applying for grad school in the UK

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Two weeks from today, I’ll be in London — home of Will & Kate, Paddington Bear, and late-night kebab shops (the holy trinity). On October 1st I’ll start my master’s in International Migration and Public Policy at the London School of Economics. Disclaimer: obviously doing a master’s degree, especially in another country, is a huge privilege, and an opportunity that I’m very grateful for. Also, I’m not an expert, and all of this is based off of my own experience. It’s been almost a year since I started the process of applying for grad school in the UK. At the time, I found it totally hectic and confusing and overwhelming, so I thought I’d write this little guide for anyone who’s thinking of doing the same thing.

Choosing Your Unis:

I knew I wanted to study in Europe, and maybe stay to work afterwards, so an English-speaking country was a huge plus (I am tragically monolingual, but working on it!). When I started researching programs, I noticed that several schools in England offered a combination of immigration and public policy, which is my absolute jam. (Side note: I also considered applying elsewhere in Europe but decided against it in the end. Applications are pricey so I stuck to four.) Doing a masters in the UK is expensive but definitely cheaper than some countries (like the US), and since a lot of programs are only one year long, the costs are similar to a two-year program in Canada. There are also a lot of benefits, like gaining international perspective on a subject, having access to programs that aren’t offered in Canada, and an easier transition to working abroad afterwards.

I applied to four different schools: King’s College, University College London, the London School of Economics (all — surprise! — in London), and the University of Oxford. When I started researching schools, lots of people told me to forget about London because the tuition and living costs are higher there than in other parts of the UK. Buuut I wanted to live in a big, diverse city to study immigration — and most of the programs that I liked best happened to be in London. Not to mention schools there are pretty well known, even to potential employers in Canada. For me, it was most important to choose a city and country where I could see myself living.

Master’s programs in the UK are a bit different from those in Canada. There are at least three different kinds:

    • Taught programs (like mine!) are classroom based and include a dissertation but no fieldwork-type, hands-on research; they’re usually only one year long
    • Research programs include some classes and some hands-on research. These are also usually one year, and are intended for students who have a specific research topic/design in mind
    • MPhil programs (“master’s of philosophy”) are something between a master’s and a PhD — they’re research-based and can be several years long

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Different schools are also known for different subjects — which, as an international student, can be hard to pick up on. You can check the QS World University Rankings by subject and the Times Higher Education university rankings, but take these lists and and their rubrics with several grains of salt. Tbh I talked to everyone I could — sent random people messages on Instagram because their profiles mentioned one of the schools I was interested in, talked to my profs about their grad school experiences, and got my boyfriend to quiz everyone he knows who has ever even thought about doing a master’s degree. All that info helped me narrow it down to four universities that are excellent for teaching social sciences, but, of course, there are loads of other great options out there!

Across the Pond is a good resource for finding programs you might be interested in, and they can help you with your applications (I believe there are fees attached — I didn’t use this service but did explore the website a bit).

Applications:

Most schools open their applications in November. All four of mine required:

    • References (at least two – mainly academic, although I did submit one from a former volunteer supervisor since it was relevant to the program)
    • A personal statement
    • Transcript(s) from all my previous universities (including semesters abroad)
    • A CV (for my fellow Canadians: the term “CV” is the most confusing thing in the world. Sometimes it means a huge, academic document, but sometimes it just means a resume. I ended up submitting a bit of both, a document that included my work and volunteer experience, plus scholarships/awards and relevant coursework)

One application (Oxford) also asked for writing samples – I submitted excerpts from a few essays that seemed relevant to the program, since I didn’t write a thesis in my undergrad.

I started asking my professors for references mid-October. This was super nerve-wracking, but everyone was very nice and helpful. One of my references was a prof I’d taken two classes with and knew quite well. Though I’d only taken one class with the other professor, that class was extremely relevant to the graduate programs I was applying for. If possible, try to find a professor who’s willing to edit your personal statement as well as providing a reference.

