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! :-)

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Memory and association

Many years ago I was living in a very small town on the West Coast, a long way from anywhere. To get my fill of city life (read: good bookshops) I’d catch a bus over to Christchurch for a weekend every few weeks. On the way home, the bus driver (and by extension, all his passengers) would listen to the radio for as far out into the countryside as the signal lasted, then would switch to the cassette player (I said it was many years ago!). She always put the same compilation tape on, and because the radio signal always ran out at the same spot, the songs on that tape became strongly associated in my mind with certain spots along the road.

The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” always came on just as we left the plains and started up the first steep incline towards the pass, so when I heard that song on the radio the other day, my mind was immediately transported to that hill. Despite the fact I last caught that bus more than 20 years ago, and it’s probably at least 15 years since I’ve even been in that part of the country, I could remember every detail – the way the road curves, the types of trees that grow alongside, even what the road signs said. If you’d asked me to describe the road in normal circumstances, I’d have had no hope, but because of the strong association from the music, my memories were crystal clear.

Great story, Jen, you might be saying, but what’s your late 80s nostalgia got to do with studying in 2013? Actually, quite a lot. It’s been shown that this kind of sensory association can aid learning in all sorts of situations. By purposefully stimulating one of your senses in a particular way while learning material, your recall of it will be improved by replicating that same stimulation at a later date – in an exam, say. Of course, you can’t play The Bangles in an exam room, but you can set up other sensory associations.

At the simplest level, when you’re studying towards an exam where recalling facts is going to be important, try and replicate some of conditions you’re likely to encounter when in the exam room. So as far as possible, study in silence (sorry, no 80s music). Try and get your comfort levels to match, too - wear the same sort of clothes (including shoes) to study in as you’ll wear on the day, and sit in a chair of a similar type (it doesn’t have to be identical, but don’t study sitting in a comfy armchair if you’ll be on hard plastic seats for the exam). If you’re into essential oils you could even set up olfactory clues (which are often said to be the strongest form of sensory memory jogger) – perhaps a few drops of a particular oil on a handkerchief that you can sniff when the need arises?

Of course, none of this is a substitute for hard work, but it can give your memory a little boost just when you need it most. And let’s face it, when it comes to exams, every little bit helps!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Good habits

After taking such a prolonged break from writing this blog, I find I’ve fallen out of all my good habits around writing.  Even though I’ve had plenty of ideas for topics over the last few weeks, I’ve lacked the discipline to just sit down and start writing them down.  I need to redevelop good habits by setting myself a writing and posting schedule and sticking to it until it’s second nature.

Good habits are important in study, too.  It’s no good getting to exam week and suddenly realising in a panic that you need to start hitting the books – you need to be developing good study habits from the very beginning of term (if not earlier) so that when exam time comes around all you need is a slight stepping up of your usual study schedule.  But how do you develop good habits?

1. Develop one new good habit at a time

It’s tempting when you decide to improve your study habits to try and fix everything at once, but that’s a guarantee of failure.  After a few weeks of initial enthusiasm you’ll find yourself slipping in one area or another, and it’ll be all too easy to give up completely.  So pick just one area you’d like to improve and work on that.  Maybe it’s “I’ll revise and rewrite my lecture notes every evening after class”, or “I’ll read one chapter of the text a week”, or even just “I’ll block out one hour of every day as study time”.  Once that good habit is firmly entrenched, you can start working on another one.  That’s one advantage of being a part-time student, at least – we have a lot of semesters to practice our good habits in!

2. Start early


They say that it takes about 50 repetitions of a behaviour for it to become habitual, so, as there’s only about 13 weeks in a semester, it’s never too early to get your good habits in place.  Even in the first week, when you’re unlikely to have much real studying to do, you can start working on the habits by doing related tasks.  For example, if you’re trying to improve your lecture notes, then after the first lecture, even though it was probably mostly admin and not much actual course content, you could still spend some time making sure you’re clear on all the course requirements, writing due dates into your calendar and planning your reading schedule.

Some habits you might even be able to start during the vacation.  For example, if you want to read a chapter of the text every week, then why not get out a few related books from the library and read a chapter of them each week – you’ll not only get a head start on developing your good habit, but you’ll start the course pre-armed with a bit of knowledge.

3. Be strict but forgiving


Whatever your new habit is, stick to it.  Set yourself a schedule and be rigorous about following it.  If you’re going to read a chapter of your text every week, then decide when you’ll do that – say on Wednesday nights straight after dinner – and force yourself to sit down with your book at that time no matter what the temptation to do something else.  It’ll be tough at first, but as the weeks go on you’ll find yourself just naturally doing it, because that’s what you always do on Wednesday night after dinner.

But while you’re being strict on yourself, do forgive the occasional slip.  If you forget, or some crisis happens that means you can’t keep to your schedule, then don’t beat yourself up, just catch up if you can (maybe read that chapter on Thursday night instead?) and make doubly sure you get back on schedule the next week.  Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of thinking “I missed one week, so I might as well just give up now.”  Forgive yourself, move on, and do better next time.

4. Reward yourself


I find I develop habits best if I give myself an incentive to do so.  If my aim is to spend an hour a day studying, then I’ll keep a track of how many days I’ve managed to stick to my schedule, and when I reach a week I’ll reward myself by going to a movie or reading a book that’s purely for pleasure.  Or if you need something more immediate, how about promising yourself an hour of your favourite TV programme once you’ve finished writing up your lecture notes?  Or a bar of chocolate on the way home from the library?

