An undergraduate degree is intense at times – usually around exams in the third term. I’d existed for three years in a cycle of a relatively calm first term to the year, followed by a slightly more anxious second term, and finished off each academic year with an incredibly stressful third term. But then I had the summer to recover and recharge before starting the cycle again. Yet, postgraduate study is much different. The intensity I’d experienced as an undergraduate during exam term permeated the entire year, from beginning to end.
I came to Durham in late September. I was to begin the English Literary Studies Taught Masters course, within the English department. I’d studied English Literature at undergraduate level, and knew I wanted to specialise in poetry – the construction of verse, the development of the sonnet, and then focus my dissertation research on Cumbrian poetry in particular. It would be the perfect marriage of my home life in Lakeland, and my academic life in Durham. From day one of the programme, though, I learnt to work quickly and efficiently, and soon realised there was never an ‘off switch’ at postgraduate level.
My typical day would begin early – I had learnt during my undergraduate degree that I often worked better in the mornings, and would often wake up at 5:30-6:00 to get ready to leave by 7:00. If the University library was open early, I’d head straight there or, otherwise, I’d head to Castle (my college) to work in the MCR (middle common room) or Lowe Library for a few hours before seeking out a change of scene. My first break would come sometime around 11am.
As a taught postgraduate student, I was still expected to attend seminars in the modules I’d chosen. The modules reflected my interest in poetry, and laid the foundations for my dissertation in the final three months of the academic year. If I had a seminar, they were two hours long, every other week. They would involve discussion surrounding the texts we’d read in preparation, and debate on the key thematic issues that arose from the study we undertook. The small group sizes were ideal; every person had the chance to find their voice, offering their opinion up in an encouraging and welcoming environment of budding academic minds, all focused on their niche interest within English Literature, as well as in filling in the bigger picture of literary context.
Intense but exciting!
The times when I was not attending seminars was spent reading and writing: I had summative (marked) essays due at the end of May, as well as a proposal for my dissertation in the New Year. I had to constantly be on the ball; if I let myself relax during my study for just a week, I could potentially lose out on the marks I needed to achieve my degree. But the intensity was exciting, albeit occasionally overwhelming. The constant forward movement of the course, without the benefit of the holidays enjoyed by undergraduates at Durham, allowed the year to fly by. The final three months when I was reading and writing for my dissertation came around swiftly, and passed by in much the same way. It felt as if I’d begun my dissertation reading on the Monday, and had handed in the full 12,000 words on the Friday.
Finding a balance
A postgraduate degree is really a labour of love – it can be an all-consuming undertaking, and balance and time-management is vital. I learnt to juggle the degree with my personal life, and with part-time work. I learnt more, in terms of personal development, as a postgraduate than I ever did as an undergraduate. Suddenly, time was more precious and no longer in abundance, and I did not have the security of the vacation periods to go home and engage in part-time work to fund my social life in the forthcoming term. Being a postgraduate student was, as I found, all about managing the aspects of my life concurrently – it was all about learning to be a ‘proper adult’.
Enjoying the challenge
This may sound daunting, but the challenge was often the best part. My days at College involved the same thing, in terms of reading and writing, but also varied immensely, and gave me the flexibility to work to my strengths and incorporate work experience and volunteering at the Cathedral, too. I certainly had days when I would do less work than others, but I was working in another way, which I strongly believe made me a better student academically, because I’d allowed myself the potential to escape and focus my mind elsewhere for a short while each week. There’s no typical day as a postgraduate student; but that’s the beauty of it. You never quite know what new idea will spark your interest and imagination academically one morning and, similarly, you never know what opportunities being a student in a place such as Durham University can create week after week.
If you would like to find out more about postgraduate study at Durham University please visit: www.durham.ac.uk/study/pg
You can order our postgraduate prospectus here.
Laura also took part in filming for our postgraduate film Beat the Drum at Durham, see below.