Studying as a Masters and PhD student

Penny shares their experience of being a Masters and PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Penny is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.

Photograph of Penny

I have studied at Sheffield as a postgraduate student twice, once as what we call a PGT (postgraduate taught student) and currently as a PGR (postgraduate research student). PGT means you are doing a taught Masters or postgraduate diploma or certificate. PGR means you are doing a research Masters or, more usually, a doctorate – in my case, a PhD.

Being a postgrad is both similar and different to being an undergraduate student. When I was doing my MSc in Digital Library Management, I had a lot of help from the Disability and Dyslexia Support Service. I was quite anxious, especially as I did my first degree via distance learning and though I had some disability support for things like exams, I was able to avoid a lot of the stuff that stressed me out. DDSS helped me with the forms and with working out how my needs had changed or would be likely to change.

I knew I would be commuting from my home in Leeds to Sheffield, so it was good to know that I could reserve books from any of the university’s libraries and pick them up from the nearest one to my department. Trekking around campus is not my idea of fun, and I was working throughout my Masters.

I had reasonable adjustments for lectures held in a building I found difficult (it has improved now), which involved using a different entrance. My tutors were aware I am autistic and so were my fellow students, so the way I communicate in class wasn’t seen as a problem.

I especially liked working on my dissertation during my Masters, as during the holidays the campus is quiet and so you can get a lot of work done and spread your work everywhere. Some people went “home” for the summer, but I kept commuting in. It matters less who you are friends with and what you do outside the course as a postgrad, but I did join some societies and it made me feel more a part of things, which some people commuting in didn’t so much. There were a lot of international students and I found it easier sometimes to talk to them than home students, but we were from all different backgrounds, ages and countries and that can help as an autistic person who doesn’t fit in easily.

PhD study is different again, because there are no holidays other than when the university is closed over Christmas and Easter. So there are big chunks of the year when it feels like nothing is set up for postgrads, because so much is term-time only or reduced when the undergrads aren’t there. You also have to structure your own time and keep up with things yourself.

Supervisors help, but there are only so many reasonable adjustments people can make when it’s your research and your thesis and your viva. They can’t change the requirements of academia itself, it’s much less focused on you than when you are a taught student. I have also worked throughout my PhD, and that causes tensions with my department because “work” and “PhD” days are less easily defined than when you are attending classes or have course deadlines.

I do love being able to get stuck into my subject and take advantage of all the other things you can do as a postgrad student, like apply for bursaries to attend conferences and travel around the world.

About the author

Penny Andrews is finishing writing their thesis at the University of Sheffield