A less tangible but often just as satisfying reward can just be recording the progress of your habit and watching it grow.  One useful technique is to make a mark on the calendar every night you successfully carry out your new habit.  As the row of ticks (or smiley faces, or whatever symbol you want to use) grows, so does the urge to not break your streak, and to beat your own record for number of days without a break.

Good luck with developing your new good habits!   And I promise I’ll try and make updating my blog more of a habit this semester...

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Not a good budget for mature students

Unfortunately, it looks like my post of a couple of weeks ago was prescient - in the latest budget, the government have announced they are removing student loan eligibility for the over 65s and placing limits on those over 40. (source:  Yet they're investing money into attracting overseas students to come and study in New Zealand.

Yes, I know overseas students bring money into the country while they're here, but then they go back home, and the benefit of their education goes to their home country.  Meanwhile mature students miss out, despite being the very people who, thanks to family and other commitments, are most likely to stay here after they graduate and give New Zealand the benefit of their education.

Apologies for the rant!  And apologies for my recent hiatus - things have been a bit chaotic round here, but hopefully I'll be able to get back to regular posts again soon.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Dollars and Sense

This week on the Non-Traditional Student Blog, Elizabeth Sheppard wrote about the increasing number of mature students in the USA, and how universities there are doing more to support their mature students.
More and more schools are catering to nontraditional students, who are often older and going back to school after a break. I have seen Nontraditional Student clubs, special advising, and more choices in class times in the last five years or so, and I believe this trend will gain traction in the years to come.

Schools are offering more financial aid for older students too.
How different the situation here in New Zealand! The government has cut financial support for older students, and in doing so has sent a clear message to the publically-owned universities that they should be prioritising support for school leavers. At my own university, recent staff cuts have seen the loss of the dedicated adult student advisor who, among other things, ran a mentoring programme for mature students newly returned to study. While some individual departments still offer support for their mature students, you’d never know it from the university’s website – the only link I could find referring to adult student support just took me back to the generic student support page, squarely aimed at the 18-21 bracket.

A quick survey of the other universities shows a similar pattern. A few still offer dedicated support for mature students, but judging from their websites, the majority don’t even know we exist.

And really, who can blame them? In times of reduced budgets, it makes sense to cut support to a minority group (especially one that doesn’t have any special funding attached to it) in favour of providing more support to the majority. The government see more economic benefit in assisting school leavers who’ll have 40-odd years of working life ahead of them once they graduate, compared to a mature student who’s edging closer to retirement age.

But doesn’t that ignore the fact that it’s a rare person these days who hasn’t changed career and retrained multiple times over the course of their working life? Long gone are the days when you could assume your degree would stay relevant to your job forever. So shouldn’t the government be encouraging older people to go back to university and retrain to ensure their remaining years in work are as economically productive as possible?

Unfortunately that logic doesn’t seem to have occurred to the current government. But there’s a slight glimmer of hope from the Opposition. MP for Wigram Dr Megan Woods recently wrote:
Recent changes to the student loan scheme have meant post-graduates are no longer eligible for the student allowance while over 55s were stopped from accessing the student loan in 2011. The post-graduate cuts will likely result in many of our most talented students heading overseas to carry out research. If we lose them, we lose their skills and expertise at the very time we need more qualified people.
 Let’s hope she can convince some of her colleagues of the value of older students!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

What it's all about

This time last year...
I was at graduation this week.  No, not graduating myself, but as a staff member helping out.  It did mean I got to wear my regalia though, which I'm always so proud to do (even though I was surrounded by academic staff in their PhD robes, and I've just got a little BA - I'm still really proud of my efforts in getting that BA!).

I've probably attended well over a dozen graduation ceremonies during my time working at the university, and I still love it.  As a member of the non-academic staff, it's a wonderful reminder of what we're all here for - our work isn't just about paperwork and form filling, it's actually about helping young (and not so young!) people to get an education.  Seeing the students who I've known since they were nervous first years step up on the stage to receive their degrees is an amazing feeling.  So too is seeing the pride on the faces of their families as they watch them.

And of course, as a student myself it gives me a wonderful feeling of anticipation, imagining that in just a few years I'll be attending my own graduation ceremony.  I think back to how I felt the day I graduated with my BA, when I couldn't stop smiling all day because I was just bursting with joy and pride, and another three years of hard work suddenly seems so worth it.  I can't wait!

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Talking to your employer about study

Employment shouldn't be a straightjacket... (ok, I admit it - the real reason for this image is I couldn't find a picture of a juggler)
Unless you're lucky enough to have a wealthy significant other willing to support you, chances are you're going to have to work at least part time while you're studying.  And if you're the main breadwinner for your household, then study might have to come second to full-time work.

That's certainly the case for me, but I've found that juggling part-time study with full-time work is perfectly possible - it just takes (like most things in life) a bit of planning and good communication.  Of course, I have a slight advantage in that I work for a university, so my employer is naturally sympathetic to me wanting to study, and in fact subsidises my fees.  But I still have to face many of the same issues around juggling work and study that I would with any other employer.  And the main thing I've learnt is to keep my employer informed.

