Sunday, 9 March 2014


I like lists.  I'm especially reminded of this when I try grocery shopping without one, and end up with a trolley full of impulse buys and forgetting the one thing I actually really needed.

I like them too when I'm studying.  Faced with a large assignment that seems too big, too imposing, too filled with "where do I start?" panic, I write a list.  I break the assignment down into as many small steps as I can, and list them all out:

  1. Re-read chapter in textbook.
  2. Write down main points from chapter.
  3. Work out keywords for library database search.
  4. Search library database for relevant articles.
  5. Download or print out 5 most useful looking articles.
  6. Read first article.
  7. Write notes on first article.
  8. ... and so on.
Suddenly, instead of one huge unmanageable task, I've got lots of little ones that I know I can handle, and the whole thing seems so much easier.  Now all I have to do is work my way through the list one step at a time, and I'll get the job done.

And I can use my list to plan out my time too, working out how long each step will take me and dividing them up between the days I've got until the assignment is due.  So I can be realistic right from the start about how much effort I'll need to put in, and not be tempted into thinking I can start working on a 5,000 word essay the weekend before it's due. 

But my favourite thing about lists?  Crossing stuff off.  There's just something so satisfying about finishing a step and getting to cross it off your list, knowing that part's done and you can move on to the next, seeing the list of things to do gradually shorten as the crossed-off part grows.  When you're tackling the sort of large project where a huge amount of work is needed before you can even start any writing, it's a nice way to see that you're actually making progress.  And for the boring or difficult bits, you can cross them out in your thickest, darkest pen, obliterating them from your life forever - and that's got to feel good!

Do you use lists to help you with your study? How do you cope when faced with a big assignment? Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

A Change of Environment

The new semester started this week, which means I'm back to juggling work and study after my year off.  And I'm feeling very much thrown in the deep end, with already a pile of reading to be done, and a couple of reports to write, and I'm desperately trying to remember how on earth I used to manage to fit all this in around full time work.

Part of the answer of course is about setting up good habits and routines (which I've talked about before).  And I will, over the next few weeks, get myself back into the rhythm of studying and of organising the rest of my life around fitting it in.  And as always, I'll resign myself to having no life until the semester is over.  I'll work it out.

But today, with all that work to be done, and very aware that this was my only free day for uninterrupted study, I just couldn't settle down to it.  I'd made sure the house was clean and tidy (I can't think straight when there's a mess around me), had a quiet and comfortable (but not too comfortable) spot to work in, removed all distractions, and otherwise made everything as conducive to study as possible, but despite all that, for some reason I just couldn't concentrate.  I'd read a sentence or two of a paper and then my mind would start to wander, or I'd suddenly want a glass of water, or to open the window because it was too warm, or to find a jumper to put on because now it was too cold, or to go to the toilet because of all those glasses of water, or... yeah, you get the idea.

So rather than waste my time struggling on unsuccessfully (and with no time to just give up and try again later), I completely changed my environment.  I packed up my books, walked over to a nearby cafe, ordered lunch, and settled back down to my reading.  And spent a very constructive three hours there, during which time I totally broke the back of the work I needed to get done.

Yes, it was noisier there than it would have been at home, but none of it was noise I needed to pay attention to, so it didn't distract me.  And yes, juggling reading material, notes, and my lunch on a small cafe table was a bit more awkward than using the wide expanse of desk I've got at home, but that just meant I had to focus more closely.  Or maybe it was just the fresh air and exercise I got walking over there that helped. Whatever, it worked for me.

Now I'm not saying you should do all your studying in cafes.  I'm not even saying that's where I'm going to be spending much time.  But on this particular day, in that particular mood, that was the right environment for me to be in, not my theoretically perfect study space at home.  And that's worth remembering - that on those days when it's just not clicking for you, sometimes a change of environment is all you need to get yourself back into the right mental space for study.  Give it a try sometime!

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Starting again

I took my first step into returning to study yesterday: I filled in the enrolment forms, and put in my application to have my fees partially waived (a perk of working for the university).

So, all going according to plan, in February next year I'll be taking a course in Linguistic Theory, the second of four papers I need to complete to add (Hons) to the BA at the end of my name.

I'm feeling a bit nervous - after a year away from study, I can't remember how I ever found enough time to keep up with all the reading and writing and thinking needed, all while working full time.  Especially as my job is a lot busier now than it was a year ago, so there won't be the same chances to sneak in a bit of studying during the quiet periods.  Adding to my nervousness is the decision by the Linguistics department to compress their previously full-year courses into single semesters, which presumably means we'll be expected to do as much work as the full-year course, but in half the time.  (Though I suppose on the plus side it means I'll only have to cope with the stress for half as long...)

But despite my worries, I'm really looking forward to the course.  Though the topic sounds a bit dry, I think it will turn out to be one of those courses that you can make as interesting as you want depending on which aspects you choose to focus on, and it's definitely going to be an incredibly useful grounding for the future study I want to do.

Plus, after a year of not having to think too deeply about anything, it's exciting to think about really getting my teeth into a topic again!

So, what are your plans for study for 2014?  Anything exciting coming up?  Let me know in the comments below.

