Reflections on doing my masters
I have spent the last 15 or more years working in communications in think tanks. I love doing so (even when I hate doing so — like any job) and will hopefully continue having opportunities to communicate the exceptional ideas of extraordinary people.
But working with people whose job is literally to “think” to be very, very clever, has taken its toll over the years on my own intellectual self-confidence. I didn’t do brilliantly in my undergraduate degree, achieving a very average 2:II and had no real sense of whether I had any academic prowess at all. I genuinely didn’t know if I was capable of doing post-graduate study.
Last year I came into a little money — enough to launch my own business and pay for — and support myself during — a one-year masters course. I had long wanted to feel more secure in my knowledge of journalism, having largely felt my way towards it instinctually. I love to write, but have been largely doing commentary on politics and wanted to expand my range.
I looked at universities in London and the three I considered were Goldsmiths, City and Birkbeck. Of the three, I liked the practical options available on the Birkbeck course. It felt like I could bring my real-life experience to the course, making me less nervous about taking up academia again.
Before I started at Birkbeck properly, I took advantage of a summer course on study skills the School of Arts offered. It was really helpful in terms of introducing me to certain academic conventions and practising things like writing a bibliography. there were some issues with the feedback — something that is going to become a theme.
My first term was incredibly busy. I had two module classes and a dissertation skills class — so was in class three nights a week as well as doing seven pieces of coursework (all of my Masters is coursework based — with no final exam). In my second and third terms I only had one module each plus working on my dissertation which was a lot more manageable.
Over the year I took Fast-track, Practical Journalism Skills, Investigative Reporting: Theory and Practice, Social Media and Online Branding and Web-based Journalism and Online Media Production. The highest mark I achieved was an 81, the lowest a 64 — about which I am still a little bitter! Across my modules I have averaged a distinction, so it’s all down to the dissertation now!
The positive definitely includes most of the teaching. There were some great working journalists to learn from including the very interesting and inspiring Gavin Evans and Louise Ridley. Both of their courses had practical information about how to write as well as about the industry and how it works.
Another really positive note for me was the wonderful people I met along the way, and the great friends I have made. We became quite a tight-knit group and I will miss them all terribly.
Finally, most of the work has been a real positive. Birkbeck was imaginative enough to allow me to do an audio documentary for my dissertation and that has been a fascinating process. I also had to do a 4000-word critical reflection and that taught me so much about academic writing — a skill I definitely didn’t have previously.
The main negative of the experience has been in terms of the marking and feedback. It just takes far too long. We were perhaps spoiled as Gavin would turn marks around in a week, but for most courses, we didn’t get feedback on our assignments for four or five weeks at least — far too late to take that feedback in and learn from it in time for other assignments. checking and rechecking Moodle — sometimes on an hourly basis — became a very real fixation.
The other thing is that the cover for teachers seems to be lacking. So if a lecturer is ill, sessions are cancelled and marks delayed. For some friends, this had a really serious impact delaying some marks for more than a term. It also meant that one of the courses I was supposed to do in term 2 I actually did in term 3, which was fine for me, but for non-London based students, this causes some real hardship.
Overall, I’m incredibly pleased I did this MA at this university. I really hope I end up with a distinction, but I know that I have absolutely given it my all so I will still be proud of myself if I didn’t.
I’m even thinking about doing a PhD — so that woman who wasn’t sure if she could really do academia may now be committing to it for another few years!