5 things I wish I’d known before my MA

I’ve spent the past two years studying part-time for my MA at King’s College London.  I finished it this summer and just got my dissertation back this week (if you’re interested, you can read the full thing here: Patsko_MA_2013 and – update from spring 2014 – click here to read about the recognition it received!).

I guess that means I’m now officially a master (mistress?) of ELT & Applied Linguistics!

Looking back and reflecting on the whole experience, there are quite a few lessons I learnt along the way, other than things directly related to the course content.

Here are my top 5.

1. How to use the literature

At the top of my list is the thing which easily caused me the most (avoidable) stress throughout the whole MA programme.

I don’t consider myself a great reader–not because I have any specific difficulty, but more because I have a short attention span and limited patience when reading.  And these traits aren’t best suited to processing complex academic texts after a long week at work, let alone synthesising their main ideas and forming some sort of argument for a 3,500-word essay.  Studying for an MA requires a lot of reading, and I found that also brought a lot of frustration.

It took me a while to appreciate that if you’re reading something and finding it incredibly hard to digest, you shouldn’t just assume it’s your fault, that you’re just stupid or can’t read academic prose.  It may well be the writer’s fault, so to speak.  If something is really that hard to wrap your head around, it’s probably just not written particularly well.

And on a related note, I found that when reading some academics’ work, I needed to refer to dictionaries surprisingly often (or use Google’s excellent ‘define’ function – just type “define” and then whatever word(s) you want to look up into the search bar), and not just at the beginning of the MA.

There is a hell of a lot of very specific jargon in the various sub-fields of applied linguistics (e.g. epistemology, heuristics, praxis), not to mention more than a few writers who are unhelpfully and unnecessarily pompous in their choice of vocabulary, in my view.  Even with a good dictionary to hand, my tolerance was pushed to the limit by phrasing such as:

“This is no place to enter into the subtleties of glottodidactic lapsology”

(Read: “In this paper, I’m not going to talk about what ‘error’ means in language education.”)

I won’t name and shame the person who wrote that… I’m over it now.

But just generally, I found it hard to know how to read academically, which we didn’t get any guidance on (though we did get lots of really useful input on academic writing).  I felt like I had a neverending list of things to read and just couldn’t remember all the authors and all their ideas, even if I tried to space out my reading and do a little bit every week.

One thing that helped me, silly though it is, was to create a sort of ‘wall of fame’.  I find it much easier to associate people’s ideas with their faces, not just random names in a journal!  So I googled some of the key writers in the field that I was studying and wrote brief notes next to their pictures to help me remember what they’d written about, then stuck them on my wall:

Who's Who
Who’s Who

I created this out of desperation, because nothing else was working, because I just felt overwhelmed by the amount of information I was trying to take in and the feeling that I couldn’t keep track of it all in any simple way.  But it proved surprisingly effective, and made me feel like these were real people, not that different from me, and not just faceless academics in some ivory tower somewhere.

I also learned (far too late) that it’s not necessary to read everything in-depth, cover-to-cover.  After a few months of study, a friend of mine suggested a simple reading strategy which I actually adopted and found really useful:

    1. Just read the abstract (for articles) or introduction and conclusion (for articles/books).
    2. Then decide if you really need/want to read the rest (and for books, which specific chapters).
    3. When you’ve read an entire article/chapter/book, write a paragraph/page of brief notes summarising only the key points, with page numbers for very specific claims/quotations (this will help you to go back and find more if you decide later that this text is something crucial to an argument you’re developing).  Limit yourself to one A4 side: this will force you to be really succinct and capture the essence of the writer’s argument.

I also didn’t realise at the start of the MA the importance of journal articles (i.e. not just books!).  In fact, I read a comment somewhere about how any MA student thinking they’ll produce a good essay based solely on book literature is not going to get the best mark.  Lots of academics publish their research and develop their ‘career arguments’, so to speak, by means of peer-reviewed journal articles, and these may well be hugely influential in the field.

Once you have waded through the vast history of academics who’ve come before you, you’re supposed to use the essays and dissertation on the MA to ‘find your own academic voice’.  I really struggled with this at first.  I used to think, “Who am I to comment on/challenge the literature?  This guy’s got god-knows-how-many-PhD students reporting to him; surely he knows what he’s doing and I should remember my place!”  But it’s OK to critique.  And you have to, in order to find your own line of argument, to situate yourself within the academic community, and to justify your interpretation of the ideas of others in your field.

