I handed in my thesis this week which means, for those keeping track at home, that I’ve now finished my MA.
It’s an odd feeling: anticlimactic, for one. During undergrad, we all finished at the same time — after a brief, intense period of exams there was May Week, and then results came out, and then we graduated, which saw us all off the premises with appropriate pomp and grandeur. There was a finality to it, and plenty of opportunities to say goodbye to everyone.
By contrast, the small handful of us on this course are all finishing at slightly different times, with the majority handing in from a distance, having already left Cork. They’re long gone, scattered to the four winds; those of us who remain attend seminars as quasi-students, no longer required to be there but remaining out of habit, and one by one we complete our theses and disappear. Thanks to Covid, I know almost nobody outside of this particular course, so the list of people to say goodbye to is short, but it still feels odd, this strange winding down of things.
I’m not the partying type, nor did I have the money to go to half a dozen May Balls in undergrad to blow off steam post-finals (I went to the Ulidia-Finn conference on Skye instead, because I’m a nerd, and then a single June Event). But there was something about that week of social events and frivolities to celebrate the end of the year that made all the hard work I’d done feel more real — that made it clear that yes, it really was over. Now, without that marker, I’m half convinced somebody’s going to pop out of the woodwork to tell me that I’ve missed something, that I haven’t finished after all.
UCC has been a very different experience from Cambridge. At times, it’s hard to know how much that’s because the two universities are so very different, how much it’s the difference between undergrad and postgrad, and how much it’s simply that I’m older and in a very different headspace. I’ll be honest: I was miserable most of the way through undergrad. By contrast, postgrad me has only very occasionally cried over work, even if I’ve cried over other things. That’s an improvement, right?
I took two years out after finishing undergrad, convinced I was leaving academia. That evidently didn’t turn out to be the case, but those two years were important in teaching me that there was a life outside studying. It gave me a useful sense of perspective, which I think has helped when I felt overwhelmed, although I also think I’ve simply been a lot less overwhelmed. An MA might be more challenging than a BA in some regards, but the Cambridge workload and course structure was… pretty nightmarish, to be honest. The first time I realised I was only expected to write a couple of essays a semester here, it blew my mind. Sure, so the essays counted and they actually had to be good — my undergrad supervision essays certainly weren’t — but there were so few of them! And they were on topics I was actually studying!
The year has had other challenges. We bounced from one set of Covid restrictions to another, and all the while I’m living alone, lacking opportunities to socialise. Living alone was a new experience in itself, since I’ve always had housemates or family around me before this. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed it, though it’s encouraged many of my bad habits; I’ve been to bed at 5am more times than is wise for anyone, and my flat’s a mess, with no particular reason to deal with my clutter resulting in me simply… not dealing with it. But I’ve been lonely, at times, and the run-up to last Christmas was particularly bad, as I anticipated a day spent alone, a long way from family.
I’ve missed dance. My flat is tiny, and the studios were shut for the most of the year. (They’re open now, so inevitably I have an injury that limits my ability to walk, let alone dance. Thanks, body.) I’ve missed feeling in control of my body, having a chance to de-stress that doesn’t involve looking at a screen, and the social element that came from regular dance classes. I’ve struggled with increased injuries and pain because my muscles are deconditioned, and that’s been pretty miserable. So the lockdowns have definitely proven a major challenge in that regard, even if I have appreciated the total lack of food-based socialising. (It’s been a great year and a half of not getting poisoned in order to feel included in a group!)
And of course, getting a book deal was a dream come true, but one that complicated matters: balancing academic deadlines with edits meant I never really got a break. My thesis was originally due in September, extended to December because of disruption caused by Covid. It wasn’t the pandemic that meant I needed it, though: it was The Butterfly Assassin. I don’t think there’s any way I could have got my thesis and my edits done on time according to the original deadline without completely giving up on sleeping, which would have been bad. I have fatigue and chronic pain, so I spend a lot more time horizontal than most people do; juggling an MA and a debut novel with such limited hours of function each day is… maybe not ideal.
I still managed to write 115k of the sequel in the last two weeks before thesis hand-in, though, because sometimes when I’m stressed it manifests as words. Just as I suddenly translated a lot more early modern Irish when I was stressed about publishing — playing the two causes of stress off against each other proved a pretty effective way of keeping each in check, and I would highly recommend academic deadlines as a way to stop checking your emails while waiting on publishing news.
