Thinking of doing a Postgraduate course? Ellie takes a deep-dive into everything you need to know.
My name is Ellie, and last year I completed my Masters in English Literary Studies with specialism in World and Postcolonial Cultures. For my Undergraduate degree I studied BA English, also here at Exeter.
When did you start thinking about become a postgraduate student, and why did you choose Exeter and that course?
I was in the final year of my degree when I started thinking about going on to Postgraduate studies. Before this, I hadn’t really known what to do after my degree – I’ve always felt like the problem isn’t that I don’t know what I’m interested in, but that I’m interested in too many things! I guess this all changed when the pandemic hit.
In March 2020, I was in the second year of my degree, and COVID-19 arrived. I suddenly found myself back at home, my dog sat on my feet whilst I wrote my final deadlines and sat my last exams from the study. What I didn’t realise was how long the lockdowns and constant uncertainty would go on for, and at this moment in time I was so concentrated on just taking every day as it came, trying to focus on getting through my degree with COVID a constant threat, that I didn’t feel I could even begin to think about what I would do after Graduating.
“Whilst I was writing my dissertation I spent a long time thinking about my interests and where I should go next year (cue multiple existential crises). With the help of a 1:1 Careers Guidance appointment, and by attending a Career Zone event I decided that I definitely did want to go onto postgrad study.”
I returned to Exeter in September 2020, but ended up mainly studying from home for my final year after another lockdown was announced during Reading Week (all my seminars were held online for the year). Cut to early spring 2021, and I still didn’t have a plan for next year. It was during this time that I realised why I felt so under prepared for Graduating – I had only had half of a normal degree and University experience, and I felt cheated of the opportunity to be a student. I just felt that there was more for me at University. I also had not been able to gain any work experience like I had initially planned to help me decide what route I wanted to go down after Graduating.
Whilst I was writing my dissertation I spent a long time thinking about my interests and where I should go next year (cue multiple existential crises). With the help of a 1:1 Careers Guidance appointment, and by attending a Career Zone event aimed at pre-graduation English and Film Students, I decided that I definitely did want to go onto Postgrad study. However, my interests fell into two clear paths: either I carried on with my more academic, English-based route, or I opted for a Postgrad qualification that gave me access to a healthcare role – something I’d always wondered about. Two of my main career interests have always been publishing and speech and language therapy, so I used Ask an Alum to set up zoom calls with Exeter alumni from each industry. This experience was invaluable, and I felt really lucky to have the opportunity to talk to two extremely interesting women about their careers.
During this time, I also used FindAMasters.com and the RCSLT (Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists) website to help me think about where I would go if I pursued either of these paths. I did a lot of Googling and found Russel Group university cities I thought I would like to live in, browsing the universities’ websites and contacting admissions and course convenors via email to find out if I would be a suitable applicant.
I had missed the date to apply for speech and language therapy, so would have to apply in Autumn 2022 for 2022/23 admissions if I was certain I wanted to go down this route. However, after so long of feeling in limbo during lockdown, I really wanted to have a plan for the next academic year, and I wasn’t sure with the current COVID situation what opportunities would be available to me if I opted for a gap year whilst I waited for the next Masters application window. I was also concerned that due to the pandemic I hadn’t been able to gain any work experience in this field, so thought that this would be a big commitment (in terms of career direction, time, and finances) if I didn’t enjoy the course from the offset.
“The 10% reduction on fees for returning Exeter students was also a big draw – studying at Postgrad level is a big financial commitment as ultimately it means more debt… Some Masters are extremely expensive, so it made sense to stay on at such a brilliant University for a fraction of the price of other courses.”
This formed my decision to look further into a Masters in either publishing or English. I looked at lots of different courses at different universities, but I also reached out to my final year seminar leaders at Exeter who were convening both the brand-new Publishing Masters and the English Literary Studies Masters. I had various Teams calls with them so that I could ask more about the course and find out whether they thought I would be a good fit.
I was really encouraged by the fact that two of the best seminar leaders I have ever had were running each course, and this helped me decide that I wanted to stay at Exeter because I knew how brilliant the department were, so had complete faith that they would be excellent courses. The 10% reduction on fees for returning Exeter students was also a big draw – studying at Postgrad level is a big financial commitment as ultimately it means more debt, and you also don’t get a maintenance loan anymore, so I wanted to be smart about my choices. Some Masters are extremely expensive, so it made sense to stay on at such a brilliant University for a fraction of the price of other courses.
Previously, whenever I had thought about doing a Masters, I had always thought I would take the opportunity to go somewhere new and study at a different university, but COVID meant that I had only been living in Exeter for just over half of my degree, and I felt that I had more to take from the city. I also knew that if we went into more lockdowns, I felt more secure in a city which I already knew, and where I already had a few friends.
“…to make sure you don’t miss any deadlines, I would suggest you start thinking about whether you might like to pursue postgrad study the summer before final year begins.”
