Starting a Master’s program during a pandemic

By Anna Szczełkun

It’s a busy time for last semester students.  Many of us are in the process of applying to different master programs to continue our educational path. However, the decision of starting a Master’s right away may not be as obvious to everyone. With corona taking away big pieces of the university life, some may want to wait for the situation to normalize between starting a new program. Although personally, I have never even considered delaying my studies, somewhere in between begging my professors to write a last-minute recommendation letter and writing another version of my motivational statement trying to prove that yet another program is the perfect match for me, I started wondering what my experience is going to be like the upcoming semester. I decided to ask a couple of UCR graduates about their experiences of starting a Master’s in the middle of a global pandemic.

 

Alice Fournier – Art History, Curating, and Collections at University College Dublin

I didn’t even think twice about starting a master, even given the current situation. It was always a given for my parents that I would continue onto a master and while I wouldn’t say the family pressure was high, it was definitely there. So, I packed my bags and went to Ireland.

By this point, I was well trained in Zoom classes, visual meetings, connection problems, and all that fun stuff so it was remarkably easy to settle in. If anything, I think the pandemic has made it easier for me to interact with my classmates (we have a really active Messenger group, always buzzing when we’re bored in class.) I feel like I’ve known them all my life, even though I’ve met a couple of them face to face a handful of times.

That being said, the pandemic definitely influenced my decision to go back home next year and take a year off studying. My mental health has always been a little shaky and, while I would say I’ve coped rather well with the stress of moving to a new city, anxiety takes its toll. For my own mental health (as well as physical) I need to go back home, especially since I got COVID in February, just to be in a familiar setting and organize my life. I wouldn’t necessarily consider that a bad thing, I’m very lucky I get to do that; taking time off isn’t something everyone can do.

Would I say I’m enjoying my experience in general? I’m something of a hermit and so I prefer staying indoors, by myself, to socializing every day in any case. COVID is now part of my new « normal » (as for everyone else, sadly) and I work with it, instead of against it. I don’t feel like working? I don’t. I don’t feel like socializing? I have the perfect excuse.

All jokes aside, I am incredibly lucky in my flatmates, all very welcoming, fun people and so, if I do need companionship, I know where to find it. I can’t even imagine moving to a new city and finding yourself alone, especially in the current climate. Truly, apart from a COVID outbreak in my student residence (which I myself got, as well as three other flatmates) and the general Level 5 lockdown (highest level — basically everything is closed), I have stopped to notice it or let it rule over me. I will say, though, that if you plan on starting a Master’s focused on Art History, especially one dealing with curatorship, a Level 5 lockdown isn’t ideal. I’ve only been able to go to the National Gallery once and I don’t think I’ll ever get to visit the Long Room in Trinity, which is a shame.

My one piece of advice to anyone thinking about starting a Master right now would be: a) make sure its familiar territory (I chose Ireland because I had been there once before and I speak fluent English) and b) try to plan it out as much as you can but be aware that there will always be things outside of your control, especially right now. And c) if you need any help, or you’re moving to Dublin next year, don’t hesitate to shoot me a message on Facebook or LinkedIn.

 

Jedidja van Boven – Euroculture at multiple different universities

 

After I graduated from UCR in June 2020, I started my MA in Euroculture (which is basically European Studies – some law, some politics, some history, some culture) – which, somewhat confusingly, is not really based at one single university: there are eight European universities in the consortium, from which you choose one home university (for me, that’s Rijksuniversiteit Groningen). This structure also means that an exchange to a second European university in the second semester is mandatory; during this very semester, I am following courses from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. However, as you might have guessed, I’m doing so from the Netherlands; we heard just after the new year that all classes would be online, and because of the restrictions on international travel, I decided to stay put for now. That’s not ideal, of course, but I find that the professors at Jagiellonian are quite used to teaching online, and since my classes are small in size, there is a fair amount of interaction between the students.

I feel like I can’t really complain anyway – during my first semester in Groningen, we actually managed to still have a good amount of in-person classes because of our small class size, and that was a great way to get to know my classmates and professors (safely). I feel very fortunate for that since I know it was not possible for so many others – we often were the only class in the entire main building, which normally hosts hundreds of students!

However, the fact remains that things are still very unsure – I am hoping to attend Osaka University in Japan for a research placement, but I don’t even know if the borders will be open for international students by the fall… It’s unfortunate that in the Netherlands at least, very little attention seems to be paid to students when it comes to COVID restrictions. While pilot tests are run for bars, cinemas, and other places, many first-year students at Groningen (especially at the BA/BSc level) have not even set foot in a lecture hall yet, and that does not do much good for the mental health and motivation levels of students who are already struggling to prepare for a terrifyingly insecure job market.

