Education, Theology, Media and Communication (MA), University of Chester

Studying a Master’s Degree: It’s a MArathon not a sprint.

12 January 2017 was an important date for me, the light at the end of the tunnel. I wasn’t certain if it was the end of my MA journey or  headlamps of an oncoming train. It was the day I submitted my MA dissertation and arrived at the destination I never thought I would reach.

I started my part-time MA in Theology, Media and Communication at the University of Chester in September 2013 bursting with excitement of joining one of the best Theological departments in the country, working with world renowned experts and finally getting the opportunity to study subjects I wanted to study.

At no point in my education, up until this point, did anybody ever ask me

‘What are you interested in and what do you care about?’

But on the MA they did and before long I was talking about; media representations of religion, how religious rhetoric is communicated in the public sphere and how popular culture could be an emerging religious movement in contemporary society. And yep I argued, with conviction, that shopping, club culture and football are all religious movements of some kind. And if truth be told, I have used my undeniable commitment to my pluralistic ‘religion’ as an excuse for my appalling financial affairs. Top tip, not everyone has the same views as you, particularly not your bank manager!

Anyway, here I was, like a kid at Christmas. My heart absolutely committed and my head determined to complete within 2 years. Within a couple of months it quickly became apparent that an MA is a MArathon not a sprint!

I was not a natural academic. I had never studied theology before (my undergraduate degree was Law with Journalism). I had a demanding full time job. I was a school governor, a football player, a social butterfly, a daughter, a sister, a fundraiser, an activist. At one point I was homeless. Another I was training for a marathon. And another I found myself heartbroken and bereaved following the unexpected passing of my Dad.

To top it off, I was a twenty something who seriously wasn’t ready for real life outside of the fun, full-time undergraduate study bubble. The most responsibility I had prior to the MA was to keep myself alive, and even then my house mates did a pretty good job of this for me.

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But here I was, sixths months into the MA trying to juggle a number of competing responsibilities while trying to squeeze in time and head space to focus on assignments, as you can imagine it didn’t go terribly well. I failed on numerous occasions. I cried, like to the point I had snot on my face. I tried to incentivise myself with wine (BAD BAD idea). I drafted at least 4 ‘I quit’ emails to my tutor and sent 5 ‘You can do it’ letters back to myself.

What I learnt during this time was that some people will find an MA easier than others. Some may be halted by adversities out of their control. Yet many do not even attempt to take the first step so the fact I was there (and maybe you are too) giving it a go was a bloody good achievement in itself.

Having reached the finish line and feeling the achievement I now feel, I thought it may be useful and perhaps helpful (even just for procrastination purposes) to share some of the honest lessons I learnt during my journey to help others on the way.

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[Please feel free to add further suggestions in the comments box at the bottom]

  1. Consider your options carefully

Your success will be determined, to some degree by; the course you choose and the mode of study you select. I chose a distance learning course to fit around my existing commitments to work, but on reflection I would have been better being taught within small groups. Distance learning is difficult if you do not have the advanced discipline to set clear boundaries for your study; a skill I have yet to master!

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2. Choose a subject you love

Studying at any level is like entering into a relationship with someone. You probably wouldn’t go out with someone you didn’t particularly enjoy being around. You probably wouldn’t go out with someone who didn’t make you feel good, most of the time. You probably wouldn’t enter into a relationship with someone if it’s going to be a constant struggle and you probably wouldn’t go out with someone unless you could dedicate a decent chunk of time and commitment to them.

Studying an MA in general, but also doing your dissertation is very much like this so make sure you choose your options wisely!

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3. “I have no idea what I’m doing” moments

Don’t worry, we all have them, even your tutors!

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4. Your tutors are there to help

If you are having a  “I have no idea what I’m doing” moment that continues for days and weeks and isn’t getting any better, talk to your tutor. They are there to help and believe me, they will do their best to support you on this journey.

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5. Connect with your peers

Have you ever heard of the phrase, a problem shared is a problem halved? Yeah, it’s pretty accurate. There is nobody else in the world who can understand what you are going through on your MA journey but your peers. In true High School Musical fashion ‘We’re all in this together’.

