‘Education is not the learning of facts but training the mind to think’. - Albert Einstein
It is late on a school night, and I am feverishly trying to finish my references so I can submit one of my MA assignments by the next day's deadline. I have read it through three times tonight already, but the anxiety of actually submitting it always overshadows the relief of completing it. I have already gone through several cans of Diet Coke, two packets of dolly mixtures and refused to go to the bathroom until I can get all the references in the mandated MHRA format completed. None of my military training has prepared me for the yo-yoing of feelings from 'right this is going to be amazing, they will want me to publish this' to ' fuk, idiot! Who wrote this? Why do I do this to myself!' that seems to engulf me whenever I need to submit an essay. Yet, this perpetual cycle of self-empowerment and criticism became an integral part of my submission routine, whenever my assignments were due. So, why did I choose to study for an MA? Indeed, more importantly to you, dear readers is what advice could I give someone who is thinking about studying one. This post then, will veer away from the historical to discuss what studying for an MA is like and provide some form of guidance to those wishing to take their historical studies to the next level.
Studying history is hard. That's it. It just is. End of post.....
(No! I would never do that to you!) But studying history IS hard. It requires individuals to apply rigorous critical analysis through the use of a myriad of methodology to provide an interpretation of the past. Albeit that interpretation should be as truthful as possible, but it is still a recreation of something that's happened or an idea about someone who existed in a different time to now. Therefore the study of history can be considered complicated, layered and subjective, but that is why it is such an enjoyable challenge to master such research, to unearth hidden histories or re-examine an already well-established topic.
To do this, I would advise several things to help you succeed in studying history at MA level.
READ - but not just the reading list given to you by your university. Think of knowledge as a cup, the more you read, the more that cup fills up. During your undergraduate study, you may have been limited to the knowledge in a single cup. But at MA level, the more you read and assimilate that knowledge it starts to reach the top. It overflows into other cups that surround your cup; you suddenly see an infinity of knowledge cups! By reading outside of and around your chosen historical subject, it broadens your scope of knowledge. It is important here also to mention not to sacrifice depth for breadth. It is a delicate balance; you need to demonstrate you have a wide range of understanding as well as depth to your study. READING will absolutely help you with this.
BE PASSIONATE - passion for your subject is vital. You won't be able to spend hours reading about something you are not interested in! Have a conversation with yourself, what is it that inspires you? What drives you to study history? What questions do you want answers to? I took this quite literally during my study, and many of my assignments focused on issues I wanted answers to. Passion in your subject will lead to diligence, as long as it is tempered with self-discipline to ensure you get the work done.
WORK SMART - If you have some constraints like children or a job, working smart will really help you finish your MA and get good results. I did my MA as a single mum to a toddler and with a part-time job. It was hard work. You have to work smart. Pick subjects that inspire and drive you, but make sure there is enough literature out there to ensure you can write about it. Also, I focused on a key theme throughout my assignments; gender history in war. This allowed me to work on different aspects of gender history from women's poetry to shell-shocked nurses and female spies. Still, having a key theme running through them all meant I learnt what literature or historian was prolific in that area, so my knowledge attainment grew with every assignment. It allowed me to 'share' knowledge about gender in war with each new assignment and informed the work for my dissertation. Also, get technical. Use referencing platforms like Mendeley or Endnote and embed them into your word software, youtube how to create a contents list in word so that word formats your contents list for you as you write your assignment. Utilise Grammarly software to check your work once it's completed. These little things will streamline your writing process.
BE SITUATIONALLY AWARE - Let us be honest. The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on most things this year, including being able to visit archives. For historians this is massive! But it doesn't have to be a 'show stopper'. Being flexible is key here. Instead of waiting and hoping that the archives would open, or praying for an extension, I reassessed my situation. By doing something like a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis will help you assess what you know you don't need to work on and some points you really do need to work on! Knowing that you won't be able to go to archives or the library means you will need to get digital. I was surprised to learn many of my peers do not use their SHIBBOLETH log in! It was invaluable to me.
Speak to your department, or someone you know is a technology 'wiz' and using SHIBBOLETH scour every journal platform you can for your literature; Taylor and Francis Online, SAGE, JSTOR, Emerald Insite are among the plethora out there. Flexibility is critical, you may have to change something to make your project work, but by maintaining your situational awareness will help you do that at the most reasonable time.
DISCIPLINE - My final piece of advice. How disciplined you're with your work will really help you succeed. Self-discipline is not something everyone has; I had to learn and apply it for many years for it to become second nature. To study an MA, I would say discipline in your time management, your research, your assignment plans and showing up to your lectures, is the grounding you need to make all the rest of the points I have already mentioned synthesise into a successful work ethos.
Taking on further education is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. It has opened so many doors for me. I am genuinely grateful I took the plunge. I hope if you're reading this, it will equip you with some of the tools you need to succeed. Ultimately like Einstein said 'education is not about facts but training the mind to think' I feel this indeed summarises the purpose and results of MA study and hope you may embark on the journey too.