July update: work, results and thinking about the future

This month has been extremely busy. For the last two and a half weeks I have been working as residential pastoral staff on a summer course in Oxford, which has been hectic and challenging, but has also had its rewarding moments. I have also been trying to sort out various aspects of my life and do some planning for the future, with mixed success, in part because of the long hours I’ve been working. Today, however, makes it exactly three weeks since I last smoked a cigarette, which I think is a very good sign.

Last week, I also received the results of my degree: a 2.i.
After all that stress and worry, it has turned out fine. Not that there weren’t any hitches:
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After my job finishes, which will be on the 22nd July, I will have to spend a bit of time getting ready to move out of my student flat, and then I will be graduating, before heading home to Ireland soon after. For the first time in a while, I am very excited about the future and how my life is going, and I’m very much looking forward to the change of scenery that will come in August when I move to Germany. On that front, I have just one more piece of preliminary paperwork to complete, and need to find a flatshare (Wohngemeinschaft).

5 Reasons studying at university can be harder than most people let on

I have to admit that this title is clickbait. In reality personal experiences can vary absolutely massively, and it would be somewhat silly to generalize. Some people find university relatively easy in comparison with working, and it isn’t the point of this article to denigrate that.

What spurred me to write this was being sick of being lectured by people from the older generation (and sometimes, too, by recent grads) about how easy university is compared with working. I think there are a few factors that play into this: the first, and biggest, is the “rose-tinted glasses” effect. The second is a lack of awareness of how much job requirements and financial situations for university students have changed since e.g. the 70s. The third is a certain obliviousness to the housing crisis facing university students in the UK.

I should disclose, to make clear where I’m coming from, that I have been financially independent for the last five years and have done a variety of types of work (youth work, manual labour, tutoring, admin etc), some paid, some voluntary, some work experience, both in term time and in the breaks. None of this ever seemed to compare to the stress of studying, and since finishing finals, I’ve started to ask myself the question “why?”.

  1. There are no fixed hours

Being a student means there is often no clear boundary between “work” time and “personal” time. Particularly in humanities degrees, there is always more you could be reading, more you could be learning, more work you could be putting into your languages and so on. Classes and tutorials can be rearranged at extremely short notice, deadlines are frequent and short. The effect of this is to make it very difficult as a student to commit to a 9-5 or similar schedule, especially if you try to get involved in societies or volunteering. There is an expectation that you can always be somewhat flexible, which is true to an extent – but can make the experience often very stressful.

2. You spend most of your time alone

This is more true of humanities and arts students than science students, but it is a major factor in creating stress among students. Spending hours in the library reading and writing is doable, but doing it 5/6 days a week can have a strange effect on the mind, and staying engaged for that length of time can sometimes be a struggle. There is very little collaborative work in a humanities degree. This also creates a pressure with respect to assessment: what is being assessed is always work done by you, alone.

3. You are still learning how to look after yourself

Few students come to university knowing how to look after themselves fully. Although university can be useful as a transition period, learning to cook for yourself, do your own laundry, and handle bills, landlords and the other pressures of adult life is a steep learning curve, which I find that many older people have forgotten about. If you have no parents who can give good advice about these matters, the stress is just compounded, which creates additional stress for students from more vulnerable backgrounds.

4. Your disposable income is very low

I have mentioned in another article on this blog that the average rental price for a room in Oxford is about £5,500-£6,500 per annum. This is about 3/4 of the maximum government maintenance loan available to students starting in 2017. Although Oxford university offers generous grants, this is not the case at all universities. As the price of student accommodation goes up and up (with “luxury” student houses aimed at international students and wealthy domestic students proliferating), making ends meet is likely to keep getting harder and harder for students. Cries of “just get a job” can also be heard, but it should be remembered that the death of weekend/Saturday jobs and spread of zero-hour contracts makes it very difficult for students to get work with hours that can be reasonably fitted around a degree.

5. Your future hangs (or seems to) on the result

Although losing a job causes immense stress, generally people do not get another shot at getting a different degree. As more and more recruiters automatically cut off students who do not get at least a 2.i, the pressure to do well is immense, especially for students who want to go into more competitive industries. University is also a crucial time for securing internships, insight days, work experience, and so on, something which in itself has become more difficult due to the spread of unpaid internships.

 

Finishing finals – thoughts a few days on

Since my finals finished on Thursday, I’ve been feeling a lot better recently, less anxious, more optimistic and on the whole less “trapped”. I have been waiting to get out of Oxford for a long time, and now it feels like that time has finally arrived.

The last few days have been extremely busy. On Thursday I met a friend after my last exam for a drink, then crashed while watching the election. On Friday I went to celebrate another friend’s final exam before going to a pub for “one” pint at 6pm. Of course, I got home at 1am and another friend who was supposed to go home to London crashed on my sofa.

Yesterday I went to Eastleigh to visit my brother, sister-in-law and nieces, which was very relaxed. We went for a walk around Westminster which was really nice. I got back at 9pm then headed to a nightclub with another friend, as one of my coursemates was putting on a drum and bass night. Today is the first day I really have to myself, though I am meeting a different friend later.

There is a lot to get done over the next few weeks. Today I’ve started going through my belongings and tried to work out what I need to get rid of before I move out, as well as making a list of jobs that need to be done round the flat before we move out (defrosting the freezer, replacing a bit of grouting, things like that). I also have to sort out our final bills and deposits as I am the head tenant.