If you're thinking of starting study alongside your work, your natural instinct might be to hide that from your employer - after all, what will they think?  Will they think you're looking for a new job?  Will they think you won't be putting as much effort into your work?  Well, yes, that might be exactly what they'll think, which is why it's important to talk to them.  And face it, unless you're going to night school or taking a correspondence course, you're going to need your employer's cooperation sooner or later anyway.

So as soon as you start planning your study, meet with your manager* to talk through your plans, and the potential effect of your study on your work.  Some important points to discuss:

  • Lectures are often held during work hours, so how will you manage that?  If you have a choice of lecture times, discuss with your manager which will fit best around the times you're most needed at work. Could you move your lunch break to match the lecture time, or maybe shift your working day earlier or later by an hour or two?  Can you work late to make up the time you're at lectures?  (Don't forget to factor in travelling time between your workplace and the campus.) Do you have to attend every lecture, or are some available on-line? 
  • Will preparing for exams and assignments distract you from your work? (Be honest!) Can you book annual leave for a day or two leading up to major assessments so that you can use that time to concentrate on study and leave your mind clear for work the rest of the time?
  • How does your course calendar line up against the work calendar?  Will you have any times when big assignments at work coincide with big assignments in class?  Is there any flexibility on either side to avoid that?  Perhaps you could plan to hand in your essay two weeks before the due date to free you up for the busy time at work?  Or perhaps your manager can assign you to the project that'll be happening during the university vacation?  Make sure you show your manager you're willing to be flexible and work with her/him to address problems before they happen.
  • What benefits are there to your employer from your study?  Will you be able to apply any of the skills you're learning to your job?  Think about not just the direct application of your major, but also the secondary skills you learn along the way - for example, the research and writing skills you learn while writing essays will help you write better reports at work, while being around students gives you an insight into the youth market.
  • Most of all, be honest with your manager about your long-term plans and goals.  Are you studying in the hope of getting a better job?  Don't be afraid to let your manager know that, but also to let them know what the time-frame is.  Good employers understand that their employees have ambitions (after all, very few people go into a job hoping to stay in that exact same position for ever - everyone wants to advance one way or another!) and that they'll likely want to move on eventually - their only concern is whether you're planning to leave next week or in ten years.  So let your manager know what you're aiming for, and how long it will take you to get there.  And reassure him/her of your loyalty to the company in the meantime. 
At the end of the semester, meet with your manager again.  Let her/him know how you did in the course, what transferable skills you learnt and how you've applied them to your work, and how you've managed to juggle the competing pressures of work and study.  Then  discuss your plans for next semester, and go through the above points again to make sure s/he's happy with how you'll handle the juggling act this time round.

*Note: this all assumes you have a fair and reasonable manager.  Only you know how your manager is likely to respond, so only you can judge if this is the best approach for you to take.  If you think you'll have problems with your direct manager, it might be better to have the conversation with HR or another manager, or find some other way to negotiate the balance between work and study.

Have you discussed your study with your employer?  Were they supportive?  How have you balanced studying and working?  Let us know in the comments.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Getting to it

She's cute, but she doesn't make for a good study companion
Sorry this post is a little late, but after that lovely lazy long Easter weekend, I just couldn't get myself motivated last week.  So what better topic to write about than motivation?

How do you get yourself motivated to do coursework?  What gets you hitting the books when you'd much rather be hitting the couch?  There's the big picture stuff, of course, the long-term goals and dreams you'll be able to realise when you finally get that degree, but I find they're a bit too vague and distant to really get me inspired when I'm tired and just can't be bothered working.

What works in those situations is different for everyone, of course, but for me I've found three things are key: the time, the place, and a plan.  Once I've got those in place, just getting on with it becomes easy.

First, the time.  I work best with a regular schedule, so I work out a study timetable around my other commitments and try to stick to it.  I also really like to keep my weekends free of study when I can.  So last year I wrote two two-hour study blocks into my diary for straight after work on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.  I knew I didn't normally have anything planned those nights, and that straight after work I'd still be in productive mode so it would be easy for me to switch from work-work to study-work.  After a couple of weeks of always getting into study at the same time on the same days it became my regular routine, so instead of sitting there saying "I really should get on with that essay", I'd just say "Right, Wednesday 5 pm, time to get started."

The key things in finding a study time are to find a regular time that works for you (Are you a morning or an evening person? What regular commitments do you have? When are you least likely to be disrupted?), and then stick to it.  Be realistic about how much time you need to block out.  For me last year I found 4 hours a week was about right (with the occasional extra evening or weekend session when a deadline loomed) - I could almost always get everything done I needed to, while still leaving myself enough free time for home and friends - but, as they say, your mileage may vary.  In other years when I was taking easier lower-level papers I found two hours a week more than enough.  When I was taking a language paper, I needed more like 5 hours.

Next, the place.  To work well, I need to have no distractions around me.  So I always spend the first 5 minutes of my study time cleaning my desk and arranging the books and papers I need.  I find that physical clearing of the decks also works as a mental clearing of the decks - once my desk is ready to work, so am I.  It also helps to get rid of distractions of the human kind - much as you love your family, you might find it easier to work when they're out the way, so designate a room as your "office" (even if it's just a temporary designation for a room that has another name like "kitchen" or "bedroom" for the rest of the week) and ban everyone else from it while you're working. Or take yourself out of the house and work at the library or in a cafe - anywhere you can get a good uninterrupted couple of hours.

