Editor’s Note: In November 2013, I completed my M.A. in International Relations and World Order from the University of Leicester. I had completed the research degree over two years in my ‘spare time,’ trying to read and write where I could. The degree could be completed entirely by distance learning, though I visited campus and met with my adviser in 2012–it helped to reinforce some of the thoughts I had while locked away in solitary study. I was asked to write some thoughts for future students about the challenges of distance learning, and I thought they might be worth posting to my website as well.
It’s valuable to admit to oneself that earning a post-graduate degree, especially by distance learning, can be an exhausting, rewarding trial. Once that admission is internalized, one can form a strategy to making it to graduation. I knew earning a Master’s would be difficult, but I didn’t really know what that meant until the course began.
I was a correspondent in politics and national affairs for World Radio Switzerland at the time, an English-language public broadcaster, which already limited my time for my wife and child. Other alumni have pointed out that a distance-learner must be a little “selfish” with time to read, internalize, and write material by the assigned deadlines. That selfishness manifests itself in early-morning or late-night hours locked away from one’s family. This is an easier sacrifice to make when the decision to complete a Master’s is a family one: my wife agreed that this was a career and personal endeavour worth undertaking for all our sakes. Though there are tutors, advisers, and classmates on the other side of Blackboard (a virtual learning environment, forum, and library portal), it is good to have a flesh-and-blood confidant with whom to share ideas, or just a cup of coffee in between study sessions. It breaks the isolation to share your ideas, so I advise you to do it.
Finding a study rhythm is vital to making it through the coursework. When I first began, I saw a list of “recommended reading” seemingly pages long, and I tried to download them all before realizing it would be impossible and impractical to do that. I would download a fair sampling in PDF form to my e-reader, and then go hunting through the library database for other relevant materials for my essay. The e-reader allowed me to have my reading materials with me at all times, and I could easily highlight important passages for later reference. Much of my reading was done at my lunch hours and just before bed, though this wasn’t often enough—at the end of nearly every semester I was left sequestered in a room for a weekend to read just one more journal article, or polish my essay one more time. My work style was probably too frenetic for most, but it worked for me. Identify your style, and make it as efficient as possible. It is unrealistic to think that one can study all the time, or concentrate on one’s essay or dissertation topic without end. But it does take certain studiousness to recognize that too many “lost spare moments” will result in “too few productive study moments.” My reading was done, then, in the down times of life: more of my guitar playing was replaced by reading; more outings were replaced by reading; more lunch hours and voluntary meetings were replaced by reading.
I am fortunate to have been able to immediately and directly apply my studies to my job. As I reported from revolutionary Cairo, I could draw on the essay I had just written about the changes to Western hegemony brought on by religious extremists. When I went to Davos to cover the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, I could draw on studies of world labour movements, refugee crises, and the importance or neglect of human rights in international political discourse. To this end, perhaps I was better able to integrate the work- and study-lives into one another. But as I said before, studying also bled into personal time, and it became a unique and clear character in all aspects of my life until the dissertation was submitted.
P.S. Try to read for your dissertation early! I was so busy with work, a new baby, and a transatlantic move, that I was left in the last three months (the writing stage) trying to read dozens of articles before writing the dissertation. It was stressful, and the dissertation became my full-time job. Fortunately at that time, I could afford to concentrate on the coursework fully.
Good luck to you! Your classmates are experiencing difficulties and triumphs in their own ways, but you are also sharing the journey in a way. It is important to remember that while the work is your own, you are not alone in getting to the finish line.