I have always loved studying: it was the one area where I could easily succeed and earn heaps of attention and praise. The idea of being in school forever sounded so idyllic to me. After my BA, I yearned every year to go back for postgraduate studies. But once I started my MA as a mature student and as a mother, I received a HUGE reality check. I am so glad (and proud!) of myself for having completed all my requirements, but I found this journey much more challenging than I had expected.
This is not meant to terrify you, however. It is completely possible as long as you remember that it will be a very different venture from your early years of schooling. And that’s a good thing. You are a different person with a new set of goals and probably a body that doesn’t respond the same way to hangovers, fatigue and sleep deprivation. Why should, then, your educational experience be the same? You just have to keep an open mind and be prepared where you can.
So, here are my top tips from the other side:
1. Find your study ‘sweet spot’ and hydrate
It may sound like an obvious thing to some, but I found that I no longer could just pick up a book and expect focus to follow. I needed a lot more to enter the study ‘zone’ mentally. I had to learn to track when, where and how I was the most productive and capitalise on those moments.
Some things to think about are whether you work best in the dead of the night or at dawn. Do you like dead silence or a quiet buzz? Do you like to eat with a few snacks or a cup of coffee? Spend the first few days on campus scouting some nooks and corners where you can get your mix of preferences. Is it this café or that floor (or corridor!) in the library?
I already knew that the smell of coffee helps me study, and even being a little bit dehydrated results in poor concentration. At the beginning of the term, I invested in a small coffee machine (cheap-ish subscriptions are available, just search them online) and a water bottle. This meant that I could make myself coffee without having to spend a fortune, and the water bottle reminded me to hydrate.
2. Make a personal assessment of your future finances
You have probably already accounted for how much you will be spending on tuition, rent and other big things as a mature student. You probably have a sense of some lifestyle changes that you will be making during your degree. What I am suggesting here is thinking about what these costs will mean for you. For example, do you fulfil your need for social connection by going out every weekend? Will you be able to continue that during your degree? If not, I suggest you think about how else you can meet this need.
You can extend this idea into other areas besides your personal finances. Take time for example. Do you spend a lot of time keeping your house clean because clutter gives you anxiety? If you think that you may not be able to continue spending so much time at home, consider ways in which you can reduce clutter, for example, moving most of your things to storage.
3. Make a plan with your co-parent or other caregivers, if you have children
Don’t make assumptions. Have a detailed conversation before you start the degree about how you are going to distribute childcare in a way that works for everyone. Also, schedule in time for reviewing the plan and ironing out conflicts. Make sure they happen well before or after stress periods such as midterm and final exams.
4. Start career planning before you start your MA
This is not meant as additional pressure, and this piece of advice may not be relevant to everyone. However, I wish someone had told me this before I started my MA, so I am going to say it now. The time for thinking about your career starts not at the end of the degree, but before you start your degree. Depending on how much time you have, you take it slowly and your plan may evolve with time. But start early, even if it is just to think about how you would like your career to shift as a result of the degree.
P.S. Some graduate schemes start hiring in September for the next year’s cohort.
I also highly recommend speaking to Careers. Careers support at the university is exceptional. They offer lots of different support. Don’t be shy, start the conversation.
5. Don’t fret and know that you are not alone
If you are feeling anxious, rest assured! There are lots and lots of mature students in the university, and you will often have classmates across all age groups. In fact, in the classroom, you may find that your real-world experience is an asset. I definitely felt that I got more out of my readings, was more confident and, overall, found it easier to navigate academics than before.
6. Ask for help
Mature student or not, everyone struggles at different points. Your professors, advisors, department staff, the University’s student support people inside and outside of Open Door and Disability Services, elected student representatives and countless others on campus have a duty of care towards you. Don’t hesitate to reach out. Trust me, they’d rather know and do what they can than the other way around.
Community pages can be a great resource, as well as their real-life iterations. Check out Mature Students Chat, Family Network and even Yorfessions, where I have seen a lot of people giving really good advice.
Realistically, however, there will be times when you will feel dismissed or unheard. It is important to remember that you are within your rights to try to advocate for yourself, and a lot of Graduate Students Association (GSA) and the University of York’s Students Union (YUSU) networks will be very helpful in figuring out how best to do that.
Finally, trust yourself that you can do it!
For more information on making it as a mature student, you can read more blogs here.