Learning New Tricks: Postgraduate Study as a Mature Student

Last year, at the age of 34, I decided to take a break in my career to return to university for a master’s degree—thirteen years after I graduated the first time.

I was excited to be back in the world of academia, but apprehensive too. Although I was a teacher and working in an educational field, I wondered how I would cope with the academic demands of a master’s degree so long after my undergraduate degree. I was also worried about the social side of things on a full-time course. A lot of the advice out there seemed to assume that mature students were part time, or already living with their own families. I was going to be living in a shared student house again and two of my housemates were twenty-three years old! I didn’t know anyone in Birmingham and I was concerned about the lack of a support system while I was taking on an intensive year of study.

When I started my course I was one of the oldest students; there were a good number of students who had come straight from an undergraduate course or a gap year. But there were also quite a lot of people who had been working and had returned to study, so luckily there was a mix of different ages and situations. I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb as I had feared.

I knew that making new friends would be a big part of creating a positive experience at the university. So although I’m not a social butterfly by any measure, I made the effort to meet people in the first couple of weeks before study really started. During welcome week I joined the Art Society, and the Postgraduate and Mature Student Association (PGMSA). The PGMSA introduced me to people in a similar situation to the one I was in, but it was in Art Society, where I met people who shared my interests, that I really made some great friends. Our common interests make it easier to forget the age difference—although I do get teased about it sometimes. I was told by one friend that I was his ‘favourite middle-aged person’, but it was all in fun … I think!

I’ve found that rather than being weird, my situation is interesting to some people, and I had a really long conversation with some of the ArtSoc members about what it was like going to university before everyone had their own laptop and before Social Media existed (the general consensus was that it was less complicated but also less convenient).

I’ve found the best way to handle the insecurity of the situation is to know how to laugh at yourself. Usually I’m the one starting age jokes about how things were back in ‘my day’ and all those damn kids on my lawn. But age really is just a number; one of my friends turned twenty recently and she’s one of the most responsible and mature people I know, and one of my younger housemates is wiser at twenty-four than I think I will ever be!

Having the same interests goes a huge way towards getting on with people of any age, and societies or sports teams are a great way to find people who have similar interests. Once you have something to talk about other than what A-Levels you did, you forget about the age difference and just see people as they are. This also applies to people doing the same course as you. We were all studying the same thing for a reason and that gives you a great common ground from which to build friendships.

As for the academic side of things, the university is very aware that many students are returning to academia after time away. There’s advice accessible online, a personal tutor who was available for academic support, and resources like the Academic Writing Advisory Service. At AWAS you can get individual appointments to get style advice for specific assignments. The advice I received there was so helpful in raising my writing to postgraduate level. After worrying so much I have gained Merits and Distinctions in all my assignments and am currently enjoying (yes, really!) writing my dissertation.

So my final advice would be to find the support you need, get involved, and remember to tell these millennials that back in your day you had to walk fifteen miles in the snow to Starbucks. Uphill. Both ways. 😉



The Cadbury Research Library

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The Cadbury Research Library is a fantastic resource for those undertaking research at the University of Birmingham (and, of course, elsewhere). One great way to get an overview of their collections is to browse through the CRL Flickr account, which is particularly good at documenting the regularly changing exhibits in the foyer of the Muirhead Tower (opposite the Starbucks) and in the main library. To get to the CRL’s reception and reading room you just go down one flight of stairs from the main entrance of the tower, and follow the signs.

The CRL has certainly got some headline-grabbing items, ranging from the Mingana collection, which includes the earliest documented Qur’an, to the archives of Noël Coward. They have manuscripts dating from the medieval period to the present day, and there’s a wide range of other rare books and archival documents. For example, they have an excellent collection of the beautiful books designed and printed by William Morris’ Kelmscott Press, and very large number of editions of Shakespeare. My own interest lies in the archives relating to the University of Birmingham’s history (which is more fascinating and multi-faceted than you might expect!) and the recently acquired notebooks of Victorian poet Constance Naden. These collections not only enable you to access to primary materials, providing the opportunity to interact with them as material objects as well as texts, but also offer a large quantity of documents that richly contextualise the time periods that you are studying.

The CRL holdings exist in two different catalogues, one of which you will already be familiar with, since it’s http://findit.bham.ac.uk – this is where you can find most of their holdings of printed books. Indeed, you may have already stumbled across such items, as the library catalogue’s search results sometimes invite you to ‘Check Locations tab for current availability at Cadbury Research Library’. In order to search the CRL’s archival collections you use a difference catalogue: http://calmview.bham.ac.uk/ . You can search this using keywords, and there are detailed descriptions linked to each item in the results so that you can get a sense of whether it’s something you’d like to see.

A third way of finding out what the CRL has that might be relevant to your areas of interest is to contact the staff directly. The CRL has an extremely friendly team who are very welcoming of such inquiries. Between them they’re incredibly knowledgeable about the collections, and if you send an email to special-collections@bham.ac.uk you’ll be sure of a helpful response. My best advice for doing this is to be specific when asking speculative questions, so that they understand the parameters of your interests and what kind of project you’re hoping to undertake. Asking what they have in the collections relating to scientific experimentation, for example, might not get you very far because it’s so broad. But explain that you’re writing about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and are interested in documents relating to the culture of experimentation in the early nineteenth century, and who knows what they might be able to suggest!

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Once you’ve decided what you’d like to consult, accessing the collections is very straightforward. It’s best practice to email in advance to make sure that the items are available and not currently being restored, exhibited, or in use by someone else—although this is rarely the case. The first time you visit you will need to register, which is a completely painless process that’s made even easier if you bring along your University of Birmingham student ID. You’ll then be given a membership card, which you’ll use to sign into the reading room and request documents. In the interests of preservation, you’re not allowed to take bags, food, drinks, pens, and some other items into the reading room, but there are free lockers provided for you to store everything other than the bare essentials – pencil and paper and/or laptop, plus phone/camera is probably all you’ll need.

Once in the reading room you fill in an order slip with the details of the books or documents you’d like to see, so try to have the classmark from the catalogue written down somewhere accessible.  They say that it can take up to 30 minutes to retrieve requested items, but in my experience it rarely takes more than 10. You’ll be pleased to hear that as well as being able to take notes, you are allowed to take photos of the majority of documents. In order to do this just speak to the archivist on the desk, who’ll be able to give you a form to fill in. This is a contract to say that you’re only taking photos for private use (they’re not to be published without their permission, and that includes on social media), and it allows them to keep track of what copies are being made. In the interests of other visitors’ sanity, do make sure you turn off any camera shutter noise too!

Then it’s the exciting part as you begin leafing through the pages of a rare book, a manuscript, a periodical, a diary, a sheaf of letters, minutes from a meeting, or perhaps something else entirely. While it’s useful to go in with a set of research questions to keep you focused, this is also the time for serendipitous discoveries and unexpected new avenues of enquiry opening up before your eyes, especially in the early stages of a project. Who knows, it might be at the CRL that you uncover something fascinating that isn’t what you set out to find but becomes the foundation for your MA dissertation, or shifts your thesis in an unexpected but ultimately important new direction.

 CV3ZTh4WwAAWgmC.jpg largeClare Stainthorp speaks to the CRL about Constance Naden. Photo courtesy of @Cadbury RL

Clare Stainthorp is completing her PhD on the Birmingham poet, philosopher, and student of science Constance Naden (1858-89). She is also the editorial assistant for Modernist Cultures and on the committee of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar. She has worked closely with the Cadbury Research Library since using their collections for her MA dissertation, and is looking forward to many more years of fruitful research in their reading room, overseen by the cool gaze of Naden’s marble bust.