Before I begin, I know you’re stressed. Don’t worry, you’ll be okay. Just breathe. You deserve this.
As I write this, I’m a few days away from celebrating/commiserating one year of living in London, and thought it would be useful/cathartic to write the post I wish I’d read 12 months ago.
It’s worth noting that I might have ignored all this advice then – with age comes wisdom, 20-20 vision in hindsight and all that. Also, this is based on my own experience and I am certainly not trying to speak for the personal journeys of everyone at LSE. Finally, I personally did a 12 month taught masters, but hopefully some of this advice will applicable to everyone. I did ask some classmates and friends in other programs for their advice, which is quoted below, but they’re all 12 month masters too.
Some of these will be practical, some will be a bit more immaterial. Hopefully all will be useful.
Before you arrive/packing…
Bring a bit of home with you: local spices, teas, biscuits, or treats for the kitchen; postcards, blankets, stuffed toys, or a special book for your room. And if you don’t already know, learn how to cook one of your favourite meals. Food can be very comforting in times of crisis/sorrow/anxiety.
Don’t bother packing any shoes you wouldn’t/couldn’t walk in for 25 minutes.
Others will tell you this, but LAYERS. Central heating is real, but so is the British cold. There’s a lot of dressing and undressing taking place over the course of the day. Speaking of, if you’re from a particularly warm climate (like South Africa for example) your ‘cold weather clothes’ may not cut it. Budget to buy some real winter clothes.
“Forget trying to bring warm clothes from South Africa, bring rusks [biscuits] instead. And Woolworths vanilla Rooibos [tea]. And wine. And wool slippers”
Two words: Capsule wardrobe. Pack strategically to maximise your outfit options but minimise your packing space. More space for the sentimental. My wardrobe is currently 80% black, grey, and tan and it’s highly efficient, if a touch monotonous.
Figure out how you’re getting from the airport before you arrive. Heathrow express, taxi, chauffeur, braving it on the tube etc. Find a buddy or two in your halls Facebook group and Uber if you need to. But have a plan and know what you’re doing, especially if you’re travelling a long way to get here.
For homeware and kitchen things, Argos and Amazon are cheap and efficient but can be dodgy quality, rather see if you have a nearby TK Maxx (designer brands for discount rates) or Robert Dyas (hardware store but with sizable home/kitchenware). Otherwise Primark has (dubiously) cheap linen, bedding and towels. Sort this out early. Your bed makes a home. Cultivate your space, you’ll be spending a lot of time there and you want it to be welcoming. For your kitchen things, chat to your roommates and club together to buy things, especially appliances. Resist the urge to buy those one-person dining sets. They’re sad and not very practical.
Speaking of Amazon, “I wish we’d been more organised with Amazon Prime” Get on that free Amazon Student Prime asap (but it’s only free for 6 months, so be strategic, find a friend (ideally a flatmate) and alternate so you can stretch out to the full year).
Actively meet lots of people, but don’t necessarily feel obligated to stay friends with them. Find your tribe and those that support you and make you happy. If you lose touch with the person you met in the queue at registration, it’s not the end of the world. And don’t waste time on people you don’t like. You only have a year and they’re not worth the angst.
“Ask people to have lunch/coffee earlier in the year” My friendship with this person would have been 5 months longer if we’d followed this advice.
“Take full advantage of the first few weeks. That’s when you meet people. Meet as many people as possible. Dive in. Over commit yourself!”
Join something. A society. A club. A sports team. A gym. A yoga class. Trust me, when you want to scream in the library, it’ll be nice to escape to something that isn’t on your reading list.
“As an international student non-academic societies are infinitely more important than in your undergraduate – you’ll never get a true sense of the varsity culture unless you’re involved”
Shaw Library. Check it out. You’ll thank me later.
“Pick the challenging electives” Also, take courses outside of your department, and even off your program regulations if you can. Don’t think that you need to be too narrow, explore your options while you can. This is the social sciences after all, you’ll likely find something useful and relevant to your core discipline. The gender course I found and took ended up forming a large part of the theory and inspiration for my dissertation topic.
