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Monday, 17 April 2023

Mature Student

Little remembered in these memoirs is my three years as a mature student at Hull University, and so it will remain. I enjoyed it immensely, but it was clouded by relationship issues, best forgotten.

Otherwise, the course was everything I could have hoped for, full of exciting ideas and ways of thinking about the world. It was both literate and numerate, examining competing theories and their supporting evidence, along with experimental design, statistics and data analysis.

Psychology was a diverse, well-rounded subject in those days. The popular belief that it dwells on people’s oddities is mistaken. It is a rigourous, scientific discipline. To give some idea of this, among my favourite topics were: how we acquire and learn to use language, how intellectual development changes with circumstances, the transmission of learning within groups of primates, Richard Dawkins’ ideas about The Selfish Gene, and the concept of life as an agent of negative entropy.

What I did not anticipate was that, of the 68 on the course, around 15 of us would be over the age of twenty-five, with more over twenty-one. The department took a favourable attitude towards mature students, and accepted a larger than average number each year. Some, like me, were looking for a complete change of career. Others were psychiatric nurses hoping to move into clinical psychology. There were mothers with children at school, taking the opportunity to get a degree. The upshot was, unlike the term I spent in teacher training, I had no sense of being older or out of place.  

We had a good time socially. As mature students, we could join the research students’ association, which had its own bar in a quiet part of the campus. Although these were still the days of strict licensing hours, one of us got elected on to the committee, with keys to the bar, and it was not unknown for drinks to be served after it should have closed for the afternoon. A couple of alcoholic lecturers became regulars, and their insights into how to play the academic game were invaluable. One was so bright, he had more than once got through to the finals of The Times national crossword competition. “Never again in your lives,” he said one day, “will you belong to such a group of intelligent well-informed people”. He may have been right.

I was well-aware how privileged and different it was from my previous existence. People in Leeds would still be slaving away at desks from nine in the morning until half past five at night in dingy offices, wearing uncomfortable suits, shirts and ties, peering at columns of numbers, contributing to the economy. Meanwhile, I was answerable only to myself, responsible for my own workload. There was no one to tell me to get up in the morning. I began to question what I was doing. Was it to be just an interlude from reality, a self-indulgent privilege? I stopped spending so much time in the research students’ bar, reworked the parts of the syllabus I found difficult (such as statistics) and applied myself properly. 

I applied the techniques and strategies that had worked so successfully at ‘A’ level: taking care to know what was expected, and being well-prepared by reworking lecture notes and reading around the topics.

One favourite place to work was beside the windows at the top of the university library, a wonderfully bright and quiet place with panoramic views to distant Lincolnshire. I watched the Humber Bridge suspension cables being spun.

        From the seventh floor, you can see England.
        Hull and East Riding,
        Holderness hiding,
        Humberside siding,
        Seems oh so small then.
        But we can see it.
        We live there.

        From the seventh floor, you can see Hull.
        River suspended,
        Towers up-ended,
        No part of the city
        The University.
        But we can see it.
        We work there.

        From the seventh floor, the campus.
        And there, by the way,
        Beside the pathway,
        In earth-science attic,
        All looks so static.
        But we can see it.
        We are there.

        From the Psychology tea room you can see sod all.
        Try as we’re able
        From coffee-cupped table
        To reach a perspective,
        The viewpoint’s defective.
        But can we see it?
        What do we there?

I graduated with a good degree. Three years reading textbooks and journal papers provides an ‘enriched environment’ that improves your ability to handle abstract ideas. Books I found demanding before university now seemed straightforward. I gained the confidence to set my own aims and ambitions rather than those I imagined others wanted for me. 

What to do next? I explored becoming a probation officer. I could have gone back to accountancy and made a success of it. But influenced by reading, particularly Christopher Evans’ ‘The Mighty Micro’, I went on to a one-year Masters degree in computing at UMIST, Manchester. Many thought computing and psychology unlikely bedfellows, but it led to a career along what is actually quite a fine line between the two subjects. 