The other thing I find helps make a location good for study is the associations I have with it.  My favourite place to study is actually my office at work (I'm lucky enough to have building access outside office hours), because not only is it quiet and distraction free in the evenings, but it's a place I associate only with working, so when I'm in there my mental state is immediately productive.  If I sit in my lounge at home, on the other hand, I'm tempted by the TV and the books and the cats and getting a snack from the kitchen.  And if I'm actually so foolish as to sit on the sofa, all is lost - I'll end up falling asleep with a cat on my lap.

The last key to my motivation is a plan.  I like lists, and especially lists I can tick items off of, so the first thing I do when I get an assignment is to break it down into tasks and subtasks.  For example, writing an essay might be broken down into four main tasks: finding sources, reading, planning, drafting, and polishing. Each of those is then broken down further - for example, planning might break down into decide main thesis statement, list supporting arguments, structure sequence of arguments.  Once I've got my list of tasks, I work out roughly how long each task will take me (adding in a little wiggle room for unforeseen problems), how long I've got until the assignment is due, and divide up the tasks accordingly, so that I've got a complete to-do list that tells me what I need to have achieved by the end of each study session to stay on track.

Of course, I'll keep updating and changing my plan as I go along, according to how the work is going.  I might find more useful sources than I expected, so need to add in extra reading time.  Or I might have a particularly productive night and be able to start on some of next week's tasks early.  But having a plan in place means that as soon as I sit down I know exactly what I need to get done and can get on with it, without having to try and remember where I'm up to or what I'd been thinking about.

So that's my technique for motivation.  I have a regular time I always study, a place that's conducive to working, and a plan so that I know what I need to be doing.  That removes any excuse I have not to just get on with it, so that's what I do.

And if all else fails, there's bribery.  I keep a bar of really good chocolate in my desk, and promise myself a piece once I finish a significant task - reading a research paper, writing an essay draft, digging up x number of good references.  Of course, you have to have enough willpower to keep yourself to the original terms of the deal - no suddenly deciding you're allowed chocolate after every page :-)

What motivational tricks work for you?  Are you able to find time and space in your life to optimise your work habits?  Let us know in the comments.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Old is good

Insert your favourite wine/aging metaphor here
Last week I wrote about how old I sometimes feel being around all those young students.  But being (or feeling) old isn't necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it often offers a distinct advantage.

For a start, age means more life experience.  I've done more than my fellow students, seen more, read more, talked to more people from a wider range of backgrounds - and all that adds up to knowing more about the world.  Which, in the Arts at least, is a big advantage.  I've been to other countries, worked in different industries, I've even been around for some of the stuff they've only heard about from their History papers.  Experience is gold.

I also know a lot more about myself.  Through long experience I've learnt how I learn best.  I know which studying techniques work for me and which don't.  I know what time of day I'm most productive, and when I'm better doing something non-academic.  I know what proportion of study to relaxation prepares me best for an exam.  And I know how much lead time to give myself for projects.  Those are all things I certainly didn't have figured out at 18 (my grades from back then are evidence of that!).  It's taken years of learning about myself and how I respond to many different working and learning environments to find out what makes my brain tick.  So now I can make the best possible use of the time I've got available for study.

And talking of time available for study, I'm a lot more in control of my own time than I was at 18.  The 40-something year old me doesn't have to go to parties just because all my friends are going - not only am I adult enough to know when study needs to take priority over fun, but my friends are adult enough to know why I'm making that choice.  The 40-something year old me also doesn't feel the need to stay out all night drinking when I do go out (actually, I didn't do that when I was 18 either - I was much too boringly goody-good.  But the peer pressure to do so was certainly there).  Yes, I do have work to go to, and a mortgage to pay, but I've had a lot of practice at doing those things, so they're not a huge burden.  And on the plus side, those things give me a comfortable home to live in, instead of freezing in a dingy student flat.  Life is definitely easier now than it was back then.

And of course the other big advantage of being older is that I'm in the same age group as most of my lecturers.  Which means I'm way less intimidated by them than I was at 18.  So I'm much more comfortable about speaking up in class, about going to office hours to ask for help, and generally about making the most of my opportunities.

So, mature students, celebrate your age and the advantages it give you.  You may never be 18 again, but really, who'd want to be?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Feeling old

A dusty old troll
Some days "mature student" feels very much like "old".  Like on Friday.  I was sitting outside in the sun eating my lunch, and listening to a group of students nearby having one of those debates that seem so deep and meaningful when you're 19, when you think you're coming up with ideas and arguments that nobody else has ever thought of.  And listening to them argue, all I could think was that I'd taken part in almost exactly the same discussion myself when I was their age - and it solved nothing then, either. 

That's the danger of spending so much time around students.  It's very easy to end up feeling old and jaded. Sometimes I catch myself on the verge of going into crotchety old woman mode, about to start the "you youngsters have it so easy" speech when I hear a particularly naive comment.

Like the time in a sociolinguistics class a few years back when we were discussing sexist language, and one of the young female students said she didn't see what the big deal was, because men and women are equal now, aren't they?  My 1980s feminist blood boiled, but I managed to restrain myself from a full-blown rant (well, mostly ;-) ).  It actually turned into an interesting class, with the tutor (who was about my age) and I sharing examples of sexism we'd experienced, but it made me feel so old knowing that so much of what we talked about happened in a time before my classmates were even born.

