Adjusting to Postgraduate Study

I’m now roughly halfway through a History MA. I say ‘roughly’ because I have finished what, for want of a better term, I have come to regards as the ‘easy’ stage. The real challenge still lies ahead. I am currently staring down the gauntlet, at the wrong end of 20,000 words and I have realised one thing; the entire experience has been markedly different from anything I could have expected or prepared myself for.

The first real shock when you begin postgraduate study is the increased volume of work.It is something which you try to mentally prepare for, but it still takes you by surprise and by the end of the first week if you don’t feel like you have had the stuffing knocked clean out of you, then you are either superhuman or lying. Or perhaps possibly both. The reading lists alone tend to be longer than a first year undergraduate core text. These are, of course, merely lists of ‘suggested’ reading and, if in the course of my academic life thus far, I have learnt anything at all, it is that the term ‘suggested reading’ in more or less analogous to ‘light bedtime reading’.

Hyperbole aside, you will certainly find a step up in pace such as you have never met before. No, it is not like changing from college/6th form to university. It is much more intense. The best thing you can do by the end of the first week is to laugh. If you can laugh, then you have a good chance of surviving. You will definitely need that sense of humour later on. I won’t lie; it won’t stop you from occasionally feel as if you are going insane, but you’ll at least believe that you’re having fun whilst you slowly lose your mind.

You do eventually adjust. The trick is finding new ways to cope with, and to stay on top of, the vastly increased workload. I refuse to believe that even the most seasoned of academics can steel themselves to pour through dusty tomes every waking moment of every day. No matter how strong your passion is, sooner or later something else will become more appealing. The trick is to find ways to keep yourself engaged with what you are doing when your mind does begin to wander. I have now begun to understand why so many historians like to pepper their work with anecdotes which on first glance may seem to have little relation to the main thrust of their argument. It’s because we need such diversions account of a runaway horse one morning on the streets of later eighteenth century Norwich (C.B. Jewson, The Jacobin City: A Portrait of Norwich 1788-1802). Day-to-day life is full of such irreverence, and it does us well as historians to remember this fact.

The past 4 months have been tough and exhilarating at the same time, but it is in beginning to prepare myself for the hefty task of researching a Masters dissertation that the real fun is starting to begin. I can already feel the lure of the archives calling.


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