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Five things I learned during my MA (that weren’t on the syllabus)

According to research by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, ‘about half of the PhD candidates in our sample had completed a research preparation Master’s degree before their doctorate. Almost everyone who had done so found the Master’s course of value’*. I certainly learned a lot from my Master’s degree, but there were a few key points I wished I had believed from the start:

‘I don’t know’ is a valid answer

I learned this at a postgraduate student conference. I can’t tell you how empowering it was to hear other students make excellent presentations, get asked really probing questions and respond with ‘I don’t know’. Going on to explain ‘I haven’t read that article yet’ or ‘I haven’t given that much thought yet’ is also fine. Ideally, you want to be able to explain that you have noticed the issue but you’re concentrating elsewhere at the moment, although it’s also fine to say ‘I hadn’t thought of that, but that’s really interesting. I’ll have to have a look at it’.

It’s OK to disagree

It’s OK to disagree with your classsmates, the author of the text you’re working on and also your teacher. Provided your opinion is based on a valid reason, disagreements give us something to discuss in the seminar. Without disagreement, we wouldn’t get very far at all.

Your paper will never be perfect

There is no right answer, so don’t try to ‘get it right’. Your paper can’t be perfect, excellent is quite ‘good enough’. Of course, you do need to put the work in, but you need to make sure this is proportional to what you have been asked to produce. Just do your best with what you have read, what’s in your head and the time available. The deadline is there for a reason.

Your teacher is a human being

Yes, they are leading the class because they are experts in specific facets of the field. This doesn’t mean they know everything there is to know about the whole subject, have read every article, or are in any other way completely infallible. Sometimes, you might know more than they do. The same goes for your classmates – even the guy who challenges everything and the girl who always has an insightful comment to make – try not to be intimidated.

The library / administrative / teaching staff are human beings too

And busy ones at that. If they don’t answer your email right away, it’s because they have a lot on. If they don’t get back to you after a week or so, they probably forgot. Don’t take it personally, just send them a brief and polite reminder. Be nice to them. You will often need the help of these people, who are on the whole very happy to help polite, friendly and interested students.

*AHRC (2006) On the Right Track

One Comment

  1. Jurn says:

    On number 5 – “always add a clear and succinct title to your email, never leave the title blank”

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