Sunday, May 31, 2015

Some Things I've Learned While Pursuing an Online Master's Degree

Having just finished my first class in an online Master’s program, it is worth reflecting on what I learned, not only in regard to what will help academically, but also what will help personally.  In no particular order, here they are:
·      Study something you love.  Pursuing a degree will be difficult enough.  Pursuing one in which you have no interest will be much more difficult.  It sounds idealistic, but if you wouldn’t read from your discipline out of keen and inherent personal interest, you may be pursuing something you will one day hate.
·      Do a little work every day.  If possible, do a lot every day.  Two to three hours per day is a good start…on weekdays.  On weekends, I recommend four to five hours a day…also as a good start.
·      Use every minute you can.  Literally use the minutes because hours-long blocks of time won’t always happen, but 10 – 30 minutes blocks come up a lot.
·      Don’t do it alone.  Talk to fellow students and teachers.  In an online program this is sometimes harder, but it can be done.
·      In an online program, you don’t have the advantage of just walking into the teacher’s office.  That feels like a disadvantage, but it forces you to plan when you will speak to your professor and, more importantly, what you will say.  You don’t want to waste anyone’s time.  Fortunately, my first professor was not only accessible, she was also kind and conversant.  That may not always be the case, so know ahead of time what you’re going to say.
·      Plan ahead on everything!  I was fortunate because I had time to read some of the books before the class had actually started.  This was an excellent use of my time.
·      Read everything that the teacher or school sends.  These materials are sent for a reason.  Read them.  Then read them again because you probably missed something.
·      Read, especially, the syllabus.  One regret I have is that even though I read ahead, I could have changed the order in which I read things.  In other words, because I didn’t read the syllabus, I read material that I could have read later.  This wasn’t a huge crisis, but it would have made my life easier if I had read things in the right order, that is, according to the syllabus Also, reading the syllabus – all of it – will give you an idea on how to plan the next several weeks.
·      Realize that a Master’s program is called that for a reason.  You are expected to master something.  Everything will be harder than you realize.  This is not because you’re incompetent.  It’s supposed to be hard and you may not master every single facet.  That’s okay.
·      Make personal choices.  Some of them may seem hard.  I had to give up things in order to do this.  I cut back on almost all my time with friends.  During my first class only those very closest to me heard much from me.  This was not an easy choice, but I told myself it wasn’t personal and it wasn’t permanent.  During this time, I watched no TV (partly because I don’t own one) and saw no movies.  All I did in my “spare time” was study.  Happily, I did not feel this to be a great sacrifice.
·      Remember choices you’ve already made.  When personal commitments arise, don’t be resentful.  It’s not the fault of those you love that you chose this path.  So don’t get irritable with them because “they are keeping you from your work.”  (I wasn’t always good at this, which is something to remember for next time.)

Finally, a personal reflection:  there is the traditional (and correct) advice about taking care of yourself during this time.  This means getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and drinking water.  There is also the well-meant (and also correct) advice of achieving some sort of balance.  I didn’t follow this counsel.  I ate what I could when I could.  I slept four to six hours per night most nights.  I’m sure I drank too much coffee and it didn’t help.  Exercise went out the window.  And, as mentioned earlier, I rarely saw friends or did anything recreational.  Worst of all, I did very little blog or personal writing other than my three morning pages (and towards the end, not even those).  If there was any balance in my life, if there even is such a thing, I did not achieve it while taking this class.  This is said not with regret, but only as a statement of fact. 
I probably could have made different choices but, for better or worse, most people who pursue additional education are already driven.  This drive is a weakness and a strength.  This is not to say I handled my personal health correctly.  It was just the way I did it.  I think if I could have changed anything, I would have exercised more.  That would have probably helped relieve a lot of stress and perhaps even helped me do better in my studies. Perhaps I should start exercising again.

It’s been said that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the second best time is now.  My “now” begins again in about a week. I’m ready to Get Started and to Keep Going.  That’s probably the most important lesson I learned in those eleven weeks.