When I finished my undergraduate degree five years ago, I was brimming with ideas and eager to start my working life. I even remember thinking to myself ‘I won’t be going back to full-time studying anytime soon’. In fact, I was enjoying my work in a consultancy so much (and actively making money for myself) that the thought of pursuing a Master’s was postponed in my mind.
However, after three years on the job, I started seeing my inadequacies and felt like my capabilities were plateauing. I could see so many more opportunities in the job but I couldn’t keep up. I needed something – something to stimulate my mind and challenge my understanding, something to allow me the time to reconsider my aspirations, something that allowed me space for failure and repeated attempts. I knew something wasn’t quite right. Yet, my bosses were still very happy with my performance. In a way, that frustrated me immensely, as I felt I needed to improve. The thought that I needed to do something else lingered. That’s when the realisation struck me… ‘I’m now ready for my Master’s degree’.
Despite that realisation, I still had insecurities. For one, I wasn’t sure what I would go back to studying and where to pursue my studies. All I knew was that I was interested in something to do with landscape ecology but my work needed me to gain more skills in economics. A quick skim of postgraduate course fees online also gave me a wake-up call about funding, as spending on a Master’s degree would mean I would kiss that long vacation and down-payment for my first home goodbye. Moreover, I had been supporting myself with my income for several years by then and it was hard to let go of that independence. The social life I had built up where I was would also change, especially if I pursued my studies overseas. And as I took a break from work, new graduates would be joining the company and taking over my roles and work experiences. Being a mature student, I felt that the stakes were higher for me.
My insecurities began to melt away when I finally read through the prospectus of Cranfield University some six months later. It feels almost fated how Cranfield came to me (by being the top search result when I keyed in ‘Landscape Ecology’ in Google). After taking time to read through the prospectus, I came to like the multi-disciplinary and practical approach that Cranfield took towards learning and education. The links and active research work with industry players were a further plus point, since I wasn’t looking for a purely academic experience. My mind was made up when I found that Cranfield offered a course in Economics for Natural Resource and Environmental Management. It was definitely the match that I needed – the ‘prize’ that tempted me to face those insecurities.
The first challenge I needed to deal with was funding. Coming from Malaysia where the exchange rate is RM 6 to £1, the fees were quite daunting (not to mention living expenses). I was glad I took up a chance to search and apply for a scholarship programme that my colleague mentioned and that I saw on Cranfield’s website – Chevening Scholarships, the UK government’s global scholarship programme, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and partner organisations. I was successful in my application for Chevening and Cranfield further gave me a £5,000 bursary and that meant my sponsor now had extra funds to support other scholars. Almost a year after the initial research, my Cranfield dream was looking more like it could actually come true.
To be frank, it took me a lot of time and effort to fill in all the scholarship and university applications, write essays, communicate with the university and attend interviews. This was especially difficult as I was still juggling my work commitments. Also, the scholarship application needed me to have three university course options and encouraged students to make applications to the universities around the same time as we submitted the scholarship application. This essentially meant that I needed more time to look through other university websites and prospectuses to compare against Cranfield. This proved to be a useful exercise (despite it being a pain in the neck) because it became clearer that Cranfield was the one for me (despite my boss’s preference for a more well-known university in London that he could “more easily market to clients”!)
As I finally arrived at Cranfield for registration day, it still hadn’t struck me what returning to studying would mean. This was quite promptly addressed in the orientation week that followed. The message that this was going to be an intense year was quickly drilled into our minds with sessions starting from 9am to 5.30pm each day. Thankfully however, many of the sessions were about what help and support was available in the university, ranging from academic to career services to health and well-being support services. We also got to meet our course tutor who gave us a crash course of the content we would cover over the year. Honestly, I finished each day of orientation with a feeling of profound shock at what I had gotten myself into. The degree of intensity of the university was quite terrifying – but I could also feel myself brimming with excitement.
As the first week of lectures began, I quickly realised that being a mature student brought about its advantages and disadvantages. On the up-side, it was easier to draw examples and understand the context of the concepts being discussed. This allowed for richer discussion and debate during lectures. It was also easier to observe work patterns in groups and help guide my team towards achieving our outcomes.
On the down side, I probably started out being too fixed by my working mindset to fully explore some of the newer ideas and different concepts that we discussed. Sitting in lectures for a whole day seemed much more difficult and it was hard to get into the frame of doing academic assignments. On top of that, I suddenly realised I had a lot of free time and flexibility to arrange my time. That in itself was no easy feat as I had gotten so used to the working routine and wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. In fact, the university offered so many options that at one point, I felt quite frustrated that I didn’t have the time-turner that Hermione in the Harry Potter series had to go back in time and cover all her classes simultaneously! These options ranged from public lectures to career development sessions, to Students’ Union activities and visits to clubs and societies, to being a course representative. Not to mention socialising with my course mates, my scholarship mates and making new friends across campus. On that note, most students around were also younger and had no working experience so socialising didn’t click immediately, especially since I don’t drink or party much.
However, as the year progressed, these things gradually settled and I have made much deeper bonds and relationships here in Cranfield in this one short year compared to my four years undergraduate degree. If I were to offer any form of advice to other mature students, I would say ‘Be kind to yourself and be patient with yourself’. Our experiences have been different from those coming straight on from undergraduate studies and we have moved through different routines before coming back to this kind of lifestyle. Everything takes time so don’t be too hard on yourself for needing more time to adjust, especially to more technical aspects of the course. Keep working to your best and go with the flow. You’ve already demonstrated that you can move between different routines and lifestyles by continuing on with your Master’s (even though you may be struggling somewhat). There is help and support around, so don’t be too proud to ask for help! Stay friendly and you will soon find that people who enjoy the same things as you will be drawn to you. In fact, the highlight of my year and friendships was when more than 30 people came for a BBQ and a cheesecake baking challenge at my shared house at Cranfield village, organised by my housemates and I. From young to mature students, there were people there from at least 15 nationalities, and we all shared a great day – it was very memorable for me.
It definitely hasn’t been easy, and there were times that I really wondered whether coming back to study as a mature student was the right decision, but now looking back on my experiences here at Cranfield, I can truly say I have no regrets about returning for my Master’s.7