Friday, 13 September 2013

More depressing news for mature students

Back in May I wrote about the cuts to student loan eligibility for older students.  It turns out that doesn't just hurt the students, it's actually hurting everyone.

A report has just come out on research from the University of Otago, showing that medical students who begin their degrees later in life not only make better doctors, but are more likely to remain in New Zealand after they graduate.  So mature students studying medicine hugely benefit the country.  But the student loan system disadvantages precisely those students.

When will this government ever realise that education (for everyone!) is a benefit to the country, not just a cost on a balance sheet somewhere?

Friday, 23 August 2013

Pearl extract and the importance of critical thinking

At the supermarket recently, I was browsing the shampoo aisle and spotted a brand that proudly proclaimed it contained “pearl extract”.  I couldn’t help imagining the conversation that took place when they came up with that idea.

Marketing person rushes excitedly into R&D lab.

Marketing: I’ve worked out what we need for the new shampoo!  People want their hair to be smooth and shiny, right?  And what’s smoother and shinier than a pearl?  Let’s put pearl extract in the shampoo!

Chemist: Pearl extract?  You mean calcium carbonate?  You know that’s pretty much the same thing as chalk, right?

Marketing: No, no, we don’t want to put chalk in the shampoo.  Chalk’s not smooth and shiny.  We need pearl extract.  Just extract the smooth and shininess from the pearls and put that in.

Chemist:  Extract the... But the smoothness of pearls comes from their physical structure, not from the compounds making them up.  It’s like if you asked me to extract the beauty from the Mona Lisa – all you’d get is paint and canvas.

Marketing:  Hmm, Mona Lisa beauty extract... that’s not a bad idea...

Chemist (reaching for the calcium carbonate bottle): Pearl extract it is then!

As well as making me laugh, this imagined scenario reminded me of one of the most important reasons for higher education: to develop critical thinking skills.  I’ve never studied chemistry, so I didn’t know exactly what the major chemical component of pearls was (I checked Wikipedia before writing this), but rather than just thinking “pearls = smooth and shiny” when I saw the label (as I’m sure the marketing person would have liked me to), critical thinking kicked in and I wondered what pearl extract actually meant, and whether it would actually improve the shampoo.  Those few seconds of thought led me to the conclusion that pearls must be made of the same stuff as seashells, and that chalk is made of crushed seashells, so pearl extract probably actually means chalk.  And suddenly that expensive bottle of shampoo didn’t seem much better than the cheaper one sitting beside it.

Ok, so saving a few dollars by seeing through some marketing hype may not be a huge thing, but when you multiply that by all the decisions you make over the course of a lifetime, the ability to see beyond the immediately obvious and think more critically becomes a very valuable thing.  And that is something you’ll acquire from university study, no matter what you’re majoring in (yes, even if you’re majoring in marketing – my imagined scenario above is a long way from reality, where the marketer’s use of the word “pearl” in the branding would have been a very considered and calculated decision).  I’d go so far as to say that critical thinking is the most important skill you’ll acquire from your study – it’s applicable to virtually every area of your life and it’ll never get out of date.

So next time someone asks what you’re studying, tell them “critical thinking”. 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Clubbing together

Yesterday I attended the inaugural meeting of a new club at my university, LingSoc.  Up until now there hasn't been a specific club for Linguistics students, just the generic ArtsSoc, so a few of the students got together and decided to rectify that.

I've never joined any clubs as a mature student - I suppose because my perception was that they were full of 18 year olds and all about the parties.  So I don't know what inspired me to go along to the meeting (probably just because I've been feeling starved of good linguistic discussion recently and missing studying).  But I'm so glad I did.

It turned out my preconceived idea of what student clubs are like was all wrong.  This club at least attracted a wide range of types and ages of students, from first years to postgrads, and I don't think I was even the oldest in the room.  I spotted a few former classmates, so it was easy for even shy me to find someone to talk to.  And the organisers' plans for the club sound great - as well as social events, they want to arrange academic talks, and sessions for prospective postgrads.  But mostly the aim is just to provide a place where we can get together with other students who share our love of linguistics, and talk about the kind of stuff that makes our friends roll their eyes in boredom.

It's all too easy as a mature student to hold yourself separate from the younger students, to think you've got nothing in common.  But you've got a huge something in common with them that you're unlikely have with friends of your own age - a shared interest in the subject you're studying.

So if you haven't joined any student clubs, go along and try one out.  They might have more to offer you than you think.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Feeling inspired

I went to a party on Saturday night.  Not that unusual, but this was a special party - it was to celebrate a colleague's brand new doctorate.  He'd done a few papers as a mature student a few years ago, was inspired, and decided to give up work, apply for a scholarship, and get his PhD.

Only three years later he's achieved his goal, and now proudly wears the title Doctor in front of his name.

I left the party feeling reinspired.  I can't afford right now to give up work and study full time, so it'll take me a bit longer, but I'm determined to keep slogging away one paper at a time and finish this degree, then on to the next one, and maybe one day I'll be the one throwing the party and hearing my friends call me Doctor.

Can't wait! :-)