Development from the University of Cambridge during the 2017-2018 academic year. At Cambridge, Priyanka was a member of St. Edmund’s College and spent her time researching public school dropout rates in India. As part of her dissertation, she conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Gurgaon, Haryana, comparing the schooling experiences of grade five, low-income, labor family students at a traditional versus a non-traditional government primary school. Priyanka is interested in understanding how education systems can use policy and practice to better reach marginalised children and youth in order to help ensure more equitable access to quality learning in both
developed and developing countries alike.