The middle bit
“Come to terms with your life revolving around your readings” Treat your readings like a job, and work at them. I had lectures Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and would use Wednesday and Friday as workdays for the next week’s readings. Figure out a system for annotating or summarising your readings and notes and stick with it, you’ll need it during exams (most courses have exams in June, which can be more than 6 months after some courses end).
“Having just cleaned out my room, don’t print if you’re a sentimentalist!”
“Don’t listen to the way others study, work out your own rhythm and trust it”
I stole this tip from a similar post a year ago, but keep an academic journal (I just used the back pages of my planner), especially for your dissertation. Use it to jot down topic ideas, meeting notes, random thoughts, inspirations, interesting quotes from your readings, innovative research designs, LSE Life lectures (you’ll learn about them soon). I had no idea what I wanted to write about in my dissertation, but looking back on those early ramblings now, I see that I had very particular values and approaches I wanted to address, which I did ultimately do. Even the bio I wrote for this blog back in early September is evident in my final paper. It’s cool to see how my ideas developed over the year (arguably into a more practical realm thanks to my advisor), whilst staying true to who I was when I arrived.
“Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you’re living in London for a year, you have a lot of time to do things. Instead, make sure that you don’t just study, rather go out, be social, explore etc. Because that is what you will remember once all the grades are forgotten” I cannot emphasise this enough. You. Are. Not. Just. Here. For. The. Degree. We’d all have found online courses if that was the case. Also, London is going to be expensive. Budget, but don’t miss out on a phenomenal once-in-a-lifetime experience because of it. You can eat pasta for a week for the sake of an amazing memory. Be prepared to spend more than you budgeted for and keep an eye out for part-time or short term income.
“When you’re stressing over an essay remember to enjoy it and remember that you want to be here and what you wanted to gain from the experience” Also, remind yourself that you’re doing a Masters/Undergraduate/PhD at the LSE and that’s amazing! Well done! You’re already so accomplished! WOOHOO!
“Work less, travel and pub more : )”
“Go to Ireland” I second this. And Scotland and Wales. And explore England. Embrace the Brexit [but don’t really]. You can get coach tickets for £5 to a lot of places if you book in advance. Also, get on that Railcard hustle if you’re eligible.
Figure out a way to commemorate your time. I started a new Instagram, journalled (almost) daily and collected postcards and ticket stubs, but you could blog/vlog/tweet/paint/scrapbook/collect tea towels. You’ll want to remember this time, for all the good and the bad (perspective is great).
“The field is important but so is the academic culture of the institution, a fit for both is essential for a worthwhile experience. Check the demographics of your programme and ensure it’s in line with your expectations and choose your accommodation carefully, they will be your family for better or for worse and a convivial and welcoming environment is NB”
“Don’t settle for a living situation if it’s not working for you (including halls). Find cool people and live with them. Having living space or a garden can be so important for your mental health and academic prosperity” Your halls lease is more flexible than it may seem. So many people move in and out of accommodation over the course of the year.
Speaking of mental health, don’t neglect yours. It is going to be hard and you will need to work at it. Getting this degree is serious work and it will take it out of you, mentally, spiritually and physically. I cried in the library within a week of getting to LSE and have subsequently cried in numerous public places around the campus and city since. And with perspective, that was okay, because I had mechanisms in place to help me handle and manage my stress, anxiety, frustration and sadness.
You. Are. Not. Alone. (I did an entire research paper on student mental health, I have the statistics, they’re higher than you think) During this time, there’s a lot counting against your mental wellbeing, and you shouldn’t and mustn’t suffer alone. Mental illness in academia is such a toxic burden because there’s this hideous conception that it represents failure: that you’re not good enough because you’re not coping and you can’t handle the work. Rubbish. The practical and political realities of academia, especially in large programs and at big universities like LSE is that it cannot be the ideal supportive and flexible learning environment. You have to learn to work within this system, and recognise that it is okay (and really understandable) if you’re not soaring through with ease.
