Self-funding a Master’s degree… Good or bad idea?

The Guardian just published an interesting article about the pending decision on whether or not to introduce a system of state-backed loans for postgrads. The proposals would give students up to £10,000 to fund a (usually year long) Master’s course. In the article, several current and past Master’s students discuss how they funded their courses and their experiences of self-funding themselves through a year of study.

I’ve written about my experience below in case it helps anyone with the decision about whether or not to study for a Master’s.

Course: MA in Translation and Professional Language Skills, University of Bath

Cost of course: £5,900 (£6,000 fees with 10% alumni discount)

Total cost including living expenses: Estimate £12,000

How did I fund my course? I paid for my Master’s in a mix of different ways. The most substantial and terrifying of which was an £8,000 loan to cover the fees and a small amount of my living expenses. This is available through what’s called a Career Development Loan, which is available through a couple of different banks. The horrifying thing about this is that it’s nothing like your student loan. It’s basically a commercial loan: you pay interest, and you have to pay it back as soon as you graduate, with no consideration of your income. Thankfully I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow the money from my dad, interest free. The upside of this is that I don’t have particularly onerous repayment obligations, but I do still have a sizeable chunk of money to repay. In case you’re interested, I’ve paid off a third so far.

Of course the loan wasn’t enough to cover a year’s living expenses. I already had about £2k of savings which also went into the pot. The rest of it I paid through a combination of different part-time and temp jobs. Literally, whatever I could get. I’m not sure I can remember all of them but here are at least a few.

  • Student ambassador – this job involved several roles throughout the year, including working at University open days and helping out at events such as evening classes (showing people to the right rooms and so on). I also worked as set-up and clear-up crew for events such as the summer ball, which meant I got to attend for free, albeit whilst filling bag upon bag with cans and cups that had been thrown on the floor and lugging very heavy equipment from about 8am to 4am the next morning, followed by walking home in the rain.
  • Student patient – this is one of the funnier jobs to tell people about now. It was only the odd day of work, but every pound counts when you’re a student. Basically it involved being a model patient for sports science students. I had to pretend to have a specific injury, such as a sports-related knee problem, then allow the future physiotherapists to ‘examine’ me. It was kind of embarrassing, especially when they would start pointing things out about my body, as if they didn’t realise that the injury was made up and they were actually just making personal comments about my physique!
  • Spanish website classification – I got this job when I went for an interview as a cleaner for a web services company, they saw from my CV that I speak Spanish and decided to give me that job instead. This was a nice work-from-home gig where I was paid by output not by time, which meant the salary was variable at best, but it was’t a bad job. I just had to check through a huge database of Spanish web service companies’ websites and fill in a form about what services each of them offered.
  • Cleaner – I used to love being a cleaner. I had two different cleaning jobs: one cleaning student residences before and after term started. You’d be really amazed at some of the things I saw: kitchen surfaces encrusted with dead insects, fridges with 6-inch thick ice at the back of them and cupboards still full of unidentifiable food. But I got a great sense of satisfaction from making everything spotless, with the added bonus of requisitioning several unopened bottles of shampoo, shower gel, conditioner etc, and plenty of tinned food that had been left behind. I also had another one cleaning computers in the library. Again, this was more disgusting than you can imagine. Keyboards full of crisps and keys that were black with filth. But also very satisfying.

Despite my loan and range of strange jobs, this was also the poorest year of my life, and as a translator I’m not exactly rich! I didn’t mind this at all, as we were mostly in the same boat and you can live quite cheaply as a student, but once rent was paid I had to live on £50 a week – even less than JSA. Luckily I’m pretty adept at cooking cheap but awesome meals, and I can go without buying new clothes and so on. I walked to uni to avoid spending money on the bus, we mostly had house parties instead of going out and I socialised mainly with my 3 housemates by playing video games and watching movies. I also had a placement abroad as part of the course, so I didn’t miss out on travelling and holidays. So, living very frugally made up the last part of how I afforded the degree.

Would a PG loan have made a difference?

Well yes, of course it would, but actually I did fine without it. However in my case I was lucky to have someone who could loan me the money in an affordable way. I really don’t recommend taking a commercial loan unless you’re 100% sure about how you’ll pay it back, and that the repayments are not punitive. I’m really glad that I did things for myself, so to speak, and having to find different ways to earn money was a good learning experience. I’m also really glad I had that year of living on very little, as it means I appreciate the things I have now. I like the idea of PG loans as they’d make further study open to everyone, but on the other hand, it’s hard enough to pay back undergraduate loans, and I think the government would be set to lose even more money, which it can ill afford to do. I think if you’re keen enough to gain a degree in your chosen area you’ll find a way to fund it, whether by working for a year beforehand and coming back, working part time, or taking a loan of some kind. The ‘self-funding’ experience is sort of a part of the whole thing, and I learned almost as much from that as I did from the degree itself.

Is postgrad study worth it?

It depends how you define ‘worth it’. I haven’t earned a huge amount of money as a result of my studies, but I wouldn’t change them for the world. I had an amazing year studying my Master’s for various reasons, and the payoffs go far beyond the financial. Before I studied my Master’s degree I believed all the doom and gloom in the media about students being doomed to a life of working in Costa despite their efforts, and despaired of ever getting a graduate job. However after I graduated for the second time I felt totally different – I felt like a skilled professional with great prospects and was confident and excited about finding a job. I went straight out of uni into a fantastic paid internship and then straight into a graduate job. So for me it was definitely 100% worth it.

However, you have to consider a few things: firstly, what is the market for your course? If you’re studying something very specific with a clear career track, then it probably is worth it. However if the job prospects are vague and you’re not sure where to go with it, maybe you should re-assess. Secondly, you have to consider the effects that working 24/7 during your course will have on your health and mental state (I thrive on pressure but not everyone does) and how the repayments will negatively affect your life. I pay back £100 per month which isn’t a lot but is still a chunk out of my disposable income. If you think you’ll earn a lot afterwards then go for it, but if you’re uncertain about when you’ll get a job and how much you’ll earn, then repaying the loan could be stressful. Beware of doing a Master’s just because you don’t know what to do after you graduate. It’ll only buy you a year of thinking time and at a high price. A Master’s is really only a good bet if you’re pretty sure about what you want to do, and how the degree will help you achieve that.

If translation is your course of choice, bear in mind that you can go into translation without the degree, so long as you have the right language skills and aptitude. However I believe that the course is extremely helpful and I’d have been at sea trying to break into the industry without it.

Does anyone else have an experience with Master’s study to share, especially studying as a translator? Did the year of study help you, or would you have managed without it? Or, if you have any questions about studying translation and getting through the MA year, please feel free to ask me!

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