What No-One Tells You About Doing A Masters: Five Weeks In

As of last Tuesday, I officially became Emer McHugh, B.A. (NUI), and became an alumna of NUIG. I saw my friends, my other half, my family, hugged and waved at numerous people, paraded around in academic robes and struggled to keep my hat on my head. I didn’t realise how much fun a day it would be. And then I hopped on a bus at 1am, flew out to Birmingham at 6.30am, and arrived back in time for class at 1pm that afternoon.

Welcome back to Postgradland.

I have been immersed in Postgradland (or as it is officially known, a Masters degree in Shakespeare and Theatre at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon) for about five weeks now. I’m glad that now I can focus on something that I really do love, and that I can commune with people who share that same love. The novelty of that wears off in the first week, which is not necessarily a bad thing — it’s just second nature for us all to talk about Shakespeare and early modern theatre, and to natter about what we find so interesting about it.

At the same time, nobody prepares you for what a Masters or any form of postgraduate course entails. No-one tells you what to expect. NOBODY. I’m not asking to be spoonfed here, but after talking to fellow new postgrads, I’ve come to the conclusion that the first few weeks of a Masters is the equivalent of wading around in a deep lake that you thought was just a shallow pond. (Poor metaphor, I know.) It wasn’t what we expected it to be, but I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. We just went into it blindly, I think. But there’s a sense that maybe, just maybe, we should have pulled one of our lecturers aside, or someone who has gone through it, anyone, and asked a bunch of questions.

So this is for those of you who are contemplating doing a Masters degree. I’m not trying to put anyone off, but these are just my own observations.

1. It is a lot of work. Biggest ‘duhnoduh’ statement, but it is true. You may have six hours a week, but you do have work to complete for those six hours. If you’re a humanities student like yours truly, most of it will be reading. Which is not a bad thing. But there is generally a much shorter timeframe for you to do that reading. So, to quote one of my English lecturers at NUIG, ‘you’ve really got to like reading’.

2. You may feel that you can’t do the work. But that is OK. What was crucial for me was knowing that others felt the same way. Whether they were in the same course as me, whether they were in the same university, whether they were back home in Ireland or here in the UK. A great piece of advice from one of my best friends was that eventually, you catch up to the pace of what is expected of you. That same person has just received his results from his Masters, and he’ll be graduating from his M.IT very, very soon. I’m very proud of him. He also makes a mean cup of tea.

3. You’re not special anymore. Remember when you were the only kid in your seminar who actually talked and took an interest? Remember being the only one who answered questions in your lectures? And over the years during your undergraduate degree, as you attend classes and accumulate good grades, you have slowly built up a very good reputation for yourself. Well done you, but it turns out that you weren’t the only one. More than likely, your fellow classmates didn’t just sign up for this course out of idleness and are there because of their ability, interest in the subject, and intellect. And yes, you may not feel special anymore, but that’s something you need to get used to. It’s also something you can use to your own advantage too, which leads me onto to my next point.

4. You know what’s the coolest thing about doing a Masters? The people. I know it’s something I keep reiterating again and again, but it is true. Especially if you’re interested in something that is quite specialist, like Shakespeare or the eighteenth century. It’s incredibly nice to be surrounded with folk who want to talk about whether Aaron from Titus Andronicus is more sympathetic than Richard II in the pub, or whether that production you saw at the RSC the night before was better the second time you saw it. The lecturers and seminar leaders are just as eager to talk about such topics too. And for once, you’re not the only would-be academic in the room, and those who don’t want to be academics still care about what they’re studying too. For me, that’s just heartening.

So there you have it. While I’m at it, I should refer you to my dear friend Patrick McCusker’s post on a similar topic (albeit it deals more with studying for a Masters abroad). In general, I recommend his blog The Neverending Blog: Part II. It’s funny, insightful, and quite thought-provoking.

And to conclude, here is a banana kitty.

Happy Hallowe’en!


Women with Aspergers’ syndrome — a strange and wonderful phenomenon

I have Aspergers’ syndrome. I’m perfectly fine, thank you for asking. And please don’t be shocked or offended if I haven’t told you. It’s not the first thing I would usually blurt out to people upon meeting them for the first time (unless I felt that I was behaving really weird that day — now you know, guys). At the same time, however, I don’t think it’s something to be very hush-hush about. It’s not something I can change with a quick trip to the hospital. Then again, it’s not something that I want to drop into every single conversation that I have with every single living being on this planet — who wants to be solely known as ‘the girl with autism’ anyway? It’s a mass of contradictions, I know.

Here is a list of common reactions of friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. when I inform them that I have Aspergers’:

a) ‘Really? Oh, OK’

b) ‘We didn’t know!’

c) ‘I thought you were just quirky’

d) ‘Oh no you don’t, don’t be silly’

Up until recently, women didn’t fit the bill of what is generally considered to be AS (I have problems myself describing it. I guess a good way of breaking down what it actually comprises, or mostly even, is here). I’m not saying that women and girls don’t share all of those characteristics, but they are generally less noticeable than they are in men and boys. For example, those special interests. Some of them are pretty baffling. Luke Jackson talks about his obsession with string and batteries as a child in his book Freaks, Geeks, and Asperger Syndrome — of course, he outgrew that, but all the same, these special interests remain rather specialist. An article in Newsweek put it better than I ever could:

‘… the things most boys get obsessed with are difficult to shrug off as quirky. Imagine, for example, a 7-year-old boy with encyclopedic knowledge of vacuum cleaners or oscillating fans but almost no friends or playmates’ (Said article is here, and well worth a read).

It has only been in recent years that there has been research conducted on women and girls, and so, for a long time, the template for diagnosing AS usually lay in the characteristics manifesting themselves in men and boys. Which can be hardly be helpful. In the case of special interests, in girls they are said to usually extend to cute animals and classic literature. Which I suppose is really no surprise to anyone. But in this climate of Cute Overload, lolcats, and people generally going to college to get a degree and stuff, this is not classified as ‘weird’ — unless you have sat near me while I have rifled through pictures of cute puppies or kittens on Google (and for that, I profusely apologise). Also, there is a book called All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome and I can tell you right now that it is possibly the best book EVER.

alas, to prove my point, I have to include some photographic evidence. OH SWEET JESUS THE CUTENESS. Look at him. Seriously!

In the case of classic literature, I’ve had to read tons of it over the past four years! I guess that it is here that going into academia has its benefits. Getting paid to obsess over that kind of thing, when you consider it, is really a nerd’s dream.

But there’s one thing that I find lacking in anything I read about women with Aspergers’, or indeed in writings about anyone with autism at all. Intervention is a big help, especially at an early age and if it is very, very severe (I can speak from experience), but I don’t think that there is much written about acceptance, or pride — and that’s just as important too (there are exceptions — Temple Grandin has made massive successes for herself). For that, I refer you back to that list from earlier. Have a look at the answer under d). It is possibly the most insulting response that I can think of. Not to get on my soap box or anything, but it just implies that AS is worse than it actually is.  In saying that, I don’t want to dismiss others who may have had problems and of course the problems I myself have had, but if I must sound corny, Aspergers’ has played a part in who I am. If that was taken away from me, I don’t know what person I would be as a result, and to be honest, I don’t want to know. To quote a friend of mine (whose reaction, I guess, falls under the a) category), ‘that’s not a disability’.

I didn’t want this to be an exercise in self-pity. That’s not the way forward. Besides, I can think of one advantage of having Aspergers’ syndrome. Sherlock Holmes is largely disputed to have had it. Ergo, by that logic, I must clearly be Sherlock Holmes.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?