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The Lost Years: Understanding and Tackling Postgraduate Life

Being a postgrad isn’t easy, Anita Slater unpicks the assumptions and difficulties around postgraduate life, considering how students can feel alienated from their own universities.

Anita Slater: Post Grad Hub

Unearthing the depths of pop culture representations of younger generations, you can be fooled into thinking that postgraduate students don’t even exist. One is largely faced with a polarised view of mischievous, energetic types (see Zac Efron in…well anything), or conflicted, dramatically goalless characters (Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). Whilst one would hope this Hollywood overload doesn’t need to extend into reality, unfortunately the postgraduate experience often isn’t one that is given much limelight.

Postgraduate life can be daunting, exciting, frustrating, satisfying. A bundle of emotions boils under any new beginning, and with the advent of postgraduate education, there is no exception. Whilst a masters, PhD or other form of further study may have a continuative quality, in reality students might find themselves in a kind of academic borderland. They fit in somewhere between the category of youthful student and full-fledged graduate, not occupying either of these constructed states entirely.

The University of Warwick makes a significant effort to include its postgraduate demographic, however some issues do fall through the cracks. Campus features two exclusively postgraduate spaces, the Post Grad Hub located near senate house, and the Wolfson Research Exchange which is on the third floor of the library. Whilst these spaces provide comfortable seating, study areas and teaching rooms, they are not designed to be centre stage. Coveted away in campus crevices, they are not very easily marked and don’t provide a huge amount of space. Furthermore, for students studying subjects that are advertised to postgrads and undergrads, many have to be allowed into the postgrad hub. This creates a weird disoriented sense of space, having to be admitted into certain areas reduces the casual style of university life and making it more regimental and unappealing. Whilst one might interject and proclaim that postgraduates can use almost all undergraduate facilities, this then becomes a question of integration.

Some societies have postgraduate representatives, and postgrad events frequent the Facebook calendar. Therefore, it is not so much a question of having more social activities but ensuring that it is easy to integrate with other years, if one wishes too. A postgraduate I queried revealed their key concern, ‘the biggest issue is trying to join in with main campus societies’, because of a ‘full timetable’. In this way initiating integration is preemptively made more difficult as postgrads can’t even try out activities in the first place. When a postgraduate student comes back from a full day’s study or teaching, they may find it difficult to attend evening events, and if events are made during the day, they are unlikely to be able to get the time away. Of course activities cannot cater to everyone, however having some more variety advertised on different forums might encourage more postgrads. Otherwise, a collective postgraduate and undergraduate social environment isn’t even allowed to form.

It’s not only the social facilities that push postgrads back, but the lack of awareness of postgraduate situations. One student urges others to ‘recognise that we have a different set of life experiences’. This is something that is truly overlooked. Once financial support is reduced, and the comfort of organised undergraduate activities and contact hours diminishes, students are left to juggle different academic and personal affairs. The variety of postgraduate life is often dismissed, for example students may have families, greater financial struggles and time constraints, or people depending on them. Pastoral care can be very difficult to find, one student voicing that it needs to be ‘more readily available’. Whilst the university may offer services, if they are not advertised in platforms that students frequent, this then renders them unusable. Many articles and online advice deals with the feelings of hopelessness and confusion that students can feel directly after they complete their undergraduate degree. However, advice on how to manage postgraduate education is scarcer. This lack of available care, whether face to face or online, thrusts postgraduates into a strange sort of academic abyss. They are expected to tackle a myriad of issues like an ‘adult’, yet they remain university subjects, who are dependent on campus resources and care.

Putting this in a wider context, It harks back to the divisiveness of the English education system. From the onset of academic life, students are placed in uniforms, often segregated by gender, and frantically tested to fit each isolated stage of academic life. This isn’t the case in many international contexts, where pupils are encouraged to mix with different years and see school years as indicators not determiners. In Denmark for example, students are less likely to be pushed into following a linear academic trajectory. More time to finish studies and an allowance whilst doing so means that students can pursue critical thinking, build families or explore career prospects in a similar time frame. This allows for greater integration and harmony as the future becomes less stressful and more open, and students expand their social space beyond the campus or university structure. Postgrad spaces aren’t necessarily explicitly carved out because it’s more natural to place interests both inside and outside the university over academic year or course detail. The lack of this natural integration in many English universities stunts the fluidity and ease of student socialisation, making it appear more static, fitted and harder to get into. Whilst no system is ideal, the English education system can be formulaic and competitive, not allowing for irregularities, variety and change.

The knowledge we have of postgraduate experiences is often fragmented, generalised or hidden. Consequently, this can make postgraduate students feel more isolated and disillusioned during a time that should represent new, exciting beginnings. A greater coordination between advertising platforms, societies, care and resources can mean that students are able to engage and contribute to university life. Incorporating these changes can avoid postgraduates being thrown into academic purgatory, stuck between as one student conveyed, the ‘weird bubble’ of Warwick, and a similarly daunting external world.

Anita is a final year Sociology undergraduate and co-editor-in-chief of the Warwick Globalist.

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