about that master’s degree…

So, grad school. It’s dominated my life the past few weeks as I’ve scrambled to finish my coursework for the first semester. Now that all my essays are handed in, I’ve had time to reflect on it, and I wanted to share a few thoughts:

I don’t regret doing my master’s in the UK, but sometimes I wonder what it would be like if this was a two-year degree. Would I like it more or less? Obviously, cost was an issue, and two years is more expensive. That’s one major reason why I chose to do my degree here. But since I’m doing a new subject, I’m basically in this position where I’m not only doing a master’s, but I’m doing an intensive one — as in, the work is condensed and focused. Now that I’m older and have been ‘around’ a bit longer, I understand the  politics behind education. Graduate programs on either side of the pond are affected by funding and how much money a university can get out of the program. Social Anthropology isn’t a lucrative program in any sense. My course is a mixture of home/EU students and non-EU students and the cynical side of me still thinks I got in so quickly because they needed more non-EU students because we pay more tuition.

The courses that are offered show what an interdisciplinary subject anthropology has really become, in terms of its institutionalisation. The core classes are offered in the Social Anthropology department and tend to focus on theory and the historiography of anthropology — almost the anthropology of anthropology, as it were. It’s all very meta. The optional modules are usually in other departments with a few exceptions. I don’t know how the undergraduate program is taught here. Most of the work is self-directed. I think this is partly because that’s just the way it is at UK universities; my experience at Sussex was similar and I really liked it. And maybe that’s just how it is in this sort of graduate program, period. The professors are great and very helpful. I also really like my supervisor, although we haven’t gone over much. I think we’ll be working together a lot more this semester. I mean, he’s also teaching one of my classes, so of course we will. But also because I will be doing most of the research for my dissertation in the upcoming months.

I’ve definitely had moments of extreme frustration where I felt like I didn’t understand anything I was learning. There’s still something about anthropology that’s a bit… out of reach? I can’t explain it, really. Maybe it’s just how anthropology is. We’re learning about all these ‘schools’ of thought that no longer exist in their pure forms. Sometimes I get tired of how reflexive the discipline is — it’s a bit, well, self-fulfilling and defeatist. But for all that, it’s a wonderful field. Most of the time, I really love what I’m doing. It’s not easy. Anthropology makes you really think about the way knowledge is constructed in a way I’ve never really had to before. It also makes me wonder what I hope to get out of all of it — I’ve said before I’d like to do policy research, but to what end? I don’t expect everyone to be able to break down issues the way I am able to. It takes training. That’s what the master’s course is for. It’s more than picking up a book and reading it. We’re learning how analyse what’s in the books — the power relations behind what is produced, the processes. And when it’s all stripped down — what’s left?

It wasn’t until I started doing my coursework that I really grasped some of the subjects I’ve been learning about for weeks, and even then — what? Have I done enough? Did I wait too long? I’ve always been a bit high strung when it comes to academics. I always obsessed over grades and wanted to do my best. But I’m in a situation now where 4,000 words on a topic can greatly influence my entire degree. It’s one of the more difficult adjustments to make to the UK system — sure, independent research is a plus, especially at this level, but when your entire grade is that one paper and maybe you just didn’t choose the right question to answer or didn’t take one part quite far enough… it can all blow up in your face and that absolutely terrifies me! I’ve always been a good writer, my teachers told me as much from a young age, and anthropology is writing-intensive. I don’t see how anyone could be completely successful in this field without knowing how to write. But since we’re also into breaking down what the words say… I can’t help but feel I only get it on a surface level. Maybe it’s the nature of the program, only being one year. Maybe it’s just that for all I like anthropology, it’s not something I’ll ever be ‘great’ at. I can say that if I do get good marks back, it will feel enormously rewarding in a way a lot of my undergraduate studies never quite were.

As I go into the second semester, I have a lot on my plate. Not only will I be doing my second semester coursework, which seems to be different in nature as it involves some ‘field’ work as well, but a lot more is expected from us now that we have the ‘basics’. There’s never enough time to do all the reading we’re expected to do — to really get it, I’d have to sit in my flat and read for 24 hours a day. When I learn about a new concept or a new person in anthropology and want to go into it further, I don’t feel like I have the time to do so. That’s another way this program is a bit frustrating. But I’m supposed to take what I’ve started to learn and somehow apply it to my dissertation — and that’s reached a bit of a stall. I don’t think I will be able to do my dissertation on the National Football Museum in Manchester as it won’t be open until early summer by all accounts. There’s no set opening date, and I can’t work with that uncertainty. I think I need to find a sure bet — or change my topic entirely? I don’t know. I will be writing more about my dissertation in the coming months as that is the other major part of what I will be doing this semester. I can’t leave the research until after my second semester coursework is finished even if I were so inclined.

I guess, at the end of the day, there’s just a lot about doing a graduate degree that people never tell you. And it’s because they can’t. How can anyone explain how absolutely exhausting it all is — how very different from an undergraduate degree it is? You’re suddenly thrust into this world where everyone knows quite a lot and there’s no room to bullshit or hide anymore. You’re with a lot of talented people who probably all did rather well as undergraduates and feel just as uneasy as you do. But it’s… exciting, too, in a way education hasn’t been before. It feels good to push yourself just that much harder, to open your mind… to stretch your brain until it feels like your skull will burst and everything will evaporate into thin air.

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