Last month, at the tender age of 37, I graduated from Birmingham City University with an MA in online journalism. It may seem a strange concept to attend university later on in life (I’m using the term ‘attend’ loosely as I studied part-time via distance learning) but it’s more common than you might think. I know this because I work at the Open University and see at first hand the importance – and value – of studying at any stage in your life, often while spinning multiple plates. For me, there would have been no other way to do it. And, as a consequence, I’ve learned just as much about myself as I have about online journalism.
I jumped into work at the age of 18 instead of going to university like most of my friends, but that decision helped me to bag a place on the MA course more than a decade later. That work experience paid dividends, not only because it secured my spot in lieu of an undergraduate degree but because I already had self-discipline, independence, a good work ethic and project management skills.
Project management skills are already essential during a master’s but more so when you have multiple projects, including three- and four-year-old projects who get upset if their toast isn’t buttered the right way and take 20 minutes to put their shoes on. Another project runs 9am to 5pm most days and helps to pay the bills, and another one is hairy, four-legged and requires walks twice daily. It’s a lot and you’ll need more than just a to-do list to get through it.
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I confess that I was hugely nervous about returning to study post-kids, confident that many of my brain cells had faded away after having children. So being able to grasp concepts, contribute valuable ideas and communicate at MA level works wonders for self-confidence. It’s easy to lose a sense of yourself when you’re a parent and this reminded me that I do have a brain. The way that the MA is delivered – online and with a ‘learn by doing’ approach, forced me out of my comfort zone and to stretch those brain cells.
The MA directly related to what I do for a living and it’s having an impact on how I conduct myself at work. I have more knowledge and more resources – from contacts to apps to books to technology – to help me. I’m approaching ideas from a journalist’s point of view again and having that external focus helps when trying to promote an organisation from the inside.
On the flip side, work also helped with the MA. I was able to test theories and tools during the working day, which contributed to my learning journey without taking up my personal time. I’m swapping ideas with colleagues about the way we brainstorm content and campaigns, the way we tell stories and the channels we use. I have confidently tackled things that stretched me at work and ticked an assignment box at the same time. My professional development was encouraged by my employer and my tutor, and I have since run a workshop at a conference for content strategists in higher education, something that I never would have had the confidence to do pre-MA.
I’m the first member of my family to go to university. I don’t believe university qualifications are always the best route into careers and I won’t be pushing my kids towards university if it’s not for them. But I’m proud to have graduated at my age. I feel that I’m setting a good example for my children – that you can achieve things at different times of your life and you can combine work, family and education and survive. Or even thrive.
Signing up for a master’s degree seems like a strange thing to do to find time for yourself but, for me, getting some much-needed “Robyn-time” has been a surprising consequence of studying. The time I spent on tutorials, project work and research was time for me to read some interesting stuff, try some new things and talk to inspiring people. I haven’t felt lonely either. While I connected online with some of my fellow students, coming away with a new cohort of friends was never really on the cards for me.
Strangely, now that the MA is over I don’t feel as if I have more time on my hands, and I worry that it will slip away. After a period of catching up on box sets, I’ll be making time to work on my own projects and ideas ignited during the MA process, with the confidence and skills to make them happen. Learning to make the most of your time is, to me, just as important as learning how to critically evaluate a project.
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