Student Voices: Reflections of an MA Student

A Counselling and Psychotherapy MA student reflects on their dissertation process and provides some top tips for managing the inevitable stress and worry that comes with academic research.

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It’s now been 3 months since I completed my part-time Master’s in Counselling and Psychotherapy, and within this short time, I’ve quickly adjusted back to a study-free life, where weekends and evenings are my own again. Despite only completing my MA 3 months ago, I have already found myself thinking, ‘How the heck did I do that!?’ as, despite being study-free, I’m still battling with a full-on schedule and the feeling of being time poor.

I remember starting the third year of my MA and already feeling like I was running on empty. This is not a helpful feeling to have when you have your dissertation proposal and ethical application looming. I remember the panic rising in my body during our first tutorial as we were given various deadlines and learning outcomes that we had to meet. Questions such as ‘can I do this?’ and ‘where am I going to find the time and energy to do this?’ began to threaten my attempts at remaining calm and confident.

Alas, I did make it through and successfully too! But how did I manage this when juggling work, voluntary commitments and social activities? Here’s what worked for me…

Amending my expectations

Firstly, I had to deal with the voice of doubt which often crops up for me in academic and professional contexts. The ‘can I do this?’ question. Usually, this question for me isn’t about whether I can pass the course, but rather not being able to reach the high expectations that I have of myself. I took some time to think about how important it really was that I achieved a first-class degree and the reasons why I was aiming so high. Would it really have a significant impact on my career prospects and opportunities? Why was I aiming this high and putting unnecessary pressure on myself? After exploring these questions and carrying out a cost-benefit analysis of putting these expectations on myself, I realised that I needed to amend my goal, especially considering the current demands on my time. Amending these expectations liberated me from my self-made pressure cooker and helped reduce my feelings of stress and worry.

The importance of scheduling

Secondly, keeping a schedule was absolutely key to managing my fears around not completing the work on time. I first mapped out a monthly schedule in which I set goals for each month. For example, by February I would aim to have my literature review complete. I knew that if I was meeting these goals on time, then I was on track to hand in my dissertation by the deadline date. I would then create a weekly schedule in which I would schedule in study time during the week and set mini goals for this time. For example, on Saturday I plan to study for roughly 4 hours and read some academic articles for my literature review. Keeping a schedule not only helped me to feel more organised and less overwhelmed, but also allowed me to relax during my time off. I found that if I had completed the study that I had intended to do, I was more able to rest and relax without feeling guilty for not working on my dissertation.

Self-care and time off

Lastly, recognising the importance of self-care and time off was crucial for avoiding burn out. I soon realised that the more time poor I felt, the more I needed to practice self-care and give myself some space to de-stress and switch off. Although for many (including me), self-care involves time with friends and family, I came to realise that I had to learn the art of saying no to certain plans and requests in order to give myself some time to truly relax and re-energise. I soon learnt that saying no to people was a skill to be learnt (it’s not easy!) however, once I tried doing it a couple of times, and was met with understanding by family and friends, it made it much easier to make decisions about my schedule based on my own needs and wellbeing.

I would be lying if I said that it was an easy 3 years. Completing a degree at any level is a juggling act and inevitably there will be stress, worry, fatigue, boredom, frustration and tears at some point. However, acknowledging and accepting the challenge ahead and putting things in place to help you manage these feelings makes the climb that little bit smoother and that little bit easier.

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