Uni, the sequel: Being a postgrad

By Ali
Category: Personal | Date: Wed 01 Oct, 2008

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between being an undergraduate and a postgraduate. This time five years ago (and I can’t believe it was that long), was my first day at Cambridge. I can remember being equal parts excited and nervous, and felt as though I was starting a new life.

As a postgrad, it’s completely different. I’m still living where I’ve lived for the past year and a half – a flat in South London. I’m going to be studying part time, fitting classes and preparation for them around my freelancing work. I’m feeling a slight sense of anticlimax.

But I’ve managed to pin-point a few of the factors that make being a postgrad so different. If you’re a new postgrad like me, trying to make sense of it all, see if any of this sounds familiar:

  • No Freshers’ week
  • Not feeling like a student
  • No lecture timetable
  • More determination!

No Freshers’ week

Postgrads don’t tend to get given all those leaflets and flyers advertising a week (or fortnight) of clubbing. And unless you want to spend hours in the company of a bunch of very drunk eighteen-year-olds, you probably avoiding the Student Union’s special deal on entry fees …

Unless your uni has a strong post-grad community that’s arranged social events, you might well find that your first chance to meet fellow postgrads is at your course induction. (Feeling shy?)

Without that transitional week/fortnight, the step from real-world summer into student-life autumn can be almost too small to notice. Which brings me on to …

Not feeling like a student

Perhaps it’s the effect of two years outside studentdom, but I don’t feel like a student any more. There’s moments when the MA I’ve been longing to do for the past three years seems like just another project to fit in.

A lot of postgrads – about 50% on my course, including me – study part time. It’s hard to self-identify as a student if you have a job, mortgage, kids, bald patch … The question is, though, do you want to call yourself a “student” again? I’m starting to rather like the sense of straddling two worlds, with one foot firmly planted in academia and the other foot resting outside the university bubble.

I doubt it’s just me who feels this way. This quote is from Adrian on It’s a Duck’s Life:

I don’t really feel disorientated by my new surroundings, but when I’m with undergraduates, I’m aware of the age difference. It’s not that the undergraduates are juvenile, as the undergraduates I know are a pretty mature bunch all round, but nevertheless I’m acutely conscious of being older than them.

As well as the age gap, taking on a postgraduate course feels like more of a choice: something to enhance your life rather than something that becomes your life in the way that being a full-time undergraduate does. And you need to remember you’ve made that choice when you realise that you have …

No lecture timetable

I studied English literature as an undergrad, which wasn’t exactly heavy on contact time (our lectures were all optional. Seriously.) But it seems distinctly weird to now be on a course where all the teaching, even for full-timers, is on a Wednesday. I found myself wondering how I was expected to achieve all the “learning objectives” in the official course handbook with just a couple of hours of teaching time a week.

Of course, as a postgrad, an awful lot of learning is done on your own. I’m actually delighted to have plenty of spare time to read and to work on my writing, and I suspect that in terms of actual workload, the scheduled classes will turn out to be merely the visible part of the iceberg, with lots of private study supporting them.

And though there’s no formal lecture timetable, I’ve already noticed the number of extras that I could attend: postgrads seem much keener than undergrads to not only go to optional seminars but to present papers – and to carry on the discussion afterwards (albeit in the pub). Which brings me on to…

More determination!

As an undergrad, I was excited about the chance to study English literature for three years, but I was also rather hyped up about aspects of student life like:

  • Leaving home for the first time
  • Making new friends (who wouldn’t think I was unforgivably geeky)
  • Drinking large quantities of free alcohol
  • Staying up till silly o’clock playing online games …

This time, my focus is very much on making the most of my time as a postgrad, and getting my money’s worth from the university. Like 75% of other postgrads, I didn’t get any funding. No grant, no loan, nada. I’m paying my way for Uni: The Sequel by working.

This, unsurprisingly, has had the effect of making me want to extract maximum possible value for my fees. One of the reasons for taking my MA part-time was because I paid the same, but got access to the library – and all the other university facilities – for two years instead of one. Canny, huh?

I’m also keen to go to extra lectures, seminars and classes, and to get stuck in with the opportunities I hung back on as an undergrad. If you’re a postgrad, especially if you don’t have a huge amount of time for just “being a student”, resolve to squeeze every last penny of your fees out of your uni. Take on as many “extra” things as you can, and take advantage of at least a few of the many opportunities out there.

How about you?

Further reading:

We’d love to hear some experiences from postgrads – and undergrads thinking of doing a postgrad degree. What changes between being an undergrad and a postgrad? How do you want things to be different as a postgrad?

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