In this post, Gemma Spencer, a Masters student in Psychology of Mental Health (Conversion), shares her experience transitioning from undergraduate to postgraduate.
My academic journey into the field of psychology is a rather unconventional one. I kickstarted my student life by moving to London to study BSc Criminology. Although I would not take back one minute of my student experience, I can’t help but realise looking back, that an undergraduate degree in psychology may have been a better fit for me. Despite this, I came out with a first-class degree, fantastic internship and work placements and the experience of living independently in the ‘big city’, which undoubtedly improved my confidence and shaped who I am today. Despite this, I decided to change direction and apply for a Masters psychology conversion course– essentially a psychology undergraduate degree squeezed into one year! Although I knew the course would be tough, it would allow me to gain the accreditation to become a psychologist in the future.
Despite my own experiences, for many people, postgraduate study is merely a logical progression; a means to delve deeper into their subject area at a more advanced level. However, no matter what your reasons are for undertaking postgraduate study, it is a given that it will be different from the comforts of undergraduate study, and you may have to adjust, even re-wire, how you study. Below I have summarised some key areas in which postgraduate study differs from undergraduate study and the benefits that this may bring.
More independent study
One of the biggest challenges for me in the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate was accepting that my studies are now primarily self-driven. Whilst undergraduate study allows the time to build core knowledge and develop fundamental skills, postgraduate study is predominantly a guided experience offering high flexibility. Undergraduate study focuses on content delivered through lectures and seminars, whereas postgraduate involves limited teaching alongside independent study.
I have found the study skills workshops offered by the Institute for Academic Development at The University of Edinburgh to be useful in developing my academic writing to Masters level and have improved my abilities and confidence to work independently on large pieces of work, such as my dissertation.
Contact with academic staff
As an undergraduate on a large course, you will often have less contact with academic staff. Postgraduate studies opens the dialogue up between students and staff and allows you to engage in meaningful, often one-to-one, discourse with your professors.
Something I have really enjoyed at my time at Edinburgh is the dissertation process. My course allows us to work in groups on our dissertation which is something I was unable to do at undergraduate level. We have had significant discussions as a group with our supervisor, allowing us to bounce ideas off each other. Furthermore, we have been able to work with world-leading researchers and have had access to high quality data. For example, my dissertation involves a longitudinal assessment of the relative strength of two cognitive neuropsychological tests in predicting Alzheimer’s disease using an existing, high-quality dataset collected from NHS patients. The high quality of the data allows for the possibility of my work being published– something completely unfeasible at undergraduate level.
Longer study hours
In all likelihood, postgraduate will require many more hours of studying. This is not necessarily a bad thing– although professors are there to guide you through the academic process, your individual abilities, thoughts and fascination with your subject are the keys to succeeding at postgraduate level.
You may choose to study your postgraduate course at a different institution, like me. If you do so, I would recommend researching what opportunities the university can offer you to develop experience outside of your packed schedule. For example, at Edinburgh, I work part-time at the Careers Service, continue to volunteer for a mental health charity, and have been a Student Representative for my course– all allowing me to gain three Edinburgh Awards. I am also working as a Research Assistant at the university, helping to develop quality criteria for the implementation of mental health apps. Your Masters course is bound to be short, usually only one year, so make the most of it!
My Masters has taught me the value of independent thought and research and therefore, in the future I would like to pursue a PhD. However, for now, my Masters has given me the confidence (and, of course, the required accreditation!) to pursue psychological work in my community.
Despite my unconventional academic journey, I would like to encourage people to explore other options, make good use of the experience of postgraduate study, and never be too afraid to change direction.