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Postgraduate Study

Is a Masters an isolating experience?

You've got more work and less structure, and most of your uni friends have moved on and away into the world of work. Is a Masters isolating, asks Harriet Williamson

It is with abject trepidation that I begin my Masters dissertation. Obviously it’s a puny document in comparison to a PhD thesis, but it’s significantly longer than any piece of academic writing I’ve attempted thus far and therefore more than a little daunting.

The first thing my tutor said to her quaking group of supervisees was 'remember to talk to other people... it’s the only way of staying sane'. Initially I scoffed at the drama of the statement, but at four weeks into dissertation term, I’m beginning to understand what she meant. It’s just you and your pile of epically proportioned reading and the hand-in date in September seems to be light-years away.

It’s not just in dissertation term that the Masters year can feel like an isolating experience, particularly if you’ve moved to a different university where you don’t know anyone and have first-year nerves all over again when trying to locate your tutor’s office. The course numbers are significantly smaller in comparison to undergraduate and I certainly felt that the euphoric circus of fresher’s week (or fortnight) was not something that postgrads were included in.

This sense of both separation from undergraduate antics and feeling unprepared to handle the more solitary experience of a graduate degree is not uncommon. A friend of mine cites an increased workload, decreased contact hours and a severely stunted social dimension as the main reasons for feelings of loneliness and isolation among postgraduates. She describes her social life as going 'from one busy extreme to a very lonely one' and maintains that 'universities need to help MA students to find a balance between them'. Feelings of loneliness can spawn serious depression and anxiety related issues, trapping sufferers in a cycle of silence and isolation.

Financial pressures intensified by the fact that the Student Loans Company does not offer support for most postgraduate students, leads to many students choosing to commute from home to complete their Masters degree. Another friend says that it's not being able to afford to live in the city where he studies that exacerbates his feelings of isolation. He says that 'it’s been very difficult for me to make friends and socialize, much more so than at undergrad. Back then, we were all lumped in together but at postgrad it requires what feels like a monumental effort to make those connections'. 

I have four hours of contact time a week on my taught MA course (dwindling to five hours over four-and-a-half months in dissertation term), leaving a lot of time for private study. Self-motivation provides the backbone of a postgraduate degree, in preparation for the move up to doctoral study and research, should you choose to go into it. Solitary study is what you sign up for with an MA, but the importance of making time to socialise with course peers, to share your research interests and academic highs and lows cannot be overlooked.

Your course itself can turn you into a recluse: there can be separation in priorities between yourself and friends from undergraduate days. All of your friends have left university and gone into work, even though you are still following the exam and coursework craze they no longer have to worry about.

Any MA or MSc students feeling a sense of loneliness or isolation on their course, I would urge to take advantage of the graduate ice-breaking events offered by your university, and if they aren’t enough, unleash your inner extrovert (even if that’s not usually your style) and organise it yourself! Study groups, coffee meetings and even having a few people round for a glass of wine can be really valuable in establishing a sense of connection with others in the first year of postgraduate study, particularly when dissertation term begins. Taking my tutor’s advice and reaching out to my course mates made me realise that although my study was solitary, I didn’t have to feel alone.  

Harriet P Williamson, 21, is an MA in English Literary Studies at the University of York