 

Kaylin Palm – Biology of Disease (Research)

 

The pandemic has had quite an influence on my studies in Utrecht. Socially it has been very difficult to make new friends, both on campus and at my student building. Campus life is virtually non-existent. Classrooms, lecture halls, and study areas have been closed since September/October. The only social interactions I get with my fellow peers are during online group assignments, which is a terrible place to make friends. Understandably, everyone is mainly focused on the completion of the assignment rather than socializing with one another.

Similar to campus life, the common areas in my student building remain empty. Any gathering with more than 4 people is forbidden, which makes socializing with just my floor quite impossible.

Another problematic issue caused by COVID is the availability of internships. As stated earlier, my master’s program is a research master’s, which consists of 15 months of internship experience. Usually, students are expected to start an internship at the beginning of the academic year and are advised to search for an internship months before the start of the master’s program. However, I am currently about 6/7 months into my master’s program and have not been able to find an internship. Unfortunately, available internship positions were greatly reduced due to governmental regulations, which decreased the capacity for research labs to take in new interns.

As for the online learning experience, I find it very demotivating, am easily distracted, and sometimes I feel so detached from my courses and my master’s program. Especially after I click “leave meeting” at the end of a lecture. There’s no slow transition to get home and separate work from home-life. In an instant, I am reminded that I never left my room. On a positive note, however, online learning and digital exams are convenient during miserable weather. But I would trade all that back in a heartbeat for some gezellig study sessions on a busy campus day.

 

Tiphaine Trudelle – International Relations at Central European University in Vienna

 

The pandemic clearly does significantly affect my studies. I do not have the same student experience at all: no on-site classes, a very different type of social life, more drama since we have nothing else to think about. But I’m still really grateful I got to meet great people here, and I’m really impressed by how everyone got used to this new life. At least, I had the chance to be able to move to Austria. Classes are online similarly to all European students. I believe that even though the academic life is very different, the fact that I still have small-scale classes helps a lot. Our professors are extremely understanding, and we are honestly experiencing the same difficulties. The hardest for me is not be able to visit my friends from UCR who still live in Western Europe.

The majority of the internship opportunities are online sadly, but I guess we all have to bear with it. As for exchanges, I think we all understand we will have to wait a bit.

I did have the chance to make new friends as my studies did start on-site, and this was definitely an invaluable privilege. We try to enjoy our student lives as much as we can in our own way, as it is for us the only way to survive these crazy times. I also loved moving to a new city. I do miss Bagijnhof’s uniqueness a lot (B5, forever the best!) but it’s also great to experience this new step in adulthood and live on your own (in my case, I now live in a nice and clean apartment – without rats! – with two housemates from the Netherlands). I am therefore not too homesick, but going from having 15 family members in Bagijnhof to 2 was definitely a shock

These are tough times for me as it is really hard to find a part-time job these days. As for my studies, they are equally intense to UCR, so you can imagine the struggle. I was very lucky to be granted a scholarship to fund my studies, but I really look forward to this plague being over and to be able to live normally again, without all the inherent stresses we are currently experiencing.

Although that was not my top choice at all as I wish I could have taken a year off after UCR, I’m really happy I ended up at CEU. This was one of the best decisions I could have taken.

 

Eva Kloppenborg – Marine Sciences at Utrecht University

Starting the master was hard, really hard and, to be honest, I wanted to drop out within the first few weeks. Qua pandemic, there were its ups and downs.

The ups were that I could get out of bed five minutes before a lecture—hey, just like in UCR if you live in Bachtensteene! Then the online experience made the groupwork amazing because we didn’t have to gather at one spot and then waste half of the time with random chit-chat. Online, we get straight to the point and finish something in two hours that would have taken us half a day in real life, especially with the ability to screen share—such a blessing!

Then there were the many downs. First was of course that I couldn’t see the students and rarely got to socialize with them. I would only get to know a handful during group work where we actually got to talk to (and see!) each other. Zoom/Teams classes are pretty boring and I feel bad for the instructors who are trying their hardest to make it work. But in a digital classroom where only student’s initials are visible, my attention span can only last so long staring at a narrated PowerPoint before I start glancing at my phone or let my mind wander. However, the pandemic was only half of my troubles.

The biggest challenge was getting accustomed to a completely new institution. UCR is truly a special place and as I saw the large classes and the distance between professors and students, I couldn’t help but start longing back to my Middy bubble. I experienced heartbreak, knowing that I would never get to be in such an international and close-knit community as UCR again. And that hurt more than the pandemic did.

 

Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/OQSCtabGkSY

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