Pass Notes: MA Advice, the Short Version

This is condensed general advice that I give to my MA students that I am writing out here for reference purposes. If you are reading this and are one of my students: You are an adult and therefore free to disregard all of this if you choose.

The chances are that if you are studying for an MA degree then passing that degree will be your number one priority for the next year. Also, the chances are that you have paid a substantial sum of money to do so, and you will want to get the most bang for your buck, so to speak. With that second bit in mind, let’s begin.

Let’s talk time: in addition to tuition, access to learning resources, and all the rest of the things that a university provides, you have just purchased yourself a year. Once you hit the world of full time paid employment, you will realise that this is in fact a very rare and valuable commodity. Put simply: it is unlikely that you will ever have an entire calendar year to dedicate to yourself until you hit retirement.

You can break your year to yourself down into 365 days, 24 hours per day, or 8760 hours in total. You need to sleep (at eight hours a night, that’s 2920 hours out of the window), eat (2 hours per day, 730 hours total), and wake up/fall asleep (let’s carve an hour out of the day each side, for another 730 hours). In short, you have around 4380 hours to play with, or 12 hours per day. In actuality, if you preserve weekends and four weeks of holiday, you’ll wind up with 2892 hours to play with for the year. If you spend the recommended amount of time studying for each module, that will take roughly 1600 hours out of your life, leaving you with 1292 hours in total for everything, or 5.4 hours per day during the working week.

5.4 hours sounds like a fair amount, but it’s not. It includes everything from brushing your teeth, to cursing TFL for ruining your commute, to seeing your friends, to traipsing around Lidl for your weekly shopping. At the end of the day, though, it’s very easy to let your degree take over your life, and to lose sight of what you can do with 1000+ hours of free time if you set your mind to it. I am almost certain that you will use a large chunk of these hours to work harder on your degree, but regardless of how hard you work, you will still have a non-negligible chunk of time left over, so let’s talk about that.

Things I advise you to do with 1000 hours of your life

In a nutshell:

  • Study something formal (Maths, logic, classical mechanics, etc)
  • Learn a language
  • Learn a programming language
  • Read beyond your MA studies
  • Position yourself for finishing your degree
  • Enjoy London

Study Something Formal

As an MA student, you will become well-versed in the pros and cons of quantitative and qualitative research methods. If you take some form of quantitative methods course, you are likely to learn statistics and probability theory to enable you to use quantitative approaches for research (such as your dissertation), as well as to engage with the substantial literature using these methods to investigate conflict and international politics. If you don’t, you won’t. Either way, let’s park the practicality and back up a second.

As a student, I advise you to take the time to study something that requires working from first principles, be it propositional logic, classical mechanics, algebra, or something similar. I admit, this is likely to seem like an odd suggestion, but bear with me.

Simply put, if you study something to do with politics or society, you are not going to work from first principles (at least as a mathematician understands the idea) and you are always going to be dealing with protean concepts instead of formal proofs. I think these kinds of activities are worthwhile in and of themselves, independent of practical value, and they will sharpen your intellectual abilities, even if you never subsequently engage with quantitative approaches to social science.

If you haven’t done much maths past GCSE (or equivalent), then imaginary numbers are likely to make your head hurt. Ditto logical notation, but that’s the point. I advise you to dedicate some time to learning something along these lines precisely because it is hard, but also because it is fundamentally creative. Learning algebra from first principles, or the basics of classical mechanics, without a defined goal (eg to pass an exam) means that you can get to grips with the creative aspect of these disciplines.

Where to start: For maths, Adrian Banner’s The Calculus Lifesaver is fantastic to work through. Similarly, Leonard Susskind and George Hrabovsky’s Classical Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum is good for physics. For logic, try Siu-Fan Lee’s Logic: A Complete Introduction.

Learn a Language

Okay, here’s the big one: you’ve arrived, you’ve got a year, so let’s learn business Japanese (or similar). Okay, maybe not. Truth be told, it’s unlikely that you’ll get fluent in a foreign language in a year unless you invest more time than you have to spare while studying for your MA. But don’t despair — it’s still a worthwhile activity. I didn’t learn a language while at university, but having picked up a bit of Spanish and Portuguese since, I wish I could replay my university years and learn while studying.

The key, I think, is to modify what you intend to “get” from learning a language, at least in the short term. You are unlikely to be able to put a killer line on your CV in the space of 12 months, so think about it as groundwork for the future, or as a bit of fun, rather than something to wow an employer next year. Even if you don’t end up speaking a language that well (I’m pretty bad myself), it’s always good to be able to scan foreign newspapers and get the gist of what’s going on in the world from a different perspective.

