The insider’s guide to a humanities MA


Harriet Williamson
Wednesday 22 May 2013 15:49
Andrew Dickson White, first president of Cornell University
Andrew Dickson White, first president of Cornell University

Days of wild clubbing abandon and blagging your way through reading are no more when it comes to a Masters degree, but that doesn't mean your old life is gone for good. There's a lot to look out for, so here is my insider’s guide to an MA in the humanities.

Prepare to have no money, ever

That euphoric feeling when a loan instalment flows into your bank account is merely a fond memory. The Student Loans Company does not offer loans, grants or bursaries for postgraduate degrees, with the exception of PGCEs. Daunting though this may seem, I’ve definitely learned some valuable life skills in making a poncho out of duvets in winter and forgoing the gym membership I’d only spend the term berating myself for not using anyway.

Go to the lectures

Go to as many extra-curricular lectures by guest speakers and panel debates as you can. Even if they don’t directly relate to your specific research interests, they provide a good way of keeping up with the kind of topics current PhD students are interested in and the ideas can provide breadth to an essay later on. An added bonus is that sometimes free wine is on offer.

Nights out are no longer such a regular occurrence

Wading through crowds of freshers wearing neon face-paint to procure an overpriced beverage in a darkened space that smells ever so slightly of sweat and vomit becomes MUCH less appealing when there’s a stack of articles at home that you haven’t really understood and a meeting with the dissertation supervisor looming.

You become an old hand at living in a student property

Until early March, our bath became the evening home of choice for a battalion of black slugs. A year or two ago I might’ve found it horrifying, but I just shrugged and ruled out evening showers. I’ve begun to allow the unsavoury details of student housing to simply wash over me, not expecting the landlord to fix anything and responding with acceptance when faced with a dormouse or a blanket of black mould in the bathroom.

It’s all about personal study

Having only seminars rather than a combination of seminars and lectures means that ‘doing the reading’ becomes crucial, rather than an inconvenience when faced with an invite to the pub. Self-motivation is key but it’s helpful to break up the hours staring at a laptop screen with regular rest periods and contact with live humans. Feeding campus wildlife does not count. 

Trust the PhDs

Chat to the PhD students auditing your seminars, living in your house or milling around the postgraduate study area. They can be a mine of information regarding your dissertation and applications for doctoral study, although asking regularly how their thesis is coming along might not always be welcome!

Go at least a little wild

Unless you plan to follow an academic career and therefore have three/four years of a PhD to look forward to, this might be the last year you spend in formal education. I like to show my appreciation for my still-student status by dip-dying my hair blue and pink with regularity.

Don’t get intimidated!

It might feel like everyone is cleverer and more clued up than you, particularly when you’re in contact with PhD students. They’ve read more, written more and hobnobbed with some academic celebrities - my PhD housemate’s MA supervisor was J. M. Coetzee - but remember that they’ve been playing the game for much longer! A taught Masters is about growth and rigor, allowing you to bridge the gap between undergraduate and a higher level of academic study and find your niche.

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