(And I’m lucky that my supervisor was not only patient with my deadline-juggling, but invested in my book and the publishing journey: during most of our meetings he would ask how it was going, and where we were at in the process, and what was coming next. At times, these were a cathartic opportunity to vent about the inscrutability of publishing and the powerlessness one can feel as a debut author; at other times, it was a chance to celebrate progress. Mostly the former, though, not gonna lie.)
I don’t know what I’m doing next. For some people, the absence of firm commitments would feel liberating. For me, it feels slightly like stepping off the edge of a cliff. I have nothing pinned down at all for the next couple of months, and it’s going to be a strange experience, to be without constant deadlines hanging over my head. There are a couple of opportunities I’m pursuing, but it’s entirely possible (in fact, it’s likely) that neither of them will work out, so I can’t plan for the future. The Butterfly Assassin comes out in May; that’s more or less the only thing I know about next year.
I know that some of my supervisors are hoping I’ll do a PhD, or at least, they think I’m more than capable of one and it would be a shame if I didn’t. A few years ago, I’d have scoffed at the idea; now, I’ve considered it enough to have researched some of my options, looking at where I might go and what I might do. I enjoy research, even if I complain endlessly about the process of academic writing (fiction feels so easy by comparison), and I can’t see myself being done with medieval Irish lit any time soon… or perhaps early modern Irish lit, my most recent research having very much taken the “periodisation is fake” approach to my official degree title (Early and Medieval Irish) and wandered a long way into the seventeenth century and beyond.
But funding deadlines for a 2022 start are imminent, and without a proposal in mind, I won’t be rushing in an application. Despite the sense of vague inevitability about it — I seem to be the kind of person that academia just happens to — I’m not committing to anything at this point. In truth, I’ve got no plans to stay in academia long-term for work; I’m not interested in the constant grind of short-term highly competitive jobs that would have me ricocheting all over the country/world, never able to settle down for more than a year, and these seem par for the course for early career researchers. That means it’s not worth doing a PhD just for the sake of it, because I don’t “need” it. But if I find I have a topic in mind, then that’ll change things.
I came back to do an MA because I had a thesis topic and wanted the support and resources to research it. Since I firmly intend to continue my medievalist shenanigans informally the way I did post-undergrad, it’s plausible I’ll stumble on something that would make a viable PhD thesis. And that’ll change things. In the meantime, I’m keeping my mind and options open, and looking at other ways I might utilise my research skills and experience.
And as for my MA thesis topic? Well, I think I did what I set out to do. I wanted to write about Láeg mac Riangabra, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, because he’s interesting and has been neglected in academic discussions before now. I came in with a pretty clear idea of the texts I wanted to look at and the directions I planned to go in, and many of these proved to be correct; there were no dramatic revelations that completely changed my angle. At the same time, there were new facets I hadn’t considered and texts I wasn’t familiar with. My conclusions now are not the same as they would have been a year ago, because I learned more: this is good, and expected. But they aren’t wildly different either: I arrived pretty firmly on the path, probably by virtue of having two years to play with my ideas before I started.
My goal was to come out the other end of this degree knowing more about Láeg: I do. I also know more about palaeography, a skill I regretted not developing in undergrad, and believe it or not, I’d hazard my medieval Irish grammar has got better too — though my spelling has got worse, as a result of spending too much time in the orthographic hellscape of the early modern period. My modern Irish hasn’t improved as much after a year in Ireland as I’d hoped, but lockdown can be blamed for that: I find language-learning over Zoom intensely difficult, and opportunities to speak to people IRL have been few. It’s something I plan to work on over the next year, though whether this is more self-teaching or whether I’m able to find classes will very much depend on where I end up living past the next few months.
What I’ve most valued about my time at UCC hasn’t been the subject matter, though. I’ve enjoyed being part of an academic community. My supervisors and lecturers have been encouraging and enthusiastic. Specialising in the thing I was best at during undergrad (medieval Irish lit) has given me the chance to gain confidence as a scholar. Good things have come in twos: I’ve given two undergrad lectures, presented at two conferences, had two papers pass peer review and be accepted for publication. And while it would be easy to dismiss my higher grades as a discrepancy between Cambridge and UCC’s standards — something I’ve been tempted to do on numerous occasions, because I love to put myself down — I think that’s doing myself a disservice. I know I’m a better scholar than I was during undergrad. I know more, I care more, and being less overwhelmed gave me the time to focus on the things that matter.