In many ways, however, this kind of stuff all seems so trivial compared with the stress of Oxford. I’ve moved so many times – the prospect of having to sort this kind of stuff out doesn’t really affect me any more. On the other hand I sometimes find myself randomly getting anxious, thinking about the possibility of having to do academic work again – and I then I remember it’s over. It’s strange that it’s only now that it’s over that I start to realize how much anxiety my course was causing me.

 

Finals are over!

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My final two exams were on Thursday, the first a history paper in the morning followed by a Greek translation exam in the afternoon.

After the exam I was met by a friend who came to college and “trashed” me (threw glitter on me, and gave me the garland and crown. This is an Oxford tradition for the end of exams).

I had planned to go out an celebrate after the end of my exams, but soon realized that most of the other classicists still had exams, and that my flatmate, who finished yesterday, had absconded to Norway (his home country) until Monday – I found out when he texted me from Gatwick.

I also realized that I was completely exhausted, which is perhaps natural after 4.5 hours of exams. I didn’t even managed to stay up to watch the election results! Though I did manage to go and vote yesterday covered in glitter (and the Lib Dems have ousted the Tories in Oxford West), so I suppose it was worth it.

Right now, I have loads of stuff to sort out, starting with properly tidying my flat, getting in contact with friends I haven’t seen, contacting my brother (who I’m going to see tomorrow), and getting ready for my summer job.

I can’t believe it’s all finally over. The feeling of finally being about to leave Oxford is almost worth having studied here.

Finals Diary, part 10: the End Approaches

This week I sat the two archaeology exams I was due to sit: one on Roman cities and settlements, the other on Roman art.

I had been very worried about the first one, having not done so well in the collection (mock exam) I’d sat at the start of term, just scraping a 60. However, this meant that I put a lot of attention into the material and exam technique, and I felt the real thing went a bit better.

The Roman art exam was a bit of a let down. Unfortunately many of the topics I had revised did not come up and I ended up constructing some fairly generic answers on Roman imperial portraiture and monuments, though the picture questions went well.

However, I am incredibly relieved to have them over me. Since getting those two done I’ve honestly been incredibly relaxed. I’m really looking forward to next Thursday and having the final three exams finished.

I also received confirmation this week that I’ve got the British Council job and that I’ll be working in Rheinland-Pfalz come September, which I am really looking forward to. I took the day off today and spent a bit of time in Waterstones looking through travel guides – I can’t wait.

In general, though, I’m waiting for finals to finish. There will be a lot of practical stuff to sort out at the end of July with moving out and so on, but really that is a trivial stress compared with sitting finals, and I have moved plenty of times before. I’m also planning to go on a trip to Scotland for a few days the week after next which will be a very welcome break. It will also be nice to finally be able to socialize again once all of this is over!

Finals Diary, part 9: Five down, Five to go

I am currently halfway through my finals, having done 5 exams this last week with 5 left to go. I will be finished on the 8th of June, which means there are just 11 days to go!

I started with my exam on the Hellenistic World on Tuesday afternoon. It was a challenging paper and I was very, very nervous about it going into the exam.

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(A picture of me in academic dress which I sent to my friends just before I left to go to the exam room).

The exam itself went well: I think I managed to put something coherent on paper at least and show off what I actually knew, which is the best you can hope for. The other four exams, which consisted of two translation papers and two Roman history papers, went a bit better. I had a much better grasp on the material, the questions were more predictable and in general I was feeling more relaxed and confident having got the first one out of the way. The translation, too, went well. Although I had been worried I hadn’t revised my texts enough, once I got into the exam I found that my Latin was better than I had thought and I was able to understand the passages relatively well.

This coming week I will have two archaeology papers: one on urbanism and the Roman economy, the other on Roman Art. Truth be told, I am a little bit nervous about these ones as the knowledge required is very specific, and the exam technique required is very different than for the history papers. I am going to do some work on them this afternoon and on Tuesday, and hopefully that will be enough to see me through.

Finals Diary, part 8: Calm before the Storm?

My first exam will be on Tuesday.

I am feeling optimistic about it, and also relieved. As far as my countdown stands, it is now only 18 days until my exams will be over. Honestly – I am excited. I can’t wait for it to be over, and to move on from Oxford.

This weekend has been fairly chilled out. I’m trying not to think about the exams themselves, and trying not to think too much about the question of the “result”. I find thinking in terms of the stakes involved is what’s most effective in sending me into a panic, and that isn’t what I need right now.

Today I bought my subfusc and carnations for sitting the exams. For those not familiar with Oxford tradition, this might sound somewhat bewildering. However – and I’m being serious here – it’s obligatory to wear academic dress to sit your university exams in Oxford. For me, this means a white blouse, black skirt or trousers, a ribbon, gown and mortarboard. Carnations are not a compulsory part of the getup, but are common. You wear a white one for the first exam, pink for those in between and a red one for the final exam. As far as I’m able to tell, this is a “tradition” invented in… the 90s, but I suppose it adds to the ritual of the whole thing. I am not sure if I will be able to update this blog midweek as I have will have five exams to sit, but I will update at the weekend with how things are going.

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