But being a mature student doesn't have to make you feel old.  There are plenty of times when being around so many young people makes me feel just as young as them.  Their enthusiasm and freshness can be infectious, and their readiness to grasp new ideas inspiring.  It can even be fun sometimes to re-enter those age-old debates about politics, religion, sex, and the meaning of life, and be once again among people who honestly believe their ideas could change the world.  Who knows, maybe they can...

Does being around students make you feel old, or young? Any tips for keeping yourself feeling young? Let us know in the comments.

Monday, 18 March 2013


Autumn, when a mature student's thoughts turn to learning
I've been feeling a bit down about having had to drop out for the year.  A lot of it is because there's been a very distinguished academic visiting the linguistics department this month, and I was invited (by the lecturer from the course I took last year, who has been hosting him) to sit in on the guest lectures he gave to this year's honours class.  The discussion in that class, and being able to talk linguistics with someone of that calibre, was so exciting that it's reminded me of how much I love studying.

But the visiting academic has gone home now, back to his prestigious US university, so my brief foray back into academia is over again, and I'm feeling a bit sad, and realising just how much I'm going to miss it (it didn't help either that when I filled in the census forms the other day, for the first time in many many years I had to tick the "no" box to the question "are you currently enrolled in formal education").

I think though that I did make the right decision in dropping the paper.  Life is still kind of messy, and even though I loved sitting in on those lectures for the last couple of weeks, just keeping up with the reading for them was a real struggle - if I was having to also do all the data collection and writing response papers that the real students were doing alongside the reading, there's no way I'd have coped.  And with the end of term looming up in a couple of weeks, and the first assessments starting to come due, I'd have been seriously stressed by now.

In other words, my head knows I made the right decision to put study on hold for a year, but my heart isn't entirely convinced.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Pobody's Nerfect

No, my tutor didn't really say that, but my brain did

Friday was International Women's Day, and that got me thinking about the Superwoman phenomenon, and the pressure we often put ourselves under to be perfect in all spheres of our lives.

I find that an especial problem with studying.  I'm reasonably intelligent, so I know I'm capable of getting good marks if I try hard enough, which means I put an intense amount of pressure on myself to always achieve the highest possible grades no matter what.  Sometimes that can be a good thing (it's a great antidote to my natural instinct to laziness), but it's easy to take it too far; like feeling like I'd failed when I 'only' got an A- for a course - that's not ambition, that's craziness.

The reality is, it's impossible to achieve perfection in any area, and particularly not in education, where, if you think about it, the whole point is that you're not perfect - that's why you're there.  In fact, in a well-designed course, the assessment forms part of the teaching and learning process - you write a good essay, the marker points out where it's not perfect, and from those errors you learn how to write an even better one.  In fact (unless you're purely being tested on memorising a bunch of facts) it should be almost impossible to score 100% on an assessment, because if you did, that would imply you had nothing left to learn, so what more can university offer you?

 And then there's the question of return on investment.  To raise your grades from a C to a B isn't all that hard - it's usually the difference between using Google as your primary research tool and actually visiting the library.  Getting from a B to an A is a bit harder - you need to really put in the hours to make sure you've truly understood the topic, and then you need to be able to express your ideas about the topic clearly and logically.  And that final step from an A to an A+ (or from A+ to top of the class) is really tough.  That's when you need to show something special - that you've read outside the set readings, that you've understood the topic enough to add your own ideas, and that you've really polished your writing.  Not that you shouldn't be trying to do those things, of course - that's all part of getting the most you can out of your study - but there has to come a point where the amount of extra work needed becomes utterly disproportionate to the tiny increase in marks it will gain you.  And you'll never reach that elusive goal of perfection anyway - the marker will still find something you could improve on, because that's their job.

Which is not to say you should settle for a C (or a B, or an A) just because it's easier (no matter what the "C's earn degrees" types tell you).  Strive for excellence, yes.  But don't worry about being perfect.  If you aim for perfection, you're not only guaranteeing yourself disappointment, but you're going to put yourself under a lot of unnecessary stress in the process.  As Deb Lee of says,
Be excellent, not perfect. Reaching for perfection will make it more difficult to remain stress-free. The notion of perfection is just that — a lofty idea, one that is impossible to attain. Trying to achieve perfection takes a lot of mental energy, wastes your time, and leaves you feeling unsatisfied. Excellence, however, can be achieved by anyone. Have a plan ready, strive to do your best, and put those notions of perfection aside.
Not only is perfectionism bad for your health, it can actually lead to poorer results.  Bill Knaus on Psychology Today discusses the way that perfectionism can easily turn into procrastination:
Perfectionism is a risk factor for performance anxiety and procrastination.  You expect a great performance. You have doubts whether you can achieve perfection. You have an urge to diverge and do something less threatening.  You wait until you can be perfect.
So because you know your essay won't be perfect, you keep putting off starting to write it until you've done a bit more research, until you find yourself the night before it's due with an enormous pile of research notes but not a word of the actual essay written, and you end up handing in a rushed first draft, or worse, missing the deadline completely.  Voltaire had it right, "The best is the enemy of good."