My next problem however was that I was torn between these two Masters, and really didn’t know which one to choose. In the end, I decided to apply for English Literary Studies, but to specialise in World and Postcolonial Cultures, which had become a clear area of interest for me since second year. You could opt for one of seven specialisms in the course (or pick an open, unspecialised pathway), and this one really stood out to me. I decided on this Masters over the Publishing Masters as I hadn’t managed to gain any publishing experience – I applied for a local publishing internship just before the pandemic, but unfortunately this opportunity folded as COVID erupted.
I had also applied for summer internships with both Penguin and Hachette, but hadn’t been one of the lucky few to be selected out of tens of thousands of applicants. Another thing that really swung it for me was that if I chose the ELS Masters, I was welcome to study a couple of modules from the Publishing Masters, so could still get a taste for the industry and have something relevant to refer to in any future interviews. I had a close friend who was also staying on at Exeter, and I applied as soon as I had finished my dissertation at the end of April.
“…things can change whilst you’re doing final year – I didn’t start knowing I wanted to do a Masters, but I did end it knowing I wanted to.”
How did you write your Masters application/personal statement, and what was the process like? Do you have any tips for anyone thinking of postgraduate study?
I really didn’t know how to write a Masters personal statement, but I used articles on Prospects and the Help with Applying for Postgraduate Study page on the Career Zone website to help me write a first draft. I also booked in for a 1:1 with a Careers Consultant who went through my application with me and suggested some minor tweaks (he also reassured me that he had never heard of an Exeter student being refused to stay on at Exeter for a Masters, which made me feel less nervous!).
The main things I tried to express were my passion for English and the specialism I was applying for, as well as the modules I had already taken at Exeter that had led me to discover my specialism. I had an advantage to students who had done their undergrad at different universities because I was able to pick out details from undergrad modules led by the MA convenors (who also knew me well) which I had really enjoyed. I also wrote about specific modules on the Masters programme that I would like to study, whilst expressing my enthusiasm to carry on in the English department at Exeter. My final application came in at around 1300 words. I pressed submit (… and then checked my emails constantly for the next few days!). I heard back within a week – I was really happy, and it felt like just the right step for me. Within a couple of weeks I was back in Exeter house hunting, and it all just fell into place from there.
“…being a Postgrad student at Streatham is completely different to being an Undergrad… I knew it would be different, and I was hoping it would feel more adult, as opposed to feeling like I was 18 again.”
Because of COVID, things were a little bit different when I started thinking about Masters, but to make sure you don’t miss any deadlines, I would suggest you start thinking about whether you might like to pursue Postgrad study the summer before final year begins. This way you’ll have plenty of time to weigh up your different options, as a lot of courses have an application deadline early in the academic year (it varies on the course and the university). However, things can change whilst you’re doing final year – I didn’t start final year knowing I wanted to do a Masters, but I did end it knowing I wanted to. When I was looking into Masters within the English department at Exeter I was also met with constant reassurance that sometimes applications come in as late as a few weeks before the course starts, and they’re still just as likely to be accepted, so my seminar leaders were very clear in that there wasn’t a rush (however, this also depends on the size of the course and how many available spaces there are).
“Something which is really nice about postgrad studies is that everyone really wants to be there, and you feel like you are treated in more of an adult manner, less like a student and more like an equal.”
What’s being a postgraduate at Streatham like? Is your course harder than your undergrad? What makes it so? Is there more work?
It’s difficult to explain, but being a Postgrad student at Streatham is completely different to being an Undergrad, and I don’t think I really realised this before coming back to study for a Masters. I knew it would be different, and I was hoping it would feel more adult, as opposed to feeling like I was 18 again.
I’ve never had many contact hours for my course even during Undergrad, as English requires a huge amount of independent study, but this year I had only four contact hours a week (two two hour seminars). At Postgrad level you don’t have lectures, only small group seminars and very infrequent additional workshops or screenings. This didn’t feel like a big change, but I do think that during my Masters I have felt less immersed in the student experience and population, although I think that this was also caused by the onset of COVID.
I have also definitely found it harder to meet people at Postgrad level, and the amount of independent work (and the nature of most people working on quite different projects) means it can be quite isolating at times, so it’s really important to leave your laptop/books regularly! Another thing which is tricky is that almost all of my friends have now left Exeter, which can feel a bit odd when you’re still here, and definitely takes some getting used to, but you do get used to feeling more independent.
My course is definitely harder than at Undergrad, but I also feel like I had a great foundation to start with going into it, compared to in first year where I felt thrown in at the deep end. At Postgrad level, you know what your interests are already and what they aren’t, which is just as important (this time round I knew to steer well clear of anything that smelt too Victorian!). The reading I’m required to do is a lot longer, but in my fourth year of being at University I know the systems that work for me, and also how to manage my workload – for the most part anyway!
