Getting the Most Out of a St Andrews MLitt
October 24, 2014 Leave a comment
In previous weeks we have had advice on surviving your first year as an undergraduate in History, top tips on the PhD, and reflections on the life of a senior academic at St Andrews. This week, we round off with pointers kindly provided by Frances Murray (now a first-year PhD student) on getting the most out of an MLitt in History at St Andrews. Frances undertook the MLitt in Medieaval History.
I arrived in St Andrews a year ago to embark on my MLitt, and decided to stay on here to do my PhD. Whilst everyone is different, and a definitive list of advice is impossible to create, here are a few pointers that I wish I’d paid a bit more attention to last year!
Your MLitt year is, for many reasons, a unique year. Unlike a structured undergraduate degree filled with seemingly endless essays on the ‘The English Reformation’ or ‘The Vikings’, or even a PhD which is focused on one large project, this year is a chance to look into a variety of different topics and play with different ideas. This is something which is especially true of the degrees at St Andrews, which have a significant amount of time devoted to individual ‘directed reading’. Take advantage of this, and resist the temptation to focus too closely on a familiar topic which you will ultimately work on in your dissertation. That said, it’s definitely worth thinking about your dissertation topic earlier rather than later. This certainly doesn’t mean you need to start working on it in October, however having an open mind and filing away ideas in the back of your mind throughout the year will make your early summer much easier and your research more interesting.
Learn a language
The School of History offers a variety of opportunities to learn languages, and I would strongly recommend taking advantage of this! This year is a great time to develop all your skills and languages are, in my opinion, the most important of these as the vast majority of historical research benefits from knowledge of another language. I took up German, admittedly with some reluctance, at the start of my MLitt year. Whilst I still have something of a turbulent relationship with academic German, starting a year ago really helped me to get grounding in the language before it was urgent.
Have a routine
Having some sort of routine really helps, and I found that it was the best way of ensuring that I hit the ground running and avoided the inevitable essay crisis. Not only did this get me up and out in the mornings (for the most part…), but having defined ‘off’ time increasedproductivity, and meant I tended to work more effectively in my ‘on’ time. Previously, I had been used to an undergraduate routine in which I churned out a lot of writing in short periods of time. Whilst the MLitt course has its fair share of deadlines, the work was spread more evenly across the year, and working full pelt would certainly have led to me burnt out by Christmas.
Get to know the other historians
Coming from my undergraduate degree, where none of my friends were medievalists, I was delighted to find myself in the midst of so many at St Andrews! With classes, seminars, the postgraduate seminar series and reading weekends, there are lots of opportunities to meet the other postgraduates. I really enjoyed getting to know them and, as the year went on, I found that the benefits in doing this were more than social. Initially, friendships were built on the fact that we had quite a bit in common outside of our studies. As the year, and our work, developed, I found that I was tackling similar themes or challenges to others on the course, and our chats were no longer simply diverting, but extremely helpful!
Don’t compare yourself to other people
Some of the best advice I received last year (and possibly the most difficult to follow) was to not compare myself to other people. I found myself falling into this trap a lot, especially when I heard people recounting how many words they’d written in their dissertations when I was still struggling with the sources. Everyone works differently, and everyone arrives at the course with different experiences and skills – some people will be more familiar with essay writing, whereas others will be more confident in their linguistic abilities. As I’ve already emphasised, chatting to other postgraduate historians is great, especially in a department as large and varied as the School of History at St Andrews, but what matters at the end of the day is your own work!
Have other friends
I have sung the praises of interacting with other historians, but looking back, I sometimes wish I’d kept up links with people outside of the School of History. This would this have removed the temptation to ‘talk shop’, which is remarkably easy to do. Whilst I was as guilty as anyone else, a discussion of this week’s Latin assignment or applications for PhD funding was not always what I needed over a pint. In addition to this, it’s fascinating to talk to people in different disciplines about their research, and can even provide new angles on your own.
Keep in touch with old friends/ family
This may seem obvious, but I could have done with someone telling me to do this a year ago. I’m pretty terrible at keeping in touch with people, especially when I’m distracted by the excitement of a new place, new friends and new work. Last August, however, when I was finishing up my dissertation three friends I knew from my undergraduate days were due to visit. I spent a lot of time before the visit worrying if I’d have enough time to host them properly. In spite of horrendous rain all weekend, we had a wonderful time, and it did both me and my work a world of good. Whilst I have made some great friends in St Andrews, nothing compares to people who’ve known you for years.
Get out of St Andrews
It’s said often enough, but St Andrews really is a bubble. It is definitely worth taking the time to get to know this wonderful town, but a trip away from its three streets can make all the distance. Not only will you be physically removed from your place of work, but I found spending time somewhere that wasn’t dominated by students and golfers remarkably calming! Scotland in general is beautiful, but closer to home Dundee, Edinburgh and the East Neuk can be reached easily by bus or train and are well-worth a visit.