“Look after yourself and reach out of help if you need it – there are layers of support and had I known about some of them sooner I reckon I’d be much better off”
LSE offers help in a number of ways, through supervisors, counseling, your peers, extracurriculars, support officers and so forth. You don’t have to use all of these, but don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help, because it’s unlikely going to find you alone in your room. It is a viscous cycle, so work at managing it and then you’ll truly be able to flourish. Be kind to yourself. But also, if you are unhappy with how something is run or administered or how you are treated, speak up about it. Don’t passively accept injustice if it upsets you. It will just cause more frustration.
That society/club/sports team/gym/yoga class I advised you join earlier? Use it. If even just to get out of your room for some ‘fresh’ (it’s still London) air. I got a great deal on a yoga membership in March, and those classes kept me sane, calm and active throughout summative submissions, exams, and my dissertation (the studio is even referenced in my aknowledgements). I also draw a lot of strength and clarity from nature (of which we are a bit deprived in London), but always feel better when I take a Santander Cycle out to Victoria Park to read under the trees, or even when I leave the library to eat lunch in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Find what feels good, and cultivate it.
The final stretch…
For 12 month taught masters, you’re pretty much ‘on your own’ for the last three months, alone with your dissertation research and writing. This time is golden. First, prepare for this in advance – work out your topic and research design and all those fiddly bits if you can (but you don’t have to, I only finalised my question and research design in July, although this was quite stressful and I certainly would not recommend it). Second, you have more time than you need, don’t worry about that. It is okay to take breaks, or days off, or travel (I went to Scotland for two weeks in late June), or veg and watch Netflix if you need to. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Three months is a very long time to work on one single thing. Third, you’re alone but you’re not alone. Set up ‘working retreats’ with friends or classmates where you establish goals and work in timed intervals, reporting back on your progress (and maybe grab a drink afterwards). Eat dinner with your flatmates. Visit your friends at other universities under the guise of ‘doing research’ (I did a lot of my final writing at a friend’s kitchen table in Sheffield). Keep going to yoga/gym/knitting etc. Visit LSE Life or Careers for workshops or one-on-ones (campus gets creepily quiet once the undergraduates leave). Go on Tinder dates for love or for laughs.
Continue to live your life. Your thesis may feel like a baby, but it’s really a kind of annoying younger cousin who demands too much of your time for how much it represents. Don’t work at it until you resent it. You should be proud of what you produced in the end, because it represents such an amazing accomplishment and the capstone to such a phenomenal year. (I’m so happy with what I wrote, but I also have not been able to look at it since submitting. I’ll get there, I just need some more time away)
Should I stay or should I go?
“I’m currently trying to repack my bag, so I want to say ‘don’t have so much stuff’ Take this as you will, but if you’re a hoarder, start working on your decluttering now.
“I don’t want to go”
“I want to go home”
On top of the stress of a dissertation, you’re faced with the looming prospect of the end of your degree. What to do now? Do you go home immediately (I realise this may be the default choice for people returning to jobs, on conditional scholarships etc.)? Do you go traveling? Do you stay and try find a job in London/England/UK/Europe? Or a combination of these?
There’s no right answer here, no right path. My current plan is to stay in London working until December when my visa runs out and then am moving home (finding Visa sponsorship is a task guys). Some classmates and friends went home in June already to write their dissertations on familiar ground. Others went home after submitting. Some are traveling, or planning to. A few have already secured permanent jobs here or abroad. Don’t be daunted by what others are doing/not doing, and don’t get caught up in what you feel you ‘ought’ to do. If you can, do whatever makes you happiest.
The first post I wrote for this blog talked about the highs and lows of my LSE offer, and my past year has largely mirrored that. There’s good with the bad, amazing with the terrible, challenges with the opportunities. Your experience will probably be similar. It will be difficult, but it will also be amazing. Be kind to your body and mind, don’t take yourself so seriously, and try to enjoy it (but if you don’t, that’s okay too).
It’s only a year, but it’s also only a year.