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. 😉



My Favourite Module: MA English Language and Applied Linguistics

My Favourite Module: Language and New Media

By Richard Swain

The wide and varied range of modules was one of the main reasons why I decided to study MA English Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of Birmingham – offering everything from theoretical linguistics to teaching English as a foreign language, the course gave you the scope to pick and choose your favourite areas of the field and effectively customise it to your interests. However, there was one module that always stood out to me from the very beginning and served as a definite selling point when submitting my application. The module in question was Language and New Media – taught in the spring term of the 2015-2016 academic year – and I am very pleased to say that it lived up to, if not exceeded, my original expectations.

Facebook-logo-icon-vectorcopy-big_copyThe module itself is fairly self-explanatory, focusing on the study of how language is used on the ever-growing number of new media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. While it’s still a relatively recent development in linguistics, it’s one that (perhaps more than any other) hones in on the here and now, discussing contemporary trends which will only become more and more apparent as technology continues to dominate our lives. If you have even the slightest interest in social media or language change, I’d recommend studying this module – it’s a fascinating glimpse into what the future holds for English and many other languages across the world.

YouTube-LogoWith so many different sources of new media to look at, this means that the content of the module is constantly varied and things are kept feeling fresh. One week you could be learning about how identities are constructed online, the next about the global status of English, and the week after that about the likes of ‘flaming’ or intertextuality. A key component that underpins everything throughout the module though is its research aspect, and while some of the methods and terminologies might be a little overwhelming at first, in the long run it’s something I’m very glad was included. Not only did it help to highlight the significance of some of the findings, it provided further reinforcement on how to undertake a research study, preparing you with the skills you’ll need for your dissertation project at the end of the year. The choice of assignment questions for the module, in this academic year at least, even gave you the option to practise these skills for real in the context of a smaller scale research study, which is something I’m certain many students benefitted from.

Twitter Logo 3As the old saying goes though, behind every great module there has to be a great lecturer, and this more than held true for Language and New Media. Dr. Ruth Page, in only her first year of running this module, did a fantastic job at producing an informative and engaging series of seminars that had everyone eagerly anticipating what was next in store, even at 9am on a Friday morning. Her friendly and good-humoured approach to teaching made the topics even more interesting than they already were, and she especially encouraged group interaction which gave us plenty of opportunity to get to know our peers in the classroom. Worksheets, references, and other materials were always on hand, and the online Canvas portal for the module was kept fully up to date – we even got to discover a new form of media for ourselves by using the Padlet application to share work we had done in between classes from home! Because she is both a knowledgeable and experienced name in the field, we knew we were getting expert input from Ruth, resulting in a consistently high quality of lecturing from start to finish.

However, it’s not just Language and New Media that has impressed me – overall, I have had a thoroughly enjoyable time during my postgraduate studies at the University of Birmingham so far, and I would like to take the opportunity to thank all of my lecturers for their teaching and support. Every module has been special in its own unique way, and it has all helped to build towards a constructive and memorable experience. I can’t recommend the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of Birmingham enough, so if you’re considering undertaking your postgraduate studies here, by all means check them out!

Richard Swain is a full-time student in the MA English Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of Birmingham.