The key to learning a new language (on top of having a good teacher) is steady effort and conversations with native speakers. So book an hour off each day to study a language. I’d suggest you do this either before starting your day’s work, or as a midday break from work. Thankfully, King’s has a pretty diverse student body, so it’s likely that your fellow students might be native speakers of the language you’re trying to learn. The best way to learn for cheap is to try a language exchange — find someone that wants to speak your language, who speaks the language that you want to learn.

Learn a Programming Language

I thought about lumping this in with “learn a language” but I don’t want to make you think that learning a language and a programming language is a mutually exclusive activity. Like any field of study, computer programming takes time to develop, but the important bit about computer programming is that (at least for beginners) there is a huge amount of courses and free tuition packs available for you to pick and choose from. What’s more (and what makes this separate from either learning a formal field or spoken language), computer programming is inherently amenable to standardised feedback. Lots of very smart people have effectively donated their time making it possible for you to learn to code in a structured way, with help to keep you going in case of mistakes, etc. Once you get your head around something like Codeacademy, reading documentation and standards, and searching for the right answer on Stack Overflow (believe me, as a beginner your problem will have been encountered, solved, and explained), you’ll have a pretty powerful toolset for picking up the basics of computer programming. This won’t make you an elite hacker, or prepare you for jumping into the world of computer programming and web development, but it will tick the “study something formal” box above (Boolean operators are a big deal).

If you want to try your hand at learning a computer language, I would suggest Javascript or Python. The reasons for this are pretty simple: they are high level languages that enable you to jump in and do things. They abstract away many of the operations that go on beneath the hood of your computer, whereas a lower level language like C requires a lot more tinkering to get things going. There’s a penalty for this — the closer the language you’re working with gets to the hardware, the more efficient it can become. Also, languages like C or Java require you to learn a lot more about computer programming to write efficient, secure, and clean code. But if you’re learning a programming language for the first time, I’d still suggest Javascript or Python. They’re user-friendly, there’s plenty of resources that can help you, and you can learn to do a lot in the space of a year. If they pique your interest, chances are you will wind up learning C (or a relative) afterwards.

Where to start: Try your hand at the first few lessons of Codeschool’s course on Javascript, or the first few bits of Learn Python the Hard Way. Pick a single language and then go for it (learning two at once is difficult). Once you finish the introductory courses, I’d suggest trying Codewars and work from the beginner challenges upwards. If you get stuck, try the documentation (google it) or search for the answer on Stack Overflow. Often learning what you need to be searching for in order to ask your question helps you to understand the problem you’re facing in the first place. As a final piece of advice, watch Daniel Shiffman’s youtube channel The Coding Train, he’s a fantastic educator, and many of his projects are easily accessible to beginners (I’d suggest completing the beginner course in Codeschool before attempting).

Read Beyond Your MA Studies

I read so many books during my MA that I completely burned out and it took me a couple of years to start reading again for pleasure. Even with that in mind, I still advise you to read beyond your course during your year of study. I have three main suggestions. First, read fiction books. If you don’t know where to start, go into your local bookshop and talk to the person behind the counter. I am yet to meet someone who works in a bookshop that doesn’t love books. Reading is a solitary activity, but talking about great books isn’t, and it’s fantastic, so do it.

The second thing I advise is to try your hand reading what for better or worse can be classed as the magazines and newspapers of the political and cultural elite. You’ll have a subscription to The Financial Times while at King’s, and I suggest you use it. You should also try reading The Economist, the New Statesman, and the Spectator, even if only for a few issues, and even if you really disagree with the way they frame things. Sadly The Times and The Daily Telegraph are ghosts of what they used to be, so I’d suggest reading The New York Times and The Washington Post for world news, as well as to keep up on American politics. More importantly, however, I suggest that you try reading literary reviews: The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Paris Review, as well as magazines like The New Yorker and The National Review. I don’t see it as my job to tell you what to think in terms of politics and society, but I do see it as my job to point out the importance of reading and engaging with a range of perspectives on the world we live in. The above mentioned publications aren’t the be-all and end-all of said perspectives, by any means.

Lastly, I suggest you read a “big book” from cover to cover. Here, I’m talking non-fiction. The problem at MA level is that you are bombarded with topics and courses that have dense reading lists that often require you to read a couple of chapters out of a book before moving on. This is a bad thing, because it does (sadly) breed the tendency to treat book-reading as an activity akin to strip-mining. Although I can’t offer you any proof of this, reading a long book is an intellectual activity that you should engage in for your own benefit. I suggest you find a book with more than 500 pages on a topic that you know little about, but find very interesting, and dive in. Historians love writing big books, and they often write them a damn sight better than anyone else. Before you dive in, it’s probably a good idea to test the water by reading the introduction to see if the author can keep your attention for that long. My personal suggestion, on the other hand, is Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter, you’ll see why if you pick up a copy.