That's why I was interested to stumble across the Good Enough Woman's blog.  She is consciously trying to replace the urge to be perfect with the more reasonable aim of being good enough.  This post explains her philosophy in a little more detail.  It's a fascinating idea, but I can also see the pitfalls.  On the one hand, "good enough", to me anyway, brings to mind someone excusing a shoddy job (or is that just a reflection of my antipodean culture, where "that'll do" and "she'll be right" often substitute for quality?).  And on the other hand, for a perfectionist, will anything ever be good enough? The Good Enough Woman acknowledges that
...many of us never feel as if we get over the good enough bar. Is that because we're truly not good enough? Or is that because other people have confused being good enough with being perfect?
I can easily convince myself that perfectionism is reasonable behaviour - after all, I want to keep my GPA high enough to qualify for a scholarship if I go on to postgrad, so "good enough" for me starts looking pretty similar to perfection.

So what's the solution?  I'm not sure.  I suspect, though, that it's like a lot of things: just knowing it's a problem is the beginnings of a solution.  By being aware of my tendency to perfectionism I can watch out for it, and when I find myself wanting to just do that little bit more, remember to ask myself if that extra effort will actually pay off, or will it just add stress without adding extra value.

Are you a perfectionist?  How do you find a balance between aiming for excellence and overdoing it?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Drop out

I couldn't come up with a suitable image for this post, so here's a generically pretty one instead.
So, as you might have guessed, last week's post on dealing with crisis was inspired by a crisis happening in my own life at the time.  I did write the post mainly with the thought of passing on some of the "insider" knowledge I've gained from working for the university, but in writing it I realised that in dealing with my own crisis I wasn't actually following my own advice.  And when I started thinking about what I was facing this year, and how much stress life events are causing me right now, I realised that if a student came and saw me and told me a similar story, what I'd tell her is very different to what I was telling myself.

So, to cut a long story short, after a lot of internal debate, and a lot of talking to colleagues and other students, I finally decided earlier this week to drop out from the course I'm taking.  I just haven't got the energy right now to deal with life and put in the effort the course deserves, and even if I am feeling more up to it in a month or so, I'll have missed so much of the course it would be too hard to catch up.  Not an easy decision to make, because I was actually really enjoying the paper for the short time I had before disaster struck, and even harder because it's a year-long course, so I won't be able to pick it up again until next February.  But I do think it's the right decision.

So what does that mean for this blog?  I don't want to stop writing it just when I'm getting into my stride, but if I'm not actively studying it's going to be a lot harder to find topics to write on.  For now at least I'm planning to keep the blog going - I've got a few potential topics up my sleeve, and I'll still be working at the university even if I'm not studying, so I'll be around students enough that I should find some inspiration.  Who knows how long I'll be able to keep it up until I run out of material, but we'll cross that bridge when it comes.

For now, enjoy your own study, and do let me know if there's any topics you'd like me to cover.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Dealing with crisis

Who knows what's drifting towards you on the river of life?
A degree takes a long time.  Even for full-time students, it takes three or four years, and if you're part time, it could be more than 10.  And that's a lot of time in which life can happen to you.  So there's a very strong chance that at some point in your academic career you're going to hit a life crisis that interferes with your study (for myself, I've had a nephew in intensive care, death of a step-parent, natural disaster, and a relationship breakup, just to name the biggest things).  And of course as mature students we have many more responsibilities than our 18-year-old classmates - we can't just go home to mum and dad if it all goes horribly wrong.

It's a good idea then to know what to do when the big life stuff gets in the way.  Being both a student and on university staff, I've seen disaster from both sides, so hopefully I can give you some useful advice on how to handle it.

