Advice / Masters / Oxford


No post last week as I was busy graduating from my masters! A proud moment for me and the family and the culmination of a whole year of incredibly hard work. I get to add an MSc (Oxon) to my BSc (Ebor) on my CV too.

I remember searching round on google for advice on doing a masters or even just other people’s experiences of studying for one. So now I’m going to help anyone who’s sat where I was two years ago wondering what a masters is like and whether it is right for them.

Firstly why are you looking to do a masters?

I loved my subject, maths is cool! Also, I was the kind of kid at school who desperately wanted to go to university (the dream was Oxford). I asked my uncle how one becomes a professor when I was about 11. I’m an academic type.
It was while doing my BSc dissertation that I realised I wanted to do more study. I really enjoyed learning things for myself, being independent, and following the literature. However I really wanted to be able to reproduce the results in the papers for myself.
This led to a masters in mathematical modelling and scientific computing, otherwise known as describing things with maths and solving the equations on a computer.

Doing one to improve employment prospects is also good. Maybe the career you want needs a masters, or maybe you want to change discipline. However being just motivated by money might not be enough (unless you really love money).

However to do a masters you need drive and passion, its an expensive and difficult year! I wouldn’t recommend doing one just because you don’t want to leave university as its fun (your friends will probably all leave and you’ll be lonely anyway) or you can’t think of anything else to do.

Secondly, funding?

Sadly funding for  masters is hard to come by, even in sciences. There are websites with lists of bursaries you can apply for, but I found you had to fit into some really odd boxes! The strangest one I found was specifically for daughters of Scottish vicars.

Some universities have funding knocking round, places like Oxford and Cambridge have bursaries available and often for academic prowess rather than for being poor and/or foreign. I missed the funding deadline though, you have to apply early. There was one for students who had graduated with a 1st from York too!

You could always try abroad, countries like the Netherlands teach their degree and masters courses in English and have minimal course fees. You’ll find yourself at a slight advantage being a native speaker too. Masters courses are two years long, though this means you get work experience half way through and a more relaxed pace. You can even qualify for Dutch student finance if you work 30 hours a month, so for example a Saturday job in an English pub. I looked seriously into doing this, and then got an offer from Oxford, so decided to stay in the UK! If you are feeling adventurous this is the way to go.

If you’re really lucky, your family might be able to support you. My family are hardly rolling in it, but my grandparents had recently downsized and my mother cashed in my wedding fund to support me for the year. I lived frugally, but you have so little time for a social life you can get by on not much at all. Choosing to go to a university in a cheaper part of the country, so maybe Leeds over London, will help your money go further.

Finally, what is the life like?

Life was busy and stressful! Suddenly all my lovely friends from undergrad where all over the world, I was alone in a loft room in a house full of people I didn’t know and I had four assignments due at the end of the week. It was a massive shock to the system! Getting used to a new university, trying to make new friends and plunging head first into difficult lectures and even more difficult assignments wasn’t fun. I kept myself sane with folk dancing one night a week, a pub quiz with fellow students doing other subjects and singing in a choir. Was nice to put the work down sometimes and get out. Otherwise it was hard work most evenings.
Good time management is essential, as is beating the procrastination.

I learned a lot though. We did group work, presentations and written assignments, none of which I’d done on my bachelors. I learned about myself and my ability to work, or otherwise, and when to call it a night. However the incredibly short terms at Oxford meant that cramming rather than deep understanding was the order of the day. I often likened it to being hit round the head with a textbook! We were all a bit disappointed with the focus not being on deep learning and understanding. Though I don’t know if I’ve ever been taught maths in a way that promoted deep rather than surface learning.  Getting over this has been a key part of the start of my PhD.

So there you have it, a masters is hard, you will be poor both in time and money. Your brain will hurt and you’ll give yourself sciatica from sitting down for months on end doing work. However it is really rewarding, gets you on in your career  and enables you to learn a lot about your subject and yourself. My advice is go for it, if your motives are right.


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