And one last point on this topic: it took me some time to really appreciate the notion of evolution of thought; as in, the guy who wrote a paper in 1985 might not hold the same views as his 2005 self!  Before you hastily critique (or indeed, criticise) something someone else has written, read some of their other work and compare it.  See if they themselves have already identified strengths and weaknesses of their earlier work.  Have they moved on since then?  How? etc.

2. What research really looks like

Ohhh, the dissertation…

My dissertation took up a good 8-9 months of my life in total, from getting going with the initial idea and getting ethical approval to it being printed, bound and submitted.  As in many MAs in ELT/TESOL/Applied Linguistics, it was research-based.  That meant I had to figure out how to do rigorous academic research at master’s level, then actually do it, then write about it (and, it goes without saying, be happy with what I’d done and how I’d presented it).

probably not actually Dr. Dörnyei
probably not actually Dr. Dörnyei

Research Methods in Applied Linguistics‘ was my bible for much of the research process.  In fact, I think I’m a little bit in love with Zoltán Dörnyei.  Some disappointingly impassive reviewer on Amazon describes this masterpiece as “absolutely okay”.  The accompanying 5-star rating makes up for that rather sober evaluation, and I guarantee you, £20 + free postage to get your hands on this baby is money well spent.

That said, even despite Dörnyei’s refreshingly clear and down-to-earth writing style, and his many excellent pointers on how to actually conduct research (not just waffling about why it’s important, blah blah blah), I still wondered sometimes if I was doing things right.

Of course, there’s no one way to conduct research, as there are so many different possible research questions and everybody has their own style and approach.

But far from the ‘laptop, textbook and Starbucks on a Sunday’ image of postgraduate writing that I’d somehow got in my head, my own approach to organising my data, collating my findings, identifying research themes and synthesising the elements into a cohesive argument ended up looking a bit crazy at times:

transcribing and analysing interview data
Not much difference between this and a padded cell?

I spent a small fortune on Post-it notes, and did find them very helpful (one colour per theme, and then you can physically move key ideas around, group them, work out the order in which you’re going to present them, etc.).

library tweet
Driven to distraction (in the form of Twitter).

I also learned just how intolerant I am to background noise when I’m trying to concentrate, and I honestly have no idea how some of my fellow MA students managed to get any work done when they had small children to raise as well as essays to write!

Within 6 months of starting the MA, I’d acquired a good pair of earplugs and a set of those gigantic earmuff-headset-things that builders use (seriously) because I just couldn’t hear myself think with noisy neighbours, people gossiping loudly in the library and London emergency services’ sirens going on and on all the time.

And one final thing I learned about the nature of research, in particular when it involves qualitative interview data: it’s not always necessary to transcribe fully!  Learning this saved me sooooo much time and stress.  I was drowning in 10 hours’ worth of interview recordings and felt like I’d been thrown a life jacket.

In applied linguistics research, if you are planning to do a ‘deep’ or ‘thick’ discourse analysis, for example, for an ethnographic study, then you will probably need to transcribe every bit of your interviews in considerable detail, potentially including such minute details as intonation and pauses (timed to the second).  But if–like me–you’re using interview data as a resource (as opposed to using it as a topic itself), you can potentially just listen to your interviews a few times, take notes on the key themes, then transcribe illustrative portions.

taking notes
Note-taking from interview recordings. Coffee + Post-its = compulsory study aids.

I was so afraid of not seeming thorough or rigorous enough if I didn’t transcribe everything, and I couldn’t find any reference in any literature to suggest it was possible to take a different approach.  So it took me a long time to accept this alternative approach.  But my tutor was incredibly helpful and supportive and in the end I took her advice and still got a very good mark for my dissertation, despite ‘only’ having transcribed key sections of my data (which still amounted to some 100 pages, from which I then selected only the most important quotations to feature in the body of the actual dissertation).

3. What other resources were available to me

There were two very useful resources that I didn’t exploit enough: first, my coursemates; and second, other libraries.

I spent the vast majority of the course feeling completely overworked and exhausted.  This was partly because I wasn’t just studying part-time but also working full-time.  I regret not making more of an effort to join my coursemates in the pub after lectures now and again, because I honestly just wanted to get home to bed.

On the odd occasions that I did go along, or perhaps met a coursemate for a coffee before lectures, it added an incredibly valuable social element to the course.  Aside from just meeting some great people and making new friends, it was really reassuring to talk through our research plans, what we’d thought of the set readings for various modules, what feedback we’d got on our essays, etc.  It can feel a bit lonely doing MA work, especially on the dissertation, because you spend so much time doing independent reading and writing.  But it needn’t be so isolating–you just have to make an effort to enjoy the community of like-minded people who are also on your course.

