Today I received the grade I will be graduating my MSc with: 76%. To someone accustomed to the American, Australian, or other such grading systems this may seem fairly unimpressive, but here in the UK, where 70% is the minimum requirement for first class honours (undergraduate) and distinction (master’s) – the highest awards available at their respective levels – and where course averages over 80% are almost unheard of, it is an achievement I feel very proud of. However, final result aside, I have taken a lot more from my university experiences than just the course contents and a fancy piece of paper.
Even studying biological sciences, with its countless hours spent in laboratories in addition to lectures and tutorials, I found life as an undergraduate highly liberating. I found I had sufficient time to regularly practice with two bands, go skateboarding, go to the gym, go out with friends, and do other stereotypical undergrad things like binge-watch TV shows. Admittedly I have always been an efficient worker, but I soon discovered that getting things done became easier the more organised I was, and without which adjustment it would have been impossible to maintain this lifestyle throughout the entire program of study whilst keeping on top of my academic commitments. Sure, I definitely didn’t sleep as much as I maybe should have, and I am sure many would argue my decision to not drink any alcohol, which undoubtedly saved me many hours of hangover recovery (and a lot of money into the bargain), is not in the spirit of the British university experience, but managing to pursue and develop my non-academic interests as I did, meet so many great new friends, and succeed academically more than makes up for it; I had the time of my life (so far anyway).
My Master’s degree, which I undertook at a different university, was a very different, but equally rewarding experience. This course followed a modular structure, with courses running intensively over a week each, with seven hours of lectures and/or practical work each day, the weeks in between modules filled with additional private study and assessments. Due to the nature of the course structure, I opted to commute to the site – a military facility 65 miles away – whilst returning to live in my family home (having spent my undergraduate years in private accommodation and halls). This might have been an isolated setting for the year, had the intensity of my studies not been so great and the course numbers so small; nights out with coursemates were few in number – mostly to celebrate birthdays or other special occasions – with socialising instead predominately occurring at meal and break times (generally spent at the Officer’s Mess), whilst working on group projects, or at the end of the day when many of us would wait for the rush hour traffic to ease before hitting the roads.
This time, the experience gave me an insight into the working world: long, full days, a lengthy commute, much less free time to devote to one’s other interests. I soon realised that an audiobook or music was all it took to turn my drives into a period of respite at the end of a long day, and that by working on any assessments I had pending whilst waiting for the traffic to subside I would have more time for playing guitar and piano or working out once I got home. I actually found that this time constraint resulted in me naturally shedding lazy habits (such as watching TV) in favour of doing the things I really wanted to do, hardly downsizing the time I invested in my non-academic passions relative to my time as an undergraduate. Initially, the step from undergraduate to postgraduate study had seemed massive – almost too great to handle – but I ultimately showed myself how much pressure I can not only handle but succeed under.
To anyone approaching a big decision in life, or about to undertake something that seems intimidating in proportion, you must first be absolutely sure it is what you want to do, or will help you get to where you want to be. I realise that had I not found my courses fulfilling the experience may have crushed my spirits and sapped my energy, which would have resulted in repercussions for every aspect of my life. The early starts would have been unbearable, and the workload oppressive. Always follow your heart; no matter how well intentioned other people’s advice may be, only you can know which path is right for you. Once you are fortunate enough to have an opportunity to pursue your goals – be it a job, a course of study, or any other challenge for that matter – do it, because regardless of the outcome, you may be amazed by what you learn about who you are and what you are capable of.