Position Yourself for Finishing Your MA Studies

I realise that you have paid a lot of money to do an MA, and it’s quite likely that you have an idea of where you want to go afterwards. This category might seem a bit superfluous, but bear with me. Like many academics, any advice I give on transitioning from a masters course to the world of work is dated by at least a decade, and more to the point, there are professionals at King’s whose job it is to help you out here. That said, my advice on this is that you need to keep the end of your MA in sight, and you need to strike a healthy balance between your studies and preparing for the world of work. The best way to do this, I think, is to consider this transition as a project to work on, and to plan accordingly. On a personal level, I didn’t even know about some job/internship application deadlines during my MA until they had passed. As a professional, I’ve also encountered students who were so worried about their future career options that it inhibited their ability to study during their MA. I advise you to steer between these two poles.

One way of steering clear of disaster is to think of all this as a cycle: survey, prepare, target, apply. In the first phase you’ll be surveying the job market — what kind of industries are you interested in, what kind of roles are available to someone like yourself in a year’s time, what are the timescales for each industry? Using this information, you’ll prepare yourself for the future: what skills will you need, where will you get them from, and so on. Once you have started preparing, it’s likely that you’ll encounter some hard choices: do I learn X or Y, born of time and resource constraints. At this point (likely Jan-March), you will need to target the jobs you want, and focus your preparations. Lastly, you’ll need to work on your application (hopefully the final stage), which requires interview preparation, tailoring your CV, and researching individual companies.

The point, I think, is to give yourself the best shot at whatever it is that you want to do. There’s no point in figuring out the industry that you want to work in if you turn up for the interview and flunk the basic question of “So why do you want to work for this company specifically?” At the same time, I understand that the pressures of student fees and graduate jobs (and unpaid internships) contribute to something of a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of most students that I teach. What I advise is that you plan for your future job applications over time — lay the groundwork for learning required skills or attaining relevant experience sooner rather than later — and you do so in a consistent and steady way rather than in a burst. it’s much easier to get you master CV in shape six months before you are applying for jobs than it is to remember your GCSE results or a relevant bit of work experience on the day you need to file an application. Moreover, you should identify every period when you are likely to be working to a deadline and plan around it. Once you have your module allocations, make a calendar of all your essay submission deadlines — halve the time you allocate to job preparation in a week with a deadline, and if there’s two or more then re-allocate all the time to a different week.

As a final word, be wary of internships. Unpaid work is now the defacto entry point to many industries, but there are significant variations between intern positions. I advise you to try to locate a past intern for any given internship that you are applying for, and ask them about their experience. Some internships are essentially extended job interviews for skinflint employers, others involve you trading your time for on the job training, earning a competitive internship spot at a prominent institution will likely be looked upon favourably by future employers in the same industry. However some internships are pretty much human meat-grinders, in which companies and NGOs build a business model on top of people like yourself doing the office crap-work. If people in the industry tell you that a place treats its interns badly, I advise you to steer clear. Paid work in parallel industries can give you relevant experience, and there are often pathways to upward progression that will allow you to gain skills and responsibilities that you can use to transition back to your desired industry.

Enjoy London

London is a fantastic place. I am from London, so I am biased. Actually, I’m from North London, so I’m even more biased (Roughly, N>E>W>S). I’ve noticed that some students from outside London arrive and spend a year enjoying the city, others spend a year doing little beyond shuttling between home and the library, and a third group explore London for a bit, then kind of get into a routine and stop exploring. I suggest you aim to be one of the first group of people, even if you’re time starved and cash poor.

The simplest way I know of to keep exploring is to do something different each week. Time Out has a neat list of 25 free museums, visit one every other week. On top of that, there are more temporary exhibitions in London every year than any person could ever hope to visit, so keep an eye out for those. Then there’s the landmarks, the hills (try Hampstead Heath), and the parks. The list goes on. Okay, if you don’t have much money to spare then partying in London is going to be difficult, but there is plenty of fun to be had without money. If you are into art, then London is a paradise of galleries. If you are not into art but instead are into free drinks, then you should be aware that Thursday nights (particularly the first Thursday of the month) is usually when gallery openings happen and there are sometimes free drinks going spare.

I guess the point about London is that whatever floats your boat, there’s something here to enjoy, so enjoy it.

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