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“Let’s just see where this takes you”: returning to university as a postgraduate

Mobile University event, September 2015
When I returned to the University of Sheffield after a break from education of fifteen years, I didn’t really know what to expect.  I graduated in 1998 with a first-class honours degree in English Literature.  At the time of graduation, I had secured funding to undertake a Masters degree, but the time just wasn’t right.  My then-partner (now my husband) and I had just bought a house together.  It was literally all we’d bought: we had no furniture to put in it and couldn’t afford to buy any.  We spent the first three months in our new home with a lounge furnished solely by two camping chairs and a camping table, before we upgraded to a couple of comfy chairs my Mum was throwing out.  As soon as I graduated, I had to get a job – and fast!

I spent the next fifteen years or so in a variety of jobs and reading a lot in my spare time.   I even did some writing of my own and had a novel published, but it just wasn’t the same.  I missed studying and felt that I’d also somehow missed my true vocation in life.  So in 2013, I made the decision to finally study for a Masters degree.

I had moments of panic about the decision.  Pretty much everyone in my classes were about twenty years younger than me (including some of the lecturers!)  I wondered if they would question why I was there.  I wondered if I even should be there.  Could I still do it?  Did I still have the ability to study at this level, particularly after fifteen mind-numbing years of administrative jobs (and a career break to have my children)?  Eventually, however, I stopped panicking and settled back into education again.

And I’ve been amazed at where it has taken me so far.  During my Masters (which I studied part-time in order to balance the needs of family life and work), I noticed an email about applying for funding for a PhD.  I thought, why not?  I’ll put the application in and just see what happens.  I didn’t for a moment believe that I would get the funding.  I’ll never forget the day I received the email from the White Rose Open College of Arts and Humanities informing me that I had been successful in my application.  The email changed my life.  I resigned from my job and from that point on I have been able to dedicate myself full-time to my studies.

Something else I discovered: I had missed my true vocation in life.  I always found my undergraduate studies immensely satisfying.  As a postgraduate researcher, they are even more fulfilling.  It wasn’t just the research (which I love): it’s the opportunities I’ve been able to access since returning to the University.  Having the opportunity to discuss my ideas and learn from experts in my research field is a real privilege.  I’ve presented at academic conferences and public engagement events, which has given me the opportunity to meet other researchers in the field and develop a network of contacts.  From these, I met the editor of an academic journal who will be publishing my first ever peer-reviewed academic article in October this year.

Sometimes, despite all of the above, I still have moments of panic, and experience doubts as to whether I can actually do this.  I usually calm myself down by telling myself: “let’s just see where this takes you…”

Val Derbyshire, PhD student (School of English)
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