I found writing my personal statement/statement of interest extremely confusing. You can find a lot of helpful guides out there for what to include, but the most useful thing for me was reading over friends’ old statements and getting feedback from my professors. My statement ended up touching on my background, why I chose the particular programs, and what experience I had (work/volunteer/classes).

Re: Transcripts. Don’t be discouraged if your grades during undergrad aren’t as high as you’d like them to be. All the schools I looked into say they also evaluate applicants based on relevant work/volunteer experience, especially if you’ve taken a break between your bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Different universities also have different minimum GPA requirements, if this is a major concern for you.

 

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All the schools I applied to use “rolling admissions,” meaning they start considering applications as soon as they come in. So, if you apply later in the year, the university might still be accepting applications even though your intended program is nearly full. Cue anxiety. Oxford had an early deadline (mid-November) to qualify for scholarships, and I submitted my other applications by the end of November to make sure I got them in early.

I kept track of all my document submissions and applications in a spreadsheet — gotta love a spreadsheet. I was completing my undergrad and working part-time during the application process, making it the most stressful few months. But it was also exciting, especially discussing/complaining about applications with friends who were also applying to grad school, and feeling more than a little bit like Harry Potter (if he’d had to submit references to get into Hogwarts, that is).

Let’s go to grad school!

So you chose your schools, submitted applications, and (fingers crossed) got accepted at your first choice uni! It took me a few (excruciatingly indecisive) months to decide which school to attend, but I’m so happy that I chose the London School of Economics.

There are lots of other things to sort out before you start your master’s in the UK, including your visa, tuition, accommodation, living expenses and flights. You can check out the Student Room, an online forum all about applications and student life in the UK (but be warned, a lot of posts and comments aren’t very helpful, especially for international students). Most universities offer some funding, though scholarships are rare for international students and some (like the Chevening and Rhodes Scholarships) have very early application deadlines. Unfortunately, the initial application is just one step in a big old complicated process of actually going to grad school. But it’s also a huge step, so congratulations if you’ve even read this far!

Feel free to contact me if you have questions about applying to grad school in the UK. Now back to putting off my packing and binge watching the IT Crowd (“research”). See you in a few weeks, London!

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january blues

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When I was younger, I never understood why people hate January so much. Winter is my favourite season – that lack of daylight? Great excuse to be in your pajamas by 6 pm. And sweaters? Sweaters are right up there as humanity’s best invention. Another big pro for January: my birthday is this month, and I thought that should be enough to cheer everyone up (modesty has never been my strong suit). But this year, more than most, I get it.

January is tough. A lot of people are diving headfirst into a new year, weighed down by ambitious resolutions and met with cold weather, short days, and a sense of unavoidable failure. To top it all off, I read that today is unofficially dubbed “Blue Monday,” aka the saddest day of the year.

Here are a few things I’ve been trying to beat the “January blues”. I hope this month – and today in particular – you find extra reasons to be happy.

Beating the January Blues

1// Plan for the seasons. This might seem obvious, but there’s nothing worse than coming up with really fun plans only to have them ruined by the weather. I visited a few parks when I was in London earlier this month, and although they were beautiful – and very quiet! – I couldn’t stay for long before my fingers were freezing and the sky was getting dark. Instead, spend winter doing all the things that seem like a waste of a lovely day in summertime: movie marathons, baking, painting, visiting museums, re-decorating or re-arranging your room, or spending an afternoon at that fancy coffee shop you’ve been meaning to visit.

2// Invest in long-term gratification. I’ve spent the past few years trying to get better at this, which is tough when you have virtually no will power! But if you’re feeling down this time of year, it can help to have something to look forward to (and I don’t mean spring). Buy a film camera so you have to wait for the pictures to be developed, or mail a package to a friend so they’ll be surprised in a couple of weeks. If it feels like you don’t have anything exciting coming up, make something yourself!

