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.