The half-way point: Opinions on starting a Postgraduate Research course in January.

Here’s a little back-story. Today is the 1 year anniversary since I walked across that stage in my pink heels and collected my Bachelor’s “parchment”. I received my BSc (Hons) in July 2014 after studying at Northumbria University for the 3 academic years prior. That’s the thing, academic year*.

Shoes: Karen Millen Dress: Definitions

Shoes: Karen Millen
Dress: Definitions

When I graduated, I had no set plan to complete my Masters degree straight away. I knew I wanted to do it in the future, and possibly a PhD too, however I remember thinking that I wasn’t “mature” enough and thought I better get some ‘life’ out of my system (gap yaahh travelling yahh). I then had a change of heart and wanted at least the Masters under my belt before I decided what I definitely wanted to be when I grow up. I believed that the Masters would put me in better stead when applying for jobs and showing experience and would set me apart from others. Not only that, I really enjoyed the research project part of my undergraduate degree. I focused on a topic that hadn’t been done before, the results were significant (though sample size was small) and I thought I could extend that research idea on a Masters by Research (MRes/MScR) course.

Two weeks after graduation then, I began contacting Psychology departments at universities across the country with my research proposal and academic CV. Feedback was amazing and I applied for a few of them and got some unconditional offers. I then settled on one university that I’ve always had my heart set on. The senior lecturer I contacted said to apply and took me on as one of her research students in her lab of other PhD students. The project changed, which was fine as it was still in my area of interest.

In the application process, however, “Course Start Date” had three options: September/October 2014, January 2015 or September/October 2015.

I chose January 2015, but not so much on a whim. The Masters wouldn’t have been funded so I wanted to work and I wanted to read around a new area of Psychopathology hoping that this would give me a good head start to “get stuck in” once enrolling in January. It offered me a short break to move home for a bit, work and spend time with my family even though I didn’t go travelling on a “gap half-yahh”.

If you’re thinking about starting a postgraduate research course outside of an academic year (which is usually September – July), perhaps for the same reasons as me above, I’ve compiled a list of personal pros and cons to it below. Please bear in mind that I am still going, I am half way through, so opinions may change.

| Pros |

  1. Having that break gave me a good rest from academia to be able to focus on my little niggling weaknesses (eg. have meetings to improve my writing style) to start my postgraduate course with a fresh view.
  2. Rather than starting in the Autumn term where students will be testing/doing fieldwork in the cold and drizzly winter, I’ve got the Summer to do the practical/”hands on” testing work.
  3. Extending on the point above, I also feel that due to Summer days being longer than Winter, productivity may be higher than in the winter to get a good git chunk of the work done. Then you’ll have the Winter to finish writing up where you’re not expected to go outside so much…

| Cons |

  1. I am the only one doing a Masters by research starting in January in my department (that I know of).
    1. This means that everyone looked at me funny at first “why are you only starting now?”
    2. You get the “New girl” treatment a little. Postgraduate research courses are quite solitary and people do their own things. I was lucky enough to make friends with some taught masters students however by the time I turned up, their friendship group was already formed and I was the ‘New Girl’.
    3. I got no proper induction. I also did not get matriculated as I was the only person. This misses me out of a key experience and not learning how a new university works when I joined has come back and haunted me at various times throughout the year. It felt like, at times, nobody really knew what to do with me or things about my course (e.g. my hand in dates/my allowances etc)
  2.  I am alone and still class myself as “freshly graduated”. I was class of 2014 and my research experience is therefore not as extensive as many other postgraduate research students (PhD students). I can join classes at the university, however with starting in January, this means starting from the middle. I am hoping to get more statistics training in October (I love statistics, I just want to make sure I’m doing them right!).
  3. I had training to be able to teach small groups (undergraduates) and do some marking but I never got given any ‘hours’. This would have been amazing experience for me but I can only put it down to, again, starting half way through the academic year and teaching assistants had already been assigned to modules and classes.
  4. My project involves working in schools. Participant recruitment has been difficult and now I have to wind down for a few months for the school holidays. I am sure this will be fine, however I can’t help myself from stressing about it because it is not in my control. I have 1 year to get this project done, so I am worried about not getting enough participants. This summer will offer me an opportunity to do other things though, get involved in other publications and teach myself new skills (such as stats).

So if, like me, you get the option of starting your postgraduate course in January, never choose to do it on a whim and seriously think it through. Plan how you would like the year to be structured, it’s unlikely that you will stick to that plan, but it will give you some assistance in making the best decision for your postgraduate research degree. Are you doing a postgraduate research course? When did you start and what are your thoughts and feelings about it?

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