Returning to academia… what I wish I’d known.


In the Autumn of 2018, eighteen years after I first went to university, I returned to postgraduate academic study as an allegedly mature student. With hindsight, there are a few things I wish I had known. As we begin to emerge in to a new COVID-shaped world, and with many considering retraining, hopefully some of my lessons might be of use to someone, somewhere.


Returning to study the impact of conflict and events in extremis on various populations, was an opportunity to combine my interest in psychology which had persisted since my undergraduate days, and my professional experience working with and covering military and civilian populations in various circumstances. A perfect mix of the theoretical and the personal, I thought. In this respect, I was not unique; plenty of medics, international students and military personnel with experience of the circumstances described in the syllabus have enrolled on the course over the years. However, over the first few weeks, I became aware that the carefully crafted anecdotes from my previous career which I proffered in the hopes of providing a jumping-off point or providing potentially interesting personal context, had the opposite effect and instead could often shut a conversation down. Am I hopeless raconteur? Possibly. Am I perhaps over bombastic at times? Sadly, yes. Was I acutely aware of my comparative age, gender and ethnicity, and all the biases and social privileges that come with them all? Absolutely, but that is perhaps a wider discussion for another time and, although a majorly important one to consider, would certainly require the input of many former classmates.

In this instance, what struck me most was a conversation with a classmate who, after what I was sure was another infuriating real-life example of the psychological impact UAV surveillance and warfare can have on those on the ground, remarked ‘How can I follow that?’. ‘What do you mean?’, I asked. ‘Well, you’ve lived some of this stuff, I’ve just read about it in a book. What on earth do I have to say after that?’. I was mortified.

The truth was I felt like the proverbial spider in the bathtub; I was actually far more scared of them than they were of me.

After all, here were a couple of dozen whip-smart, academically box-fresh postgraduates, with apparently clear ideas of what they were interested in and where they wanted to go, who knew how remote lectures and online submission worked, had a far better (and current) grasp of statistical analysis, and most centrally understood the conventions, methods, systems, idiosyncrasies and mere act of tertiary learning. Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to rediscover the intellectual muscle memory lost after years of academic atrophy. Undoubtedly, I was guilty of hiding behind my professional experience and trying too hard to relate my academic path to what had come previously, in an attempt to ease my own discomfort.

In hindsight, I should have been more willing to accept what I didn’t know and make an effort to be open about this with my classmates, and maybe rein in yet another story about that one time in…

cite cite, baby

Back in the day, by the tail-end of my undergrad I was lucky enough to have my own desktop PC and a printer. As essay submission deadlines loomed, my bijou, discrete-profile, combined live-work space (read: basement bedsit) was artfully plastered in journal article photocopies, borrowed books, partial printing, and copious post-it notes and pencil annotated drafts as I tackled proofing and referencing. The last of these tasks I always loved, finding a strange pleasure in the systematic insertion of properly formatted inline APA citations, final reference list and a bibliography featuring works more widely read, but not directly cited and thus demonstrating my dedication to the cause.

I know many people still swear by the approach of having a pre-edited master reference list upon which they can draw throughout the writing process. However, it has never sat well with me and it’s just not the way my brain works. Perhaps it’s the journalist in me slavishly adhering to the principles of evidence and attribution, or perhaps it’s just the Scot who is terrified of having a thought that – heaven forfend – is inadvertently and erroneously passed off as one’s own in an un-celtic moment of getting above one’s station. Not so much a case of Careful now, I kent yer faither, and more one of I kent yer faither’s previously published work. Accordingly, I was and remain a serial over-citer. Although Reader, I read them all. Honest.

There is nothing quite like that moment when you realise technology has left you behind. I used to work with fancy television kit for goodness sake, surely I can manage a year of reading and writing. So imagine my delight at discovering the revelation that is referencing software! All your journal articles (now available online, whodathunkit?!), books (likewise), grey literature, and original work handily collated in a database (often stored in the cloud), ready to be inserted as an inline citation in your Word document at the click of a button. Need to change to Chicago referencing style? Not a problem. Want to change it all to APA (maybe because your word count needs beefed up)? No dramas. Want to make your in-line citations a slightly different colour or size? Sure! Want to read up on the psychosocial impact of CBRN terrorism on a civilian population on your phone whilst freaking out those sitting around you on the 122 bus home? Go for it.

There are a number of reference managers such as Mendeley, EndNote and Zotero out there, each with their own unique features and costs. There are myriad sites and fora out there discussing their relative merits and your learning institution will most certainly have guides on how to use and download them. Of course, if you are under the age of 30 and reading this, you will no doubt see all of this as obvious. For some of us old enough to remember what the ‘save icon’ on your computer actually represents, it’s a game changer. Be kind, we’re very old and tired. GoogleScholar is still voodoo.