The second resource I wish I’d discovered earlier was the collection of other libraries I could access.  I actually had no trouble finding most books and articles that I needed until I started my dissertation, when my bibliography became much more specific and King’s didn’t have everything I needed.  As King’s is part of the University of London, I could apply to use all related libraries, such as the Institute of Education Library and Senate House:

© Laura Patsko
Senate House: didn’t find the literature I needed, but loved the Art Deco.

I also registered for a reader pass at the British Library, conveniently located in London (like me).  This meant I could request books and articles which I just couldn’t find anywhere else.  Some of these ended up being key references in my dissertation.

There were some disadvantages: they didn’t have everything, and when they did have what I wanted, sometimes I had to wait 48 hours for it to be delivered, and in any case I could only ever read them on-site (you’re not allowed to borrow – hence the dedicated ‘reading rooms’).  But just being able to get hold of the actual texts I needed was obviously incredibly valuable.

4. How many times I’d say, “Hurrah, it’s done!!!”

Finished (c. the 5th time)
Finished (c. the 5th time)

Again, the dissertation… I’m so glad I got started on this early.  After having my first research idea rejected, I got started on what became my final research project in March 2013.  In July, I finished my write-up.  Then through the rest of July and August, I ‘finished’ it about 10 more times!

First, you write the whole thing.

Then you get feedback on it (in my case, from both my supervisor and other willing friends).  A few rounds of this and you finally think you’re done with it.

Then you have to actually get the thing ready to print.  This alone must have taken me at least 5 hours (spread over a few days), what with page numbering, proof-reading, triple-checking all the section headings and figuring out how to combine portrait, landscape, A4 and A3 pages all in one PDF document for electronic submission.  OK, now you’re finished with it… right?

Then you get it printed.  At least two copies of it.  And you go back and check every single page again, making sure both copies are ready to be permanently bound.  (Then you reprint the pages you somehow managed to smudge or crease, and spend 30 minutes swearing and putting the newly printed pages in the right places, then checking it all again.)

The nice lady at the binder’s has to nearly pry the printed documents from your trembling hands, promising you over her shoulder as she runs away that they do this every day and it’ll all come out fine.

Then you collect it from the binder’s, check every page again, insert any extra bits (accompanying CDs, in my case), and take it to uni to hand it in.  You guard it with your life on the Tube, sure this will be the one time in your life that you drop your bag in the gap between the train and the platform.

You hand it in.  It takes 5 seconds.  You feel a distinct sense of anticlimax.

And you still don’t feel like you’ve really finished till you get it back, with feedback–two months later.

5. The effects of the MA on the rest of my life

I stress too much about assignments.  I’ve always been this way; I thought I’d grown out of it; I hadn’t.

I seriously underestimated the toll the workload would take on my life in general.  Studying part-time, working full-time and trying to have any sort of normal social life is incredibly difficult.  Other people on my course seemed to handle this balance better.  I wish I knew how they did it.

I learned the hard way that it’s important to get into a good work-study-rest-play lifestyle from the start, to make sure that you don’t spend too much time on one of those things to the detriment of the others.  Far too late, I decided to reduce my teaching hours slightly, plan nights out and weekends away so I’d have breaks to look forward to, and take up running a few times a week (in order to get into some kind of healthy diet+exercise routine).  Healthy body, healthy mind.

This also affected me financially.  The MA itself set me back a few thousand hard-earned pounds, but reducing my working hours, taking a month’s unpaid leave to work on my research, plus countless other expenses here and there (textbooks, coffees, train tickets to get out of London sometimes and clear my head)… it all added up to a much more expensive experience than I’d originally anticipated.  I’m sure it’ll be worth it in the long run, but I wish I’d saved a bit more beforehand.

So what have I really learned?

Ultimately, if I had to go back and do it all again, I wouldn’t take it all so seriously.  I mean, I would still work hard–and it would still be worth it–but I would try not to let it take over my whole life.  About 4 months before my deadline, I found out that a friend of mine had been given about 4 months to live.  At that point, I realised that even if I got a distinction in every assignment, I was still being an idiot.  It finally hit home what a waste of precious time and energy it is to stress so much over marks.  Life’s too short.

I’d chosen to do an MA because I wanted to learn, not just study.  And, all things considered, I learned a lot.  Not just about ELT and applied linguistics, but about myself.  And at least one very important thing hasn’t changed: I still absolutely love what I do.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Sandra, teacher and friend.

Sandraandme
11.9.56 – 30.9.13

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