Surviving My Cambridge MEd
Studying for my Master in Education at Cambridge is one of the best decisions that I have made in my professional life as a teacher.
In making that decision, I was trepidatious of the high stake involved, too. Firstly, would I be able to juggle a full-time job with my studies? No doubt it would be demanding. Secondly, there were other personal commitments, relationships and a dog to look after. Then, there were financial implications, too.
In addition to these practical concerns, there was always the extra pressure when applying for the course, namely my academic background. I had had three degrees in English (BA, MA and a DPhil) from different institutions. What if I didn’t get a place? What if I failed the course? I knew the challenge would be enormous when I took on a different academic discipline – from literature to social science, education. Still, such thought was hardly any consolation when the fact remained that I had already had a PhD, and that fact was going to prompt the following question – why do you want to do another Master’s degree?
All these worries became irrelevant when the desire to improve my professional knowledge became irrepressible and the sweet thought of becoming a more confident and knowledgable professional proved to be too irresistible. I took the plunge.
Embarking on a part-time course meant a complete reorganisation of my professional, academic and personal lives. The blended learning offered me the flexibilities that I needed to meet demands from all quarters. Nevertheless, the additional pressure from the course required a different approach from that of my doctorate as a full-time student.
When I was a doctoral student, I approached my research like a job with a regular daily routine. I was out of bed at 6:00am, sat down to write my thesis for two hours until other housemates began to surface. I got dressed and met up with a fellow DPhil student in marine biology for breakfast at my College before we went our separate ways: he his laboratory and me the library. I did my research and reading until lunch time which was in turn followed by a long walk or a cycle ride into the mediaeval town to unwind and think. Another couple of hours later, I would returned to the library to collect the material needed for the evening’s work. The time between 6:00pm and 9:30pm was usually spent having dinner, chatting with housemates and other friends, or watching a bit of television. Then a small group of us would decamp to a local pub in the village to sample some of the guest ales. We never over indulged as I would typically spent another hour or two after returning to my hall of residence to do some technical job – compiling bibliography and editing footnotes, etc. The day’s job was then done; I repeated the same routine the following day, week and year, more or less.
My MEd presented a fresh challenge that demanded many adjustments. I try to describe my experience in year two of my MEd in the following space in mixed form of a list of tips and some description of how I progressed.
1. Decide on a research topic for thesis early but keep an open mind.
2. Explore the most appropriate methodology/methodologies. Again, be flexible.
3. Keep working on the research questions as you read around relevant papers. The more you read, the more questions you will ask yourself. This process will eventually help you ask the “real questions” that need a fresh investigation – by you!
4. Invest on whatever kind of “technology” that you are most confident in using. Your level of competence and proficiency will probably determine the time it takes to complete your project, too, together with many other factors.
5. Think about organising the articles that you’ve been reading as you go through 1, 2 and 3. Whatever system you use, make sure it’s easily accessible and secure. For me, I use Adobe Reader on my iPad to keep all the papers that I’ve downloaded from various sources. Filing them is extremely time-consuming which involves renaming each one of them according to topics and methodologies, and sometimes the writers. My four main categories are: professionalism, identity (topics) and self-study and narrative inquiry (methodologies), plus a few key writers in these areas. I used the few days in New Year’s holiday (don’t rely on Christmas) to download, read and file the majority of the articles. In retrospect, it was a time well invested. Well organised files means quicker time in retrieving key points from a massive bank of articles. In turn, speedy access to articles means less interruption to your writing.
6. If your research involves conducting questionnaires, surveys, interviews or observations, etc. for data collection and analysis, maybe it’s time to conduct some informal pilots for practice purposes. Others will be able to tell you with more authority in this respect. In fact, I have heard that some people use commercial services for some transcription or data analysis.
I imagine that cultivating and maintaining a good relationship with potential participants in your research is essential to ensure a smooth research process and progress.
It is now Lent Term at Cambridge and Spring Term at school. Normal school work continues whilst the weekly assignments still need to be completed. The difference from year 1 is the pressure to meet interim deadlines for various sections of your thesis. For me, I continued with my reading, filing and drafting for various parts of the thesis the best way I could as school work was beginning to demand more and more of my time and attention. Still, it turned out that my thirty-minute morning drive to work was the most productive time for me in term of thinking and formulating ideas for my research.
At this point, the more thinking you do, the more confused you will most possibly become – about almost everything. But don’t stress out at this stage. All the random ideas and thoughts will eventually connect together once you become more confident about your methodologies, research methods and epistemological and theoretical basis; they all relate to each other.
7. Use your Elective project as a kind of springboard for the main research. I find all the little projects that I’ve done in the past two years extremely useful. They become the basis of my data and evidence. Additional they allow me to approach education research with more “formal”, or “traditional”, research methodologies as opposed to my less conventional, bricolage approach.