Naturally, it’s not foolproof. I’m currently struggling through a potential migration from Mendeley after some uncertainty over its ongoing compatibility with macOS Big Sur. Indeed, if like me you still get a thrill from taking the time to correctly format your references and see it as a final step before submission, fret not, there are always formatting issues with which to contend.

Whilst I’m on the subject of technology, take the time to set up your institutional VPN access and particularly any rights you have for academic literature access via Shibboleth or OpenAthens. Even small things like having preloaded printing credits were useful as it forced me in to the library (what luxury) to see what was possible now I was part of an academic institution. Such things are even more important and central now that remote and blended learning has become the norm.

embrace the process

Articles, scripts, treatments, training courses, pitches, instruction manuals, rambling blogs… I’ve written them all. A year tapping out some essays and a weighty dissertation wasn’t going to be that hard. I was wrong. Whilst I can tell a story, there aren’t many points given for lyrical style and rightly so. Compared to waving a verbose introduction that meanders from a sketch in Tate Britain to a review of the impacts of detention, via the former Millbank Penitentiary, Bentham’s panopticon and Michel Foucault, writing thousands of words in a second or third language is far more impressive. The research articles I most enjoyed reading, could weave an engaging narrative but they are few and far between. The research articles that were of most importance (books notwithstanding), were often denser, drier and more formulaic than an office sandwich spread, but for very sound epistemological reasons.

I’m used to deadlines, indeed I’m used to multiple deadlines a day. I know I can assimilate and process vast amounts of disparate information, yet on more than one occasion professional hubris almost got the better of me. Reading academic literature is a skill. Writing academically is a skill. Writing academically to a deadline is a skill. Writing a dissertation or a thesis is a huge undertaking, no matter one’s previous experiences. With hindsight, I wish I had been far more willing to come forward and ask for help with academic writing. Again, there are countless formal and informal resources out there to help, but more often than not and in the face of competing priorities for my time, I decided to plough on regardless, hoping that being able to spin a half-decent narrative yarn would get me through. (Re)learning the academic process is as much a part and the joy of learning again, as the course content. I got there… in the end… I think.

WHAT on earth is snakebite and black?

Returning to university is not going back to university. The technology, demographics, finances, environment and wider pressures on (typical) students have changed massively in the past couple of decades. Friends who work in further education often claim there is more transactional culture around tertiary education, compared to the halcyon days before eye-wateringly high fees. Indeed, I felt there was more in common between my Professor’s experience of learning and my own, than my own and that of most of my colleagues despite the similar time gap. Several of my cohort were hugely worried about their job prospects after graduation, and the pressure to earn. The first time I met two of my classmates was at our graduation after they had opted to complete the course via remote learning. One commuted weekly from mainland Europe. Some enrolled for very specific professional reasons, were still working, attended a handful of lectures and were never seen again. Others were fresh out of their undergraduate courses, did it out of general interest and the wider need to get a masters qualification perhaps in a sign of growing credentialism or devaluing of undergraduate education. A few had children. Many had moved to London two days before the course had started. And all of this was pre-COVID.

I too had changed. Although I was fortunate enough to have all but stopped work in order to study, the competing demands on my time were not the same as they had been almost two decades previously. Study isn’t like employment and requires a totally different form of emotional and intellectual engagement. I approached it like a job, but in reality it is so much more.

Whilst I admired those who had clearly defined pathways on which they were set, I did miss the spontaneity of spirited academic discussion in the students’ union at 2pm that I had naively assumed would take place. On reflection, I’m not sure that actually ever happened first time round. However, returning to study was a fantastic opportunity to meet a much wider variety of people than I had been able to previously (and this from someone whose professional life brought them in to contact with a hugely diverse cross-section of the world, albeit in specific contexts). With a bit of organising, the chance to talk and learn from fellow students is invaluable and unique, but it does take effort, perhaps doubly so if you are a grumpy older adult in the room. The utter weirdness of the experience should be embraced. Again, with hindsight, I wish I had planned the time and capacity to fall down intellectual rabbit holes. Professionally, if you pay me I will be interested in almost everything. In this instance, I could explore what interested me, even without knowing what that is in the first instance.


Returning to education is a huge undertaking, but also a massive privilege. With the benefit of hindsight (and a year at home under lockdown), I wish I had been more comfortable admitting to myself an embracing what I didn’t know, whether that was in terms of course content, process or just the wider learning environment. That sort of self-reflection is hard, especially when one is in the middle of it all. However, taking a moment to realise that returning to learning is an utterly unique experience with all the doubts, ignorances and challenges that brings, is hugely important.

My dissertation supervisor told me that whilst studying for their PhD, they once spent the best part of a day staring out the window thinking about competing theories in order to work out what to do next. ‘How brilliant and weird is that? You don’t get to do that in any other context’, they commented. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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