It seems such a long time ago, September 2015, when I first enrolled on the MSc course in Social Policy Research. Who knew then that at the end of the academic year we would be living in a different socio-political constellation? As I look ahead to my second year at LSE, to start in a few months’ time, I recall the summer of 2015 and the preparations and enthusiasm that I had for the start of the course, and I recall also the surprises that I had when the course really got under way. In this final post of the academic year, I share these reflections for newcomers who may indeed already be here, preparing their studies and their year in London.
I somewhat agonized over the relative lack of preparatory reading I completed over the summer. This was not worth the time because the little reading that I had done was actually quite enough. What I found when I started the modules was that a very highly selective and analytical approach to reading is more beneficial, and this arises directly out the questions that are being engaged in at the time – not questions that can necessarily be prepared for in advance. Of course, general and background reading is useful to get out of the way, but there is only so much that is actually useful before the main “gist” of the subject is acquired. So, looking back, if I was to give myself advice for the summer, it would be this: unless the subject has strict prescriptions regarding preparatory reading, just read one or two of the main indicative texts for the course you will most likely pick in the first term.
When the courses start, you find (or at least I did) that each weekly topic is vast – whole fields of enquiry lay behind the topic, and if these are interesting to you it can be quite easy to feel overwhelmed by what is there to absorb. For example, you might feel very quickly that in order to get a grasp of the topic in even a basic way you have to very quickly read 5 or 6 works. If you have two courses (part time) or four or more (full time), it might seem that you have to read twenty or more texts (books and articles) just to get a basic grasp of one topic per course. Actually, this is to fall prey to an illusion and a less effective study strategy, which I fell prey to but corrected in the Lent term. Looking back, I would have given myself the following advice: look at only the basic, minimally required texts for the topic and read those (about 1 or 2 per course), except for those that you have to do a presentation or essay on (when you can read more deeply). By the end of the course, you will then get a feeling for which topics really interested you. Pick these out and then read all those topic texts in the vacations and summer term. You can’t master all ten or twenty topics on a course, but through your mastery of 3 or 4 (or 6 or 8 for full unit courses), you will inevitably cover all the topics in that area in some way anyway. So give yourself a break!
Finally, don’t underestimate passive learning skills. It can seem that we only learn by actively doing our studies, by reading or writing notes. Yet I think that you will find, as I did, that “somehow” learning happens over time, without you noticing it. Sure, regular practice and study is key, but don’t worry if by the end of Lent Term term in April you feel like you still don’t know anything – even as the week of the exam approaches in May, it can seem like nothing has entered the brain. But somehow, when someone asks you a question, you find yourself being able to answer it in a rather sophisticated way. “How did that happen?” Well, actually, if we look back, we see that we were able to do that all along.
So that’s my final post on this blog. It’s been a pleasure to share my ramblings and I hope they have been of some interest. But most of all, for the newcomers to LSE in September and October, enjoy finding out for yourself what life is like as a postgraduate at London School of Economics and Political Science.