I don’t know what my final grade will be, or even when I’m due to receive it. I don’t know when graduation is, and therefore at what point I officially become a Master. But I know this: I’m coming out of my MA more confident in my knowledge and skills, and with a totally different attitude towards academia than the one I left undergrad with. I may be burned out from months of back-to-back publishing and academic deadlines, but I’m not an exhausted husk determined never to return. I have plans to mine my thesis and coursework for articles; I’ve spent time in the library this week scanning texts I want to translate and work with in my own time; and I’m looking forward to having the time and space to make videos again.
Whatever else happens, it’s clear Celtic Studies isn’t free of me yet.
But oooh, boy, I’m sure going to miss academic library access.
You can support me in accumulating my own personal academic library by buying me a coffee. Alternatively, if you want to support me in having a less void-like future that involves an actual career, now is a great time to pre-order The Butterfly Assassin.
Well, that’s pleasant!
This is a lovely article – firstly congratulations on your Mastership! Secondly, I’m so glad you feel like less of an exhausted husk about academia. As a fellow Cam graduate I definitely know that feeling of being totally wiped out after undergrad. I’m considering doing an MA as well after what will also be two years out by the time next autumn rolls around and I was just wondering how you prepared for it/came up with a topic/actually went ahead and applied? I have no idea what specifically I want to research. I’m an anthropologist if that helps (it certainly doesn’t help me decide as it basically allows you to study anything in the whole wide world lol) and I’m low key feeling quite a lot of imposter syndrome. Hope you manage to have a nice rest now the work is done 😊
I definitely think the post-Cambridge recovery period is very necessary… I know people who went straight on to postgrad, but I fear them, to be honest.
I came to my topic kind of sideways – I was writing a novel retelling the Táin and wanted Láeg to narrate some of it, for convenience, but I didn’t really know anything about him. It was the first time I’d paid attention to him and the more I wrote about him, the more questions I had. Over time I realised if I wanted to answer those questions properly, I’d be best off doing an MA and doing the research thoroughly, especially as a bunch of texts I wanted to work with hadn’t been edited/translated so I would need to improve my skills with manuscripts and language. Then it was just a case of figuring out where to go (and how to fund it – in the end I had a scholarship to cover fees, but had to cover living costs myself)… Celtic Studies is easier in this regard since the shortlist is so much shorter and it was easy to cross places off based on practicalities.
A lot of my fellow MA students didn’t have a fixed thesis topic in mind when they started, though, so I don’t think my level of preparation was necessary (even if it was helpful). In which case, looking at the taught elements of a programme might be a more useful starting point: what skills are you looking to develop? Where would give you the opportunity to do that and what are the specialisms of their staff? What have they written that interests you? And then from there just figure out what questions you have that excite you enough to want to figure out the answer. (Many places don’t require a super detailed proposal at application, though you often need more of an idea for scholarship applications.)
Idk if this helps at all, but it might be a way to start.
That’s really helpful, thanks Finn. I like the idea about focusing on skills and the specialisms of the staff and what interests me about what they’ve written. I have a few places in mind to apply to so I’ll have a look through the staff and see what they’re up to 😊
loved reading this, Finn. I finished my honours (the fourth year in NZ, you do a little dissertation), and totally feel the hunger for more study but not right now. I have a job which I love, but it’s a 6 month contract and not sure what comes next in the rest of next year… heaps of writing projects and moving places and life stuff in the background but like how do I piece this together? I’d love to do a Masters and I’m getting to present some research at a conference next week but not sure what I’d be willing to put that much time / that many words into. I find the idea of specialising so attractive but I also want to learn so broadly, and of course the academic system is screwed up and privileges certain people in lots of ways so lots to be thoughtful about. big congrats to you, and I am really excited to read The Butterfly Assassin! On a personal note I love how you have written about Irish/Celtic music and dance over the last few years, its’ definitely inspired me as I’ve been learning to turn my classical viola skills into fiddling, and cool to embrace the British Isles parts of my whakapapa. so thanks heaps for writing about that!
Thank you! Yeah, the post-studying void of “oh God, what now?” can be so intimidating, but I definitely think it’s worth taking the time before doing an MA rather than rushing into it. I know people who went straight into it and were fine, so fair play to them, but I think there’s a lot of value in taking the time to build up other skills and contacts in the “real” world, as well as having the chance to think things over and get some ideas together before embarking on further study. It’s good that you’re enjoying your job at least. My first job out of undergrad I HATED, lol.