Class notes from a 40-year-old student

Jan Dorosz reflects on life as a mature student at a London university

September 7, 2015

Youth is wasted on the young, said George Bernard Shaw, and perhaps university is as well.

When I left school to go straight to university as an 18 year old in the 1990s, cracking the books wasn’t exactly top priority, as is often the case with undergraduates. I did just enough over the next three years to pick up an honours degree, and have been working in the media ever since.

A few years ago, however, I started to think about going back to school. Like Dante’s poet finding himself midway upon the road of life within a dark wood, the right way missed, I thought that maybe I had missed something too, lost the trail somewhere. While other people in my position might decide to go travelling, move abroad, or else just careen headlong into a midlife crisis, I decided to do a part-time master’s degree in history.

I chose history because I had always loved reading it, and felt some regret about not studying it the first time around (I did English instead, which, in the end, I turned out not to love). I went part-time because I couldn’t afford to stop working, and had just enough flexibility as a self-employed person to fit in school with jobs.

I ended up enrolling at the London School of Economics – the university Shaw had set up with his Fabian friends – as it was conveniently located in relation to my home and office, reputable, and called its history master’s an “MSc in the history of international relations”, which sounded much more grand than the standard history MA on offer elsewhere.

When orientation day came, turning up to take my seat as a near 40-year-old in a crowd of twentysomethings made me feel more than a little self-conscious.

To be fair, I wasn’t always the oldest guy in the room: the odd grey head popped up when the entire history department got together, and a dapper gentlemen of retirement age even came to audit one of my classes. The solipsism of youth also meant that most of the student body tended to assume that I was more or less the same age as they were, and I wore Topman trousers and a bit of a hipster beard to fuel the illusion.

When a fellow student on the first day of class quizzed me and found out I was married, ran my own business and had graduated from university for the first time when she was seven, I was rumbled. “It’s like you’re a real person,” she said.

It wasn’t just the students who assumed that I was the same as them. Members of the faculty could occasionally fall into the same trap.

This led to the single incidence of me feeling like I was too old for all this, on the day that I had to give a presentation in class with another student. For lack of practice rather than material, we ended up presenting for about 40 minutes (it was supposed to be half that time).

The professor stopped us and launched into a lecture about how preparation was everything and how we couldn’t expect to land jobs or get on in life if we didn’t learn how to present succinctly. While she was quite right to criticise us for being under-rehearsed, her career academic’s life advice delivered in her censorious, woman-of-the-world tone really grated on me. As someone who has to do presentations all the time to win business, I felt like she could have been a little less patronising and stuck to her subject, which was Polish-Soviet history, not PowerPoint.

At the end of each year, there were exams, which worried me a little, mainly because of the copious amounts of handwriting involved. It was years since I had written so much as a shopping list by hand, let alone three essays in three hours, as some of my courses demanded.

It also seemed inexplicable to me that graduate students should be examined in this way, regurgitating rote-learned generalities about complex historical problems on the clock. One of my profs explained that in this wired world it was the only way of testing our knowledge and making sure that we hadn’t just copied and pasted from Wikipedia, which made sense. Unfortunately for me, I had to do dozens of practice essays to get my handwriting to look only a little better than the racked Guido Fawkes.

Writing a dissertation was a more interesting challenge. The crucial part was not the actual writing, but the primary source research.

As a first-time historian who had so far done all his reading out of books, I was a little apprehensive about it all, but it wasn’t long before I was geeking out over declassified documents in government files at the National Archives in Kew. When the dissertation deadline began to loom, I started to see some of my classmates there, but earlier in the year, it was strictly superannuated historians and researchers. One Saturday morning when the fire alarm went off it took about half an hour to get them all down the stairs to the fire assembly point. I don’t know what the collective noun for historians is, but a “kerfuffle” could do.

Now that the ink has dried on my dissertation, I’m naturally starting to wonder what it was all for. I’ll soon have another degree to my name that doesn’t make me obviously any more employable for anything, and my finances are in a hole as a direct result. If I could carry on and do a PhD I would, but it’s not that likely: this isn’t the 1970s, when grants were big enough to fund years of independent research with foreign holidays to boot, plus there’s very little money around for the humanities these days.

I don’t know if I’m out of my Dantean dark wood yet, but I do feel like I got to make a little clearing for myself inside it over the past two years, and can confidently say that university wasn’t wasted on me this time around. I would definitely recommend the experience to anyone of an academic bent who has the flexibility to work and study, or else has the cash to just take a year off and go full-time.

It wasn’t easy but it was interesting, humbling, and satisfying, and in those occasional moments when I had the leisure to just read, write and research, it felt like freedom. I strongly suspect that you have to work for many years before studying feels as good as that.

Jan Dorosz is a freelance creative and copywriter. He recently completed an MSc in the history of international relations at LSE.

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