Attend the MA symposiums, join the Postgraduate Society, attend Wednesday afternoon sessions and if you are not based in Chester get on Facebook and join the ‘Hollybank Society’ or ‘Hollybank Postgraduates’ pages to connect with your peers.

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6. Define and protect ‘your space’

If you are fortunate enough to live in a big house, dedicate one room to your studies. If like me, you do not have a big house, (or at one point no house)  find a space in a library, coffee shop or a desk that is dedicated to your work. However this space needs to have rules!

  • No alcohol
  • No social media
  • No distractions
  • No ‘visitors’ (cute dogs and small children are the worst for distraction!)
  • Keep your working ‘tools’ here (books, laptop, post its, notebooks etc.)
  • Keep water handy
  • Keep track of success and plan your work
  • Focus and develop a routine of studying that works for you (For me it was work for 45 minutes, play for 15 and repeat until the point I couldn’t remember my own name)

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7. Set boundaries for yourself and others

I am a self-confessed Little Miss FOMO (fear of missing out). Like literally, if my house mate went to the supermarket I would want to go with her in case I missed out. It’s pathetic. Yet towards the end of my MA I recognised that without boundaries for myself and others I would never complete. I took the decision to take some time out, at one point leaving the country to concentrate! I set clear dates and times for my studying, I announced my hibernation from social situations with a social situation to end all future social situations for the foreseeable future and logged out of social media.

It’s hard to say ‘no’ but putting a reasonable cap on the ‘yes’s’ helps to free up time for your studies.

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For those with families and jobs, I would suggest that from an early stage you are honest with your dependents and if possible say ‘on X day I will be working in my space for x hours and would not like to be distracted, unless you are bringing me a cup of tea!’. People who love you and respect what you are doing will see this as a reasonable step, your MA will then become an embedded part of your weekly routine.

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8. It’s a MArathon not a sprint

How do you eat an elephant? (Or other alternative large Vegan option?) One bite at a time.

How do you run a marathon? One step at a time.

How do you complete a Master’s? One nap at a time  One essay at a time.

Break your work down in to manageable chunks. Be realistic. Be consistent. Be mindful of progress. Keep chipping away and focus on triumphs rather than tribulations.

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9. Self-care

I expected my MA to fit with my existing life like a pair of fluffy totes on cold feet in Winter; nice and snug.

WRONG! Although I was pretty good at pulling it off, my master’s fitted with my life like a leotard three sizes too small. UNCOMORTABLE, IRRITATING AND OFTEN PAINFUL.

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But actually, ask any PG student and this is normal. You absolutely should expect to feel challenged and stretched. If studying for a Master’s degree was all cartwheels and rainbows then everyone would be doing them, and they aren’t.

But … it is important to invest in self-care from an early stage to keep well and focused.

If you don’t want to go to that party, don’t. If you would rather have a bath and an early night, do it. If you would rather spend a weekend catching up on reading rather than having a day out, do it.

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It took me two years to be selfish about self-care only because I got to the point when I had to be; I was failing academically and struggling mentally. I had to be honest with myself, my peers, my family and my tutor and make the difficult decision to defer my studies until I was capable of focusing again. I knew that if I didn’t take some time out and ask for help then I would definetely fail my MA and more than likely lose my mind.

When I was ready, I came back and achieved a Distinction in my dissertation. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you have a clear mind, a sharp focus and the drive to succeed.

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Like a race, you have to look after yourself physically and mentally in order to have the best possibly chance of crossing the finish line, with an achievement you are proud of. What is the point in dedicating one/two/three/four years of your life and huge financial investment if, when you get to the end you have an exorbitant list of ‘What ifs?’

10. Enjoy it

Studying an MA provides a wonderful privilege to study a topic in such depth that you will ultimately become a master of, and maybe a Doctor of one day! Immerse yourself in it, plunge into the depths of research and rub shoulders with the mighty scholars that have been before you. Take time to smile at your achievements and take pride in the small yet significant steps you take along the way.

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Try, whenever you can to enjoy your transformation and remember where you have come from. That shy little caterpillar that had multiple “I have no idea what I’m doing” moments is well on it’s way to becoming a confident intellectual human being; with the wings to prove it.

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If I can do it, so can you.

Now stop procrastinating and get on with it!

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