By Jude Hannam, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Last week, a friend who was about to start a Masters course asked me whether I had enjoyed my MPhil in Education (Globalisation and International Development) and if I had any tips for her.
I am a primary school teacher, with four teenagers and a husband who is absent in the week. When my first child left for university, I realised that this was going to be the pattern for the next six years and I needed to have a ‘post-children’ plan that would be fulfilling, useful and a little more flexible than a classroom teacher could be. Applying to do a Masters the year when two children had major state exams was perhaps not the most considered decision but after reading about the course structure, I was positive. I imagined us all working quietly then preparing lunches together whilst discussing our various academic endeavours. This was not the case. I was still mother, taxi, counsellor, chef, laundrette attendant, domestic detective, and pet monitor, on top of returning to study after several decades of absence.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part was spending time with my course-mates, most of whom were several decades younger than me but inclusive and accepting of our different experiences and perspectives. At the same time, it is important not to forget old friends as they will be there after the ‘educational high’ has passed, your course-mates have moved away, and you are trying to construct a brave, new post-Masters life. Despite not needing to live in college, I attended events when I could, particularly the offer holders’ Open Day. There I met a fellow returner-to-education who has become a good friend and sounding board for academic conundrums that I could not share with anyone else. We accompanied each other to formal halls and navigated gown hiring together. Now I have completed my course but we continue to meet and encourage each other.
So, my top tips for mature students are, in no particular order:
- Master Zotero or your chosen referencing system as soon as you can – it will save hours of editing and checking your references before you hand in your assignments.
- Learn how to ruthlessly ‘fillet’ an article: read the abstract, conclusion and if it seems to be relevant to your theme, the first and last line of each paragraph. Then don’t forget to log it on Zotero under a suitable category so you can find it again.
- In lectures, try not to take notes on paper. Use a notebook (per theme ideally) or laptop as it is far easier to locate a particular point if you can place it in a time continuum and it saves carrying a big folder around.
- Attend public lectures in departments that interest you– the opportunities to broaden your mind and enhance your studies are vast, if overwhelming.
- Don’t feel you have to take up every opportunity, or you will lose focus. Follow your interests but give yourself time to absorb all this new information. I found that, unlike teaching, I could work really hard in the week and have a relatively calm weekend which allowed me to process all that I had learnt, so I could start Monday with enthusiasm.
- Contact your supervisor as soon as you can. Supervisors are wise guides who may use vocabulary which has you regularly googling new concepts, thinkers and world views but as you begin to gain familiarity with them, you will realise how far you have come and yet how much more there is still to know.
- Get to know PhD candidates in the faculty. They often give interesting lunchtime talks, and can help you become comfortable with asking experts questions, which can be intimidating in a full lecture theatre.
- Get a bike and cycle round Cambridge trying out other libraries to work in – it clears your head.
- Make friends with your faculty and college librarians; the Education Faculty librarians are knowledgeable, seemingly unweary-able and extremely reassuring in a way that online guides are not.
- Start planning your thesis as soon as you can. It takes much longer than you can possibly imagine to devise a research topic and if you hope to travel for the research phase, the paperwork and planning can be arduous too. Bearing your thesis theme in mind can help you choose the subject of Essays 1 and 2, which in turn makes the literature review part of your thesis less daunting. However, if your interests range far and wide, don’t panic. The uncertainty is disconcerting but ultimately fruitful and the process will have been educational.
When I think back on my year, I realise I have cudgelled my brain more than I ever did at undergraduate level, experienced numerous consciousness-shifting moments, searched in vain for suitable academic vocabulary and felt out of my depth at regular intervals. My motto became, “I am becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable,” and continues to be so. I have also gained an insight into the pressure my children are under in school and at university and can better empathise with their academic concerns.
Over all, I can say that it was one of the most challenging, stimulating and yet enjoyable years of my adult life. I feel braver and calmer about the next phase of my career and I am already working on several projects which make me excited to get up every morning.
Jude Hannam is an educator with over twenty years experience teaching in primary, TEFL and informal education settings. After working in Germany, Italy and the UK, she felt it was high time she formalised and expanded her knowledge of education systems around the world. Returning to study, she has just completed a Masters in Education (Globalisation and International Development) at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. Her research focused on assessing how marginalised communities access education. Moving forward she hopes to keep her feet firmly in both camps by working in UK schools and international development projects especially in the areas of gender equity, informal and adult education. To these ends, she was recently tweeting at the UKFIET conference and is research assistant for Inquiring Science, a project at Hughes Hall, Cambridge which teaches the philosophy of science to primary children to improve their engagement with online sources of information.