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On the difference between undergrad and postgrad study in the humanities

Having made the jump from my undergraduate degree to postgraduate study without taking a year out, it’s got me thinking about the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate-level study.

What can you expect when making the jump from undergrad to postgrad life, particularly in the humanities?

Of course, your experience will partly depend on whether you are moving from one university to another - if you’re staying at the same one, you will already know a lot of the staff already, and be familiar with a lot of the other students too. If you’re moving to a new one, you’ll have to think about the new things you’ll want to try out, whilst getting to grips with a new place and university. There are some academic things to think about too - the pace of work is very different, as are the expectations surrounding it. Not everyone might experience these changes, but it might be worth thinking about how you might deal with them!

I’ve found that there’s a lot less contact time with your supervisor, and barely any classes or lectures - even less than at undergrad! This means that there is a lot less opportunity for you to receive reassurance about your work, or get a sense of validation for it. Instead, empty days or even weeks will stretch ahead of you, and will need filling! There should be loads of optional seminars and group work discussions that are relevant to your areas of interest, but no one will make you go. It can be hard to commit to things, but it’s worth doing - you meet all sorts of interesting people who also care about your subject. It can be hard, as a solitary researcher, to meet people regularly, and this will help you to find people with similar interests.

I’ve found that I get treated even more like an adult by my supervisor - meetings, and the length of time between them, become more of a matter of negotiation, rather than being told “on this day, at this time, be here”. Even deadlines are negotiated! It was strange at first, but it is good to feel that my other commitments and my time are valued! Because we meet far less often (every few weeks), longer term projects require patience and motivation. It can be really hard to drum up the willingness to work when a deadline is weeks away - but when you’re expected to write longer pieces, which look at lots of material in detail, it takes time! Adjusting to this rhythm can be difficult - as well as being difficult to get started, it can be difficult to stop. Like in jobs that are mostly self-directed, it can be hard to know when you’ve done enough, and take time off to recharge.

But there are lots of new things that are also exciting. Being part of an academic community gives you the chance to try out new things, and take control of the things you do. You might find yourself in roles of greater responsibility - being in charge of organising a conference, for example, or helping to get a grad journal printed. You might also get the chance to handle rare material and sources for your work, and be trusted to look after it properly. Going to visit archives and sharing your work at conferences is also challenging, but great fun.

Sometimes people worry that being a postgrad can be a bit solitary, but it doesn’t have to be that way! If you’re thinking about postgraduate study, at Oxford or anywhere else, I’d definitely recommend you give it a go.

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