8. I am afraid to admit that I found interim deadlines impossible to meet. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a clear idea of my progress, how much work was required and how long it might take me to complete once the writing-up commenced. The key is constant review of your situation. For me, it was my daily morning drive to school.
Having said that, I am sure many people prefer to stick to them to ensure a steady progress. So do your supervisors. They are useful especially when there is a consensus with your supervisor to stick to them for regular supervision and guidance purposes. I am probably many supervisors’ worst nightmare as I do most planning, formulating ideas, drafting, etc. in my head. I wrote in a fragmentary style. That was partly because my school work demanded awful lot of my attention and energy – especially when we moved into the second half of the Spring term and exam/coursework pressures were quickly building up. Or it was simply because that I wasn’t very good at multitasking.
9. Write as much as you can as you progress. Don’t worry if it doesn’t sound right. Some, or a lot of your writing will eventually find its way into your thesis.
Don’t delete anything.
Create as many sub-folders as you need to keep your fragments. Label them clearly according to key ideas/themes/points.
Adhere to required citing and referencing style (details are in the General Handbook) to save checking time (and headache) later.
10. Compile and update references as you read and write. Check with General Handbook for style conventions. Get them right now will save awful lot of time at the final stage of your research.
11. Get a nice takeaway. It’s imperative you have a life, too!
12. Do something that keeps you academically inspired. For me, Formals, punting and getting involved with College life inspired me academically. Strange I know, but somehow the wider (as much as I could pack into my busy life) Cambridge experience and my intellectual drive were (and still are) inextricably linked.
It is now Summer Term at school and Easter Term at Cambridge. Your pressure will come from many directions, mainly school: exam preparations, revision sessions, reporting, intervention, planning for next year, observation of various guises, etc. It is imperative to stay cool.
However dire you think the situation is and how unlikely it is that you’ll be finish everything on time, think about that glorious degree day with all your proud loved ones around you. If necessary, visit Cambridge on a degree day to see what it can also happen to you. YOU WILL finish in good time.
13. Be ready to work in office hours whilst writing up.
14. Make sure support is available when needed: technical, moral or even financial. At this stage, it’s all about having everything in place for the writing-up and re-drafting.
I had every reason to panic when the end of Cambridge term arrived. I had not even written a draft. The devil on my shoulder was growing strength and his glee was turning more and more menacing. I could fail. I suppose busy school life in some way shielded me until the day we broke up for the summer – with exactly a month till my deadline for submission. The word now had acquired another meaning. I had to act fast.
I went up to Cambridge on the Monday after we broke up, on 22 July. A friend from Clare let me use his room in a shared house in the Newham Street area when he’s away. I met my supervisor as soon as I arrived in Cambridge in early afternoon, with nothing coherent written. I tried to reassured her and myself that I had all the words in my head just in the wrong order. She was noticeably alarmed and hinted at asking for extension. I knew when school started again, my chance of completing would quickly diminish. It’s now or never.
After my final supervision, I headed straight to the Faculty Library, armed with another list of books to consult. I sat down and set about getting ready for hopefully a writing marathon ahead.
I stayed in Cambridge from 22 to 26 July, using the College Library and the MCR (when the library’s closed) as my bases for work. Clare is handy for the UL (University Library). I made the most of it and found many books that I used from there too. The Tea Room was handy for a quick lunch before I returned to work. By immersing myself totally in this academic environment has certainly inspired me and quickened my thinking. That week had been extremely useful to set me up for the next 7 days of solid writing. On a side note, within those 5 days in Cambridge with daily intensive writing and thinking, I could finally appreciate what Suicide Sunday meant as I looked down at the river from Clare Bridge one afternoon.
From 23 July to 3 August, I churned out on average 2000 words a day, totalling some 24,000 words. By the end of the fortnight after we broke up, I had managed to edit the 24,000 words into my first complete draft.
Updating my references, compiling my appendices and putting together all the other information pages were all taking place concurrently.
I then went away for a week on a pre-booked holiday in Northumberland where I spent a couple of hours for a couple of days checking through my draft and did necessary corrections. On returning home, I put all the different parts of the thesis together according to the requirements set out in the General Handbook.
I sent my supervisor my thesis in its entirety on the Wednesday before GCSE results day. On Thursday, I printed off three copies when I went to school for the results. Exactly one month, I had gone from having a few random fragments to a complete thesis. My supervisor emailed me back to confirm it’s “good to go”. On Friday, I took three hard copies to the local business services to be bound. When I filled in my cover sheet,I had put 28 August as the date of submission without any certainty. Fortunately, The Housekeeper at Clare was able to put me up at the Old Court for 28 August.
I drove up to Cambridge on Wednesday, 28 August, with bound copies of my thesis and all the other relevant forms. My supervisor signed my ethical checklist and risk assessment forms and we had a post-course chat. By 4:00pm, I walked out of the Faculty feeling – job done. Next!
Not many people work like I do, and I wouldn’t recommend my style to anyone either.