21 comments:

  1. Interesting - most of my study was done as a mature student encouraged by my husband who always felt I should have stayed on at school and gone to University then - but money was short and my father was about to retire (I was an unexpected afterthought - my sister was 22 years older than me. But certainly in my case - there was a lot to be gained from being a mature student - by early thirties one has one's priorities in the right order and there were no "boy friend" distractions. I enjoyed every minute of doing my two degrees.

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    1. Mature students are often more focussed which and do well, although I do know of some who have gone off the rails having to structure their own time. I was very lucky to be in with a group of others who were older. The two married women on the course both got 2:1s (then they were hard to get) and like you had supportive spouses.

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    2. F was also a mature student nearer to 30 than 20 when she started and like Weaver (and possibly yourself) realized that choosing to go rather than treating it as a natural follow on from secondary education, changed the priority. It also meant that one brought life experience to the subjects studied which proved very useful at exam time.

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  2. I do regret not having the opportunity to go to University. It was never an option for me even though Dad did allow me to stay on at school for my A Levels. I was probably not bright enough anyway but I would have liked to have proved it to myself. Finances prevented me attending later as a mature student, although I did manage a few modules via the OU during my working life. Still, I have done OK, considering my shortcomings.

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    1. The OU modules would have given an indication of how well you would have done. I bet you would have done well. So many girls underachieved at that time, or were restricted by circumstances.

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  3. My son did his degree in psychology, and in his spare time taught himself several computer languages. So he'd agree that the two are perfectly compatible. Well done, you, for getting down to it and completing your degree.

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    1. Thank you. Psychologist were among the most active computer users in the early days, in many ways. The Dr Christopher Evans I mention was an expert in both these subjects.

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  4. My degrees are in accounting and the classics in literature. They never have been mutually exclusive. For some reason, Goodbye, Mr. Chips comes to mind.

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    1. A lot of innovations arise from the combination of two areas, whatever thay are, but especially when one is relatively new.

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  5. You did well, applying yourself to your studies while at the same time not pulling yourself completely out of the socialising part of campus life.
    Although I have not been to uni, I understand very well what two subjects which for some seem unrelated have in fact a lot to give to each other. The same is true with the different kinds of work I have been doing ever since 1986; from the library to managing the advertising in local weekly newspapers to selling point of sale hardware to data/privacy protection - I have taken useful things along with me from one job to the next, and ALL of them were much more about people than anything else.

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    1. I think the insights one brings from one area to another can often make a bit contribution. Employers who look for people who have only one set of stills are short sighted.

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  6. University years can be among the best and most rewarding years of our lives, no doubt about it!

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    1. Yes, but too many now go into it without sufficient thought, seeing it as a continuation of school.

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  7. You found where you fit, and you know, I envy you that.

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    1. Yes. I was extremely fortunate to be able to do it. I would not have been able to if not still single without ties.

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  8. I've read this post with delight, Tasker. It is just how education should be, exciting!

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    1. I had a sense of wonder throughout, touching upon the thinking of so many very clever people.

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  9. Meaningful learning should be about embracing knowledge or intellectual enquiry. Sadly, many of those who acquire degrees tend to see learning as a means to an end - something of a chore. When you say you were a "mature" student do you mean like some terribly stinky French cheeses or like your hiking socks after exploring The Kinder Plateau?

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    1. Officially used as a technical term meaning a student over the age of 25, or sometimes over 21.

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  10. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. Your time at Uni sounds marvellous, just as it should be. These days youngsters seem to go on to Uni just because they can, with not a thought as to which path to a career! I envy you so much because, as a girl in the 60's from a working class family, I had to leave school after passing my O levels and find a job. I went into the civil service (Inland Revenue) and then had to hand over most of my salary to my mum each month! Uni sounded quite exotic at that time although I was probably not bright enough to have coped with the work anyway đŸ™„

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    1. There were so many in my year (close to yours) at mu working-class grammar school who had to leave at 16, boys too but mainly girls. Getting into the IR was an achievement in itself so I feel sure you would have been OK at university. So many of us were underachievers and the schools did not seem to seem to realise it or care. I'm glad I went late. I envied those who went straight to uni but not all made the best of it.

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