3// Try a short-term challenge/scheduled program. Go vegan for a week or read 5 books this month. This 30 day yoga challenge is absolutely brilliant and super fun (although, tbh, I never made it past day 10. Maybe this year!). If you’re anything like me, having short-term goals that promise noticeable results can make you feel productive even in your lowest season.

Please tell me how you deal with feeling down this time of year. I hope January is good to you, and that you’re extra good to yourself. Happy Blue Monday (blue is a very nice colour, after all)!

Christmas in London

Better late than never? I’ve been in London for two weeks, visiting museums, sight-seeing, and eating so much that none of my clothes will fit anymore once I go back home. And of course, I’ve been enjoying my new favourite hobby: looking at Christmas decorations. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I think there’s something magical about this time of year. The lights, the trees, the wreaths hanging from every door (#wreathwatch is a big deal). London has been looking even more like a picture book than normal.

(Side note: I found a few super cute picture books about London, but decided to save them for another time, considering I’ve bought a few too many books and my suitcase is probably overweight already.)

This was my first Christmas away from my family, and I had a hard time feeling as festive as I normally would. It’s difficult to be excited and homesick at the same time. But nice people and a good Skype connection helped – not to mention these views. Christmas in London looked a little bit like this:

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going on exchange (with anxiety)

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It was dark outside. It could have been day or night, the Swedish winter isn’t picky. I was lying in bed, brain and body still not speaking to each other thanks to the jet-lag, and I was not doing well. I scrolled through my Facebook contacts, looking for somebody to talk to, but time zones are cruel things. “Active four hours ago” made my heart sink. I felt completely and helplessly alone.

I can’t claim to be an expert on either topic, studying abroad or anxiety. But, as a person who absolutely loved living in Sweden for six months despite near-constant anxiety, I thought I’d try to write something that might be helpful for someone else.

Moving or traveling somewhere new can be scary for anyone, but if you struggle with anxiety it can be hard even to imagine signing up for that kind of life change. Either way, here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I moved to Uppsala, Sweden:

  1. It’s okay not to be excited.

I have friends who said goodbye at the departures terminal of their favourite airport with a big smile on their face – leaving, to them, was just another adventure. And while I admire that cavalier attitude, but I was too busy worrying about how things would change back home or how much I’d miss everything to feel that kind of no-worries-excitement. If the idea of traveling to a new country and leaving your friends and family behind fills you with more fear than joy, that’s okay. You can still have a great time, and being scared does not make you ungrateful.

  1. Be prepared.

You might not know how you’ll react – emotionally, mentally or physically – to your new surroundings. But you can do your best in advance to make the transition easier. Pack your favourite clothes and a stuffed animal. Print out pictures to hang on your wall, but don’t put them up if they make you feel sad or jealous. Do some research and try to find at least one thing that you are looking forward to in your new country, so that you know you will have that, regardless of what else happens. For me, this meant shopping at IKEA and Happy Socks. Making realistic plans and packing tangible comforts is the best way to combat the inevitable onslaught of what ifs. What if I don’t make any friends? You will, of course. But even if everything goes horribly wrong, you can still catch a train to Stockholm and have a great day exploring Gamla Stan.

  1. Push yourself (out of your room).

This is so, so important in your first few weeks. There’s a good chance you’ll be jetlagged and homesick and disoriented, but don’t curl up for a Netflix marathon just yet. Try to attend a couple orientation activities, or explore your new city. Most people you meet will be equally new, lost, and eager to make friends. Pushing yourself doesn’t mean you need to go out every night if that isn’t your thing, or become best friends with the first person you meet. But try your best, especially at the beginning, to be around other people and make plans together.

  1. Be kind to yourself.

Being in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by new people, and trying out words in a new language, is draining. Pay attention to your physical and mental health, as this kind of change can take a toll on both. So yes, do try your best to get out and socialize, but if you need to spend a day in bed doing nothing, recognize that that’s okay too. If you’re studying abroad, you live there now. That’s a lot different than being on vacation – it means that you’re allowed to have off days and regroup. Check in with your friends and family back home, and your new friends, too. If you are having a hard time adjusting, chances are they are too.