  1. Communicate.  This is the most important thing.  If there's any problems in your life that could affect your study, let your teachers know straight away.  Even if you don't have any assessment due immediately, it's still a good idea to talk to them as soon as things go wrong - you never know how long the effects of a crisis will last for, so when you go to them in a month's time to ask for an extension on your essay because you still aren't sleeping, it helps if they already know the background.  As well as the obvious things like granting extensions, your teachers will be able to help you plan how to manage your study around the problems, and point you towards other help (like counsellors) if you need it.  Which brings us to...
  2. Get help.  Find out what assistance the university can give you, and make use of it.  At my university, for example, there's a Student Health Centre that provides low cost medical and counselling care, there's Student Advisers who can help you plan your study, there's a Disabilities Service for help dealing with long-term disabilities, and the Student Union who can help with a whole range of issues, from budget advice and emergency funds to dealing with difficult landlords.  A lot of this stuff may not be widely advertised, so make sure you ask what's available.  If your department has a secretary or administrator that's often a good place to start.
  3. Get information.  Find out what your department's policy is on extensions and make-up tests, and check whether your lecturer follows these (they don't always!).  Check your university's regulations around aegrotats or special considerations - what percentage of your coursework can you apply for consideration on, when does the application have to be in, what documentation needs to accompany it (medical certificate, death notice, police statement...).  Find out also what the deadlines are for dropping a course without it affecting your GPA, and what the regulations are around fee refunds.
  4. Do what you can.  Turn up for the test and make your best effort, even if you know you haven't studied as much as you should have.  Hand in the essay, even though it's not perfect.  When the department is assessing an aegrotat or special consideration application, the more evidence they have of the work you could have done the better.  Faced with a half-written essay that starts as an A but peters out to a C, they'll at least have evidence that you are capable of producing A work when life is normal.  Faced with nothing handed in at all, they have to rely on work you did in other papers - and if your crisis affects those as well, there might not be enough evidence to grant you a pass.
  5. Look after yourself.  Take breaks, give yourself treats, and most of all give yourself the mental space to deal with your crisis.  Eating well and getting plenty of sleep and exercise is important anyway, and even more so when you've got a lot on your plate, so try not to fall into the temptation of living on junk food and a few hours sleep.  If throwing yourself into your study helps you feel better, then by all means do so, but keep an eye on your stress levels and make sure you don't burn out.  No matter how important getting this degree is, keeping your health is more so.  Which leads to...
  6. Be realistic.  If your crisis turns into a longer-term problem, you might need to take a break from study for a while.  Look at your schedule for the year and assess whether you'll really have the time and energy to devote to study.  In making your decision, think about what taking a semester or year off will cost you - things like non-refundable fees, potential lost income if you're taking a course to improve your employment prospects, losing momentum on your study (it's hard to catch up when you've been away from study for a while), missed opportunities.  But also think about what effect not taking a break might have: stress leading to health problems, a lower GPA because you couldn't keep up with the work, not being able to fully concentrate on sorting out your life.  In the end only you can decide which of these factors will weigh heaviest for you, but remember that taking time off isn't the end of the line for your study - as a mature student you've already come back to school once, so you can do it again.
 And even before crisis hits, there's a few things you can be doing right now:
  1. Be organised. Know when all your assessments are due, and get started on them as early as possible so that a last-minute problem won't be as big a deal.  Going to your lecturer a week before the big assignment's due and saying you need an extension because your husband just got laid off is going to go a lot better if you can show them what work you've already done and that you've got a plan for the rest of the work, than if you admit you haven't actually started the reading yet, and were relying on pulling an all-nighter the night before the due date to get it finished.  And if you can't be organised...
  2. Don't cry wolf.  Even if you're in a class of three hundred students, your teachers will rapidly get to know who you are if you're constantly inventing crises.  'My dog died' is not a reason to ask for an aegrotat.  'My house was burgled' is.  In my experience, teachers are always sympathetic to genuine problems, but if they sense that you're just making up excuses to cover for your own lack of organisation, they'll rapidly lose sympathy, and won't respond as well when you've got a genuine problem.  And needless to say, never lie.  University staff all talk to each other, and keep records of discussions with students, so whatever you've told one teacher or administrator will soon be passed on to others (which is not to say they'll gossip about you, but rather that anything that may affect your study will be shared with any staff who deal closely with you, so that they can all give you the best possible support), and any dishonesty will be quickly spotted. 

Do you have any advice to add?  What support is available at your university?  Have you ever had a crisis that affected your study?  How did you cope?  Let us know in the comments below.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

First Day Nerves

If only the first day were still this easy
What with primary school, high school, and two shots at university, I reckon I must have experienced at least 27 first days of school.  You think I'd be used to it by now.  Yet still, when I contemplate the start of term tomorrow (and, more importantly, my first lecture on Tuesday), I can feel my anxiety building, taking me back to those scary first days at school, when you'd be going into a new class, with a new teacher, not sure what it would be like, or if any of your friends would still be in your class.

It's a bit different now, of course.  For one thing, I know none of my classmates from last year will be joining me in this class - they were all full-time students, so will have graduated and moved on to work or higher degrees.  But a lot of the causes for first-day nerves are still the same (right down to having a new teacher - I've never taken a paper with this particular lecturer before): Will I understand the work? Will it be hard?  What if I've forgotten everything over the holidays? Will the other kids like me?

And then there's the fears particular to part-time study: Will I be able to juggle work and study without either suffering, and without dissolving into a giant puddle of stress?  Will my friends give up on me when they don't hear from me for months on end?  And the really big one: will I start off far behind the other students?  They'll all have been third years last year, so it'll have only been a few months since they took the sociolinguistics paper that this course builds on.  And they probably took it with this lecturer.  I took it way back in 2007, when it was taught by someone else and had a completely different focus.  What if there's stuff I should know that she didn't cover?  What if the field has moved on in the intervening years? What if I've just forgotten everything I ever knew about sociolinguistics anyway?

Of course, I know that in reality I'll be fine.  I'll start off slightly on the back foot, but a bit of hard work will soon have me caught up with the others and then I'll be able to settle in and enjoy the course.  And just like every year, I'll find a way to balance my responsibilities, see just enough of my friends, and stay sane.  But whether you're 5 or 45, the first day of school is still a bit scary!

How do you feel about first days?  Does fear or excitement dominate?  Let me know in the comments.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Counting down

Really, I just want an excuse to buy a book
Just over a week to go until term starts, and I've finally completed my enrolment.  It took a lot longer than usual, partly because I couldn't make up my mind which course I wanted to take, and partly because I'd applied for a fee waiver (because I work at the university) and the manager who could approve it was away on leave.  But I finally made a decision (I'm taking a paper on sociolinguistics which looks like it will have some interesting intersections with the area of linguistics which I'm really interested in, syntax), and my fee waiver was approved (yay!), so now I'm officially enrolled and can get properly excited about the year to come.

I love this time before a course starts, when it's all anticipation.  I read the course outline obsessively, fill in all the lecture times in my diary, and try to get as much pre-reading done as I can so I'm all ready for the first lecture (one of the great advantages of studying in the 21st century is online course materials - no more having to wait until the first lecture to collect a reading packet).  I'm feeling a bit cheated though - there's no textbook for this course, so I miss out on one of the great joys of starting a new paper: bringing a brand new book home from the bookshop and browsing it in anticipation of what's to come.