Something which is really nice about Postgrad studies is that everyone really wants to be there, and you feel like you are treated in more of an adult manner, less like a student and more like an equal. There’s also more of a mix of ages at Postgrad level, whether students have had a year or two in between their undergrads and their Masters, or whether they are mature students who are coming back to education after decades away. I’ve really enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life who have bigger lives outside of University, and have found myself learning so much from not just my seminar leaders, but other students too.
What’s your area of interest?
My area of interest is my specialism: World and Postcolonial Cultures. When I started at University in first year, I really had no idea what I specifically enjoyed about English – I might have thought I did, but really there was so much more to learn than ever crossed my mind. From second year onwards I started to really connect with learning about literature from other parts of the world, loving deviating from the very white, male canon of privileged literature that has become so ingrained in our society. I quickly realised I would much rather read a short story collection about the refugee crisis by a Haitian author than read another Dickensian novel!
Since my Modern History A Level, I have always had a huge interest in the British Empire and its shadow, and my specialism has given me the opportunity to explore postcolonial legacies and writing from minority cultures, something that has really broadened my understanding not just of literature, but of the world. I have also had the opportunity to take modules from the Publishing Masters and the Film Studies Masters, studying things as varied as the use of sound in films like Gravity, to BAME publishing initiatives in the UK, and novels by Korean, South African, and Kenyan authors. This specialism has allowed me to take my interest in different cultures to a new level, and has also led me to the topic of my Masters dissertation: the representation of race in British children’s literature.
“There is no denying how difficult Postgrad study is… The deadlines are intense, with the heaviest end of module essays falling at the beginning of term, which means there’s never much opportunity to switch off over the Christmas/Easter holidays. It is also a much longer haul than undergrad academic years – I don’t finish until the very end of August.”
Are you enjoying your Masters?
It definitely took a bit of adjusting, but I have enjoyed this year – it’s taught me a lot about myself and what I enjoy and don’t enjoy. The course has been amazing, and the English department are incredibly supportive, down to earth, and so knowledgeable. I always describe my course and specialism as my favourite parts of my Undergrad rolled into one (without the less-fun bits!). I am really glad I chose this Masters – it’s been a really good stepping stone, and I have learnt so much more than I ever expected to. I also know that I can apply my new skills to the next stage of my life. There is no denying how difficult Postgrad study is however – you have to be 100% committed. The deadlines are intense, with the heaviest end of module essays falling at the beginning of term, which means there’s never much opportunity to switch off over the Christmas/Easter holidays.
It is also a much longer haul than Undergrad academic years – I don’t finish until the very end of August, so am only just starting to think about my dissertation when most Undergrads would have just submitted theirs. However, I think that studying at Postgrad level has really deepened and extended what my undergrad gave me, and I hope that this rigorous training will be noticed by any potential future employers.
“I’ve worked as a part-time intern at the Career Zone… having a job is a brilliant way to structure your time into more manageable chunks. It also means that you know you’re going to have a certain amount of time every week where you don’t think about your own academic stresses”
Looking back, what advice would you give yourself before you started the process?
Take things in your stride – whereas no academic year can be described as a sprint, if you thought an undergrad year was a marathon, a Masters is an ultramarathon. I was advised by a seminar leader to treat it like a 9-5 job – a little bit tricky if, like me, you also have a job, but good advice nonetheless! Another seminar leader told me it was two years’ worth of work squashed into one, which definitely summarises how full-on it is… Don’t worry about what other people are doing and what stage you’re at in comparison, just take it one step at a time, do your best, and you’ll get what you need from it.
Even if you don’t have many contact hours, spend time on campus as it will make you feel less like you’re the only Postgrad student in the room! I’d also advise getting a job. This year I’ve worked as a part-time intern at the Career Zone, and although you will have more than enough to do without a job filling part of your week, having a job is a brilliant way to structure your time into more manageable chunks. It also means that you know you’re going to have a certain amount of time every week where you don’t think about your own academic stresses, and I always leave work feeling much fresher, and like everything has been put back into proportion. Plus, a Masters is expensive, and earning money whilst you study is not only helpful financially, but something which evidences your ability to manage your workload and juggle multiple commitments to future employers.
“On a more practical note, studying can actually physically hurt… set timers on your phone to make sure you take regular tea breaks, and do some stretching while the kettle boils – it makes all the difference!”
On a more practical note, studying can actually physically hurt… set timers on your phone to make sure you take regular tea breaks, and do some stretching while the kettle boils – it makes all the difference!
What’s next for you?
I’m not sure what’s next for me yet. I’ve been so busy with my course this year that it’s been difficult to find the time to apply for jobs without sacrificing my deadlines, but I have been keeping an eye out on opportunities. I’m currently debating taking a gap year of sorts next year – organising some short-term work experience opportunities in different sectors, and maybe heading to Europe for a bit to au-pair. I’ve been in education for four years, so I think it’s time for a different experience. But first, come the end of August I’ll be having a big rest!