  1. It will be worth it.

Even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, or while you’re waiting at your gate in the airport. Trust me on this.

This might not be you at all. You might be one of those eager, adventurous types who is always on the move. And if so, I envy you. But if, like me, you’re shy and sentimental, afraid of change or anxious about the prospect of uncharted territory, that’s okay too. You can still go new places and do big things, and you will be just fine.

pictures of Paris

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Last week I spent four wonderful days in Paris with some friends. We ate bread for nearly every meal, spent an afternoon at the Musée D’Orsay, and trudged up all 300 steps to the top of the Sacré Coeur.

Now I’m back in Sweden, looking through pictures and dreaming of my future life in Paris. I will have a cat with the most French name I can think of, something like Jean-Pierre-Étienne or perhaps just Croissant. I will live in a bright white building with overflowing window boxes on the Île St Louis. And, of course, I will order fresh baguettes in flawless French.

Until that day, here are some pictures of Paris to get you started on your daydreaming, too.

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a day at Vrångö

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Have you ever been to a place that felt familiar from the second you set foot there? We had a late start to the day, stopping for pastries and a long walk through the park before taking the tram to the ferry terminal. Vrångö is one of several islands just off the coast of Gothenburg in southwest Sweden. It’s home to approximately 400 people, and from our first steps onto the island, it felt like a special, private place.

The wind came off of the water in strong gusts, making it hard to keep your footing on the moss-covered rocks. There were people taking pictures, walking their dogs, and bravely having picnics on the cold ground. But there was also a calm sort of emptiness. It felt like coming back to a place you knew a long time ago, and recognizing every tree and cliff you passed.

If you walk along the coastline, taking in the view of the endless ocean, you come to a trail. We walked for half an hour through the woods, moving from dense pine forests to rocky outcroppings, until we caught our first glimpse of the people of Vrångö. Clustered close along the shore like they were keeping each other warm was a village of red-roofed houses. And, perched above it all on a cliff overlooking the sea, stood the pilot’s house.

It hadn’t been used for a long time, said the information sheet outside the building when we finally made our way up the rock face, following signs through people’s back gardens and climbing jagged, mismatched steps. But once, years ago, the pilot would sit in this house and make sure boats made it safely to shore.

After dozens of photos and being buffeted by the wind, we climbed back down and walked to the dock. There’s a lovely little cafe right where the boats arrive, though we had to wrap our cakes in napkins and run out the door because the ferry was approaching. Vrångö was exactly what I dreamed of when I first came to Sweden: quiet, secluded, sitting right at the edge of the sea like it’s ready to dive in at any moment. We listened to podcasts and tried to play with the dogs lying next to us on the ferry ride back. The next time you find yourself in Sweden, be sure to visit Vrångö for a perfect afternoon.

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the 100 postcard project

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As soon as I read this post by Naomi Bulger, I ran to the library and bought a thick stack of postcards to put in the mail. Mrs. Bulger, an avid snail-mail advocate and illustrator, is on a mission to send one thousand postcards to strangers around the world in 2017. You can sign up on her website to receive yours very soon.

Her project made me think about how much I love receiving handwritten notes in the mail, and how I want to give other people the excitement of spotting an unexpected card in their mailbox.

My mail slot is the top one in my corridor. I have to stand on my tippy-toes to look inside every morning, convinced that a tiny envelope or sweet postcard could have slid to the back. Most days it’s empty – but when it’s not, I unlock the little door, grab my mail and twirl down the hall to my room to open it.

So I went out and bought a stack of postcards, and if you’d like, I’ll send one your way. Just fill in your name and mailing address below. I’ll never share it or use it for anything else.

As Naomi writes on her blog, I’d love to send you a line from a poem, a story, a recipe, or something else that I hope will brighten your day. And maybe (fingers crossed) you’ll turn around and send someone a postcard, too.