Maybe I'm just weird, but I always find it so exciting to browse through a textbook that's full of completely incomprehensible material, knowing that in just a few months it will all make sense to me, and that the horizons of my knowledge will have been expanded yet again.  It's all so mysterious when you first dip into it, full of new ideas expressed in a language you haven't quite grasped yet (I'm sure that at least 50% of understanding any subject is just learning the jargon), and you're about to be guided through that maze and come out the other side knowing so much more.  Why wouldn't that be exciting?

But no textbook this year, just lots of journal articles to read.  Oh well, maybe I'll make an excuse to visit the bookshop anyway (I'm sure I must need some new stationery), just to breathe in the atmosphere of pure knowledge just waiting to be explored.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The Summer Peril

Danger lurks among the daisies
This is a dangerous time of year for me.  The long summer vacation stretches on, a couple of months have passed since the panic of submitting my final assignment and still weeks to go until classes start for the new semester.  Work is easy, there's no need to squeeze study time into my spare moments, I even have time and energy to return to hobbies long abandoned.  I begin to forget what juggling work and study is like.

And that's when it strikes - the urge to take on more.  It's when volunteering to serve on a committee seems perfectly manageable, when offering to take on another big project at work seems like a good idea.  I think about starting a new hobby, or maybe an evening class.  I speculate about travelling.  I say yes when people ask for my help.  Yesterday I even caught myself reading with interest a poster seeking volunteers to work with the Samaritans.

Every year it's the same.  I forget that in a month or two I'll be drowning under the weight of work and study, and that every extra responsibility I take on now will just drag me further under.  They say that women must be biologically programmed to forget the pain of childbirth, otherwise nobody would want to have more than one child.  Sometimes I think my amnesia somehow got miswired into forgetting the pain of writing essays.

Each year as I struggle towards the end of semester I vow that never again will I take on too much.  Next year I'll limit my responsibilities.  I won't volunteer for anything.  I'll turn down interesting opportunities.  I'll just stick to the basics of work and study.  And then summer comes, and the pressure eases off, and I forget.

But not this year!  I'm sticking to my resolution.  I've only taken on one major new responsibility at work, and picked up a new hobby, and agreed to serve on a couple of committees, and ... oh yeah, and started writing a blog.  Summer strikes again.

Is the quiet of summer a danger for you?  How do you handle it?  Let me know in the comments.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Introducing... me

Yep, this is the closest you'll get to a photo of me
My academic career started in the normal way.  Straight from high school to university, with vague ambitions of doing "something sciencey".  Eventually, after floating around a few disciplines, my major solidified into Maths, and I graduated after the standard three years of a full-time student with a very average Bachelor of Science degree.

The next decade was pretty typical for a New Zealander of my generation.  A few years working, then a "Big OE", off to Europe to travel and work in a range of jobs successively further removed from my degree.  Finally at the end of 1999 I ended up back in New Zealand with an administrative job in a university.  And that's where things started getting interesting.

On my first day, while showing me around, my boss mentioned one of the perks of the job,  "By the way, if you're interested in studying anything while you're here, the university will support you."  That support turned out to mean my fees would be waived on up to two papers a year, provided I made up any work time I missed while attending lectures.

I jumped at the chance, and in the first semester of 2000 I officially became a part-time mature student.  I'd been away from study for long enough that the thought of carrying on with Maths at a higher level was way too intimidating.  And anyway, I was only doing this for fun, so I thought I'd just take a couple of Arts papers that sounded interesting.  Which of course led on to other papers that sounded interesting, and before I knew it, it was 2011 and I was graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics, with minors in Spanish and Psychology.

And by then I was totally hooked.  So last year I took the next step, and enrolled in Honours (at my university the BA(Hons) degree is a separate degree from the BA, intended as a stepping stone between undergraduate and postgraduate study).  Normally it's a one year course - I'm going to take four, doing one paper a year.  And then... and then I have big dreams.  A Masters degree?  Perhaps even a PhD?  Who knows where this could take me?

Except, of course, that at the current rate, I should graduate with my PhD right around the time I'm ready to retire...

[Photograph courtesy of my sister-in-law.]

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Over the Academic Hill?

Old school notetaking
Hi, I'm Jen.  I'm forty-something, work full time, and I'm a student.  A mature student.

There are a lot of us out there.  There's usually one of us in every class - the older man or woman sitting near the front, scribbling notes industriously and always first to contribute in class discussions, but not hanging round to socialise afterwards (we have to race back to work or kids, and anyway, we always feel a bit out of place among the oh so young 18 year olds).  Whether we've returned to university to gain skills for a new career, or just to pursue an interest in retirement, we're determined to get the most out of our second chance.  But we also sometimes feel like outsiders, barely tolerated by the other students (we make them look bad by working so hard) and by the system (full-time students straight out of high school are so much easier for the computer to cope with). 

So that's kind of why I decided to start this blog.  A place for me to express the frustrations and joys of returning to study, and perhaps help others starting down the same track.  And I dream (for what blogger doesn't dream of a huge readership?) of building a community, a place where mature students can share and discuss our experiences and know that we're not alone.