My entire life so far has been spent in education. In my last year of school, I applied to university, and went straight from school to my undergraduate degree in English Literature at the University of Manchester. In my final year of my Bachelor’s, I applied for a Master’s program in Mediaeval English at the University of St Andrews, and after only three months of Master’s study, I applied for my PhD at the same university. There are both pros and cons of spending an entire adult life in continuous higher education – so for those considering it, I thought I’d write about my experience to help them make the best choice for them.
Although I sometimes forget in the midst of stress and my continuous workload, there are some definite upsides to continuing straight through to PhD. The biggest for me was carrying on the momentum of building my knowledge base and my academic skills. Going straight through to PhD meant that I had the things that I had learnt during my undergrad and MLitt at the forefront of my mind, and the paperwork associated at my fingertips – and some of it has definitely come in handy. It’s been a process of adding building blocks, and it’s one that I’ve personally found easier because it was all in one continuous process in which I was able to build up momentum.
Another bonus, which is a bit more unique to my experience of being at the same university for my MLitt and PhD, is a sense of personal continuity. Doing my PhD at the same university as my Master’s means that I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to stay in the same fantastic place (St Andrews), where I otherwise probably wouldn’t have been able to live – it’s allowed me to remain settled. It’s also meant that I’ve been on the same journey as a number of friends, who were also near the beginning of their postgraduate study (though most a year ahead of me). It’s been a great shared experience, and since most of my friends started their PhDs a year before me, I got to learn a lot from them, especially in terms of writing thesis proposals and funding applications.
This leads me to my next upside – having the support of an MLitt advisor when submitting PhD applications. My now-supervisor was my MLitt adviser, and he offered a great deal of support when I was in the midst of applications for PhD study and funding. He read more drafts of my research proposal than I can even count, and will have written many, many references. It was great being able to just schedule a quick appointment in between my MLitt work, to discuss issues, concerns, and edits in person.
However, it’s not for superfluous reasons that the majority of people I’ve met took a break somewhere along the line, whether a gap year after their school career, a break in between their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, or a break between Master’s and PhD. A part of me wishes I had done the same, particularly as, since my Bachelor’s degree, I haven’t had a free summer. It’s been almost 4 years of year-round work, with the occasional few weeks’ break, but I haven’t had anything like the 3 months off you get used to having during undergraduate study. I think that break is a great time to recharge and mentally prepare for the next year’s work, and it’s something that I’ve definitely missed.
Money is also a big problem. Raising the finances to do a PhD is a tall order, especially in the Arts and Humanities. I was lucky enough to get a small scholarship from my School which covered my tuition fees when I started, but I had to raise the rest of the money I needed for the cost of living entirely on my own. I thought about deferring my entry when I realised this, but also found out that my tuition scholarship couldn’t be deferred. So, I bit the bullet, and spent a hazy first year in a whirlwind of working and researching. I was incredibly lucky to receive funding from SGSAH for my second and third years, but I realise that not everyone is so lucky funding-wise, and many people take a break to raise money. This is something that I would probably have done, had I been able to defer the tuition funding I had got. Sadly, since I couldn’t, I had a very hectic life for that first year.
I also think I might have benefitted from some work experience. I’ve had part-time jobs since I was 18, but have never had experience of what it’s like in full-time work. Apart from helping me to raise money for my PhD, I think time spent away from academia would have helped quell the nervousness I now have about entering the world of work – something that, at age 25, is still mostly alien to me. It will be a huge step and change once I finish my PhD and start looking for work, and part of me wishes that I had a better idea of what it will be like, to mediate how drastic the change will be.
Ultimately, I’m glad of the path that I took, or else I wouldn’t be where I am today. But that’s not to say that the same would work for everyone, nor that it’s been the easiest journey. I know now, better than at the time when I was deciding my future, that going straight through all of higher education is a big decision that should be given a lot of consideration before anyone jumps into it.
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