My time as a History undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh is very speedily coming to an end, and I wanted to spend some time reflecting on my four years. This piece does not attempt to provide you with advice, as everyone has different needs and preferences (if you do find anything in this column helpful that’s great), but I write it as more of an open letter to myself. It is a collection of points I have learned along the way that I wish I had known back in 2017 when I started my studies.
I want to start by saying that it is completely okay to change your mind. For me, this involved changing my degree half-way through my studies, from History and German to History. I am an overthinker and looking back, I definitely should have changed my degree sooner as my original programme was making me miserable. I love Germany, its literature and culture, and I had thrived in the subject during my school years, but I quickly realised that university-level German was not for me. If you realise you aren’t enjoying the course you applied for, that’s okay – your opinions change. Particularly in Scotland, as we have such a flexible system, it is much easier to change your degree. I know so many people who have changed at least a portion of their programme as well as ones who have started completely new degrees.
Another important point is don’t worry about asking for help. I could have made the change sooner if I had told someone I was struggling, but it isn’t always easy to know who to turn to. I have learned to greatly value the Advice Place, who are a fantastic team and have reassured me a number of times when I felt completely stressed and out of my depth. There is also the counselling service, which I personally haven’t found as useful as it could have been, and I wished they could have offered me more than just self-help material. I do, however, think that the service is over-stretched and would benefit from additional funding to assist as many students as possible. Importantly, you can also turn to your GP – and do remember to register with one of those in Edinburgh.
Changing my degree programme meant that I was actually enjoying what I was studying and that made believing in my own abilities much easier. I was proud of the work I was producing and knew I was trying my best. I started to realise that my dreams and ambitions were not out of my reach, I just had to focus and work hard reach them. I am grateful that in my third year I was appointed a very supportive and proactive personal tutor, who really encouraged me to believe in my own abilities and what I can achieve. If you secured a place at the University of Edinburgh, you surely must be doing something right! That in itself is an achievement and one that you can use to help propel and motivate yourself through your years at Edinburgh.
If I could give you one tip to follow, then it is to use the resources you have available to you as a student. Make the most of everything so you can’t look back with regret. Also, get well-acquainted with the library – I am a big lover of the Main Library and I was lost without it during the first Covid-19 lockdown. Most people probably hated the library quiz study group as part of the Historian’s Toolkit course – but I wish I had paid more attention. Especially since I thought I was capable of navigating a library myself and had no need to take a library tour during Fresher’s week. As it turns out, I only discovered the floors three and above very recently!
In your Honours Years – or even before if you’re keen – check out the other libraries, including the Law library and Scottish Studies Library, as they may have useful material related to your research. Also, if you are a HCA student, do check out the undergraduate common room once it reopens as it has great study desks and, perhaps more importantly: a kettle, a fridge, and a microwave. The couches are also very comfy, if you need a quick afternoon powernap. I cannot confirm or deny whether I have fallen asleep there before whilst watching a medieval history documentary for class prep.
Outside of classes and libraries, there are many other helpful resources at your disposal and one I’d like to highlight is the Careers Service. It was something that I avoided for most of my time here, but the staff there could not be more helpful at giving you useful advice. This year, they were instrumental in aiding me to perfect my personal statement for my Masters applications. They have a range of different things on offer so do check out their website, or maybe just start by reading the weekly emails they send!
I said I was only going to give you one piece of advice but, perhaps, an important one that may seem obvious is to do the required reading. It will allow you to get the most out of your tutorials and seminars and will help you participate in them more fully. I have often felt swamped by how much reading I had to do, but try your best to do what you can and it will be worth it. It makes such a difference to the quality of your assignments as you are much more up to speed with the materials.
Remember that it isn’t all about studying and Edinburgh has a wealth of student societies, which can be a great experience, it might just take some time to find the right fit for you. These are a great way to make friends but also to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and try something new. Don’t be afraid to give it a go. Being involved with societies have allowed me some much needed social and down time away from books and assignments. Some of my greatest memories from these years that I will hold dear, I know, are from society events and projects.
The last point I want to ponder over when reflecting back is thinking how much of my studies were defined by disruption, namely UCU (University and College Union) strikes and the pandemic. These, however, I think make my years at Edinburgh more memorable as they did not just run smoothly. When it comes to the strikes, if more happen in the coming years, do your research into the reasons behind them and support the striking staff. Academia is a precarious place to be for many these days and some change needs to come in order to make it a much better place in the future. Don’t cross a picket line.
My confidence has definitely grown over the past four years, even just writing something like this is surprising. I’ve always loved writing but was quite self-conscious about sharing that work with others so it is a surprise to my past self that I have the confidence to be a regular columnist for Retrospect. I used to have to be completely, 100 per cent happy with all aspects of my writing before I let people read it. But now, I embrace the faults and ask people to give me feedback. I love getting feedback as often it helps me think about new angles which I hadn’t thought about before. Quite a turnaround!
Four years is, relatively, a long time and I feel like a fundamentally different person than I was when I first came to the University of Edinburgh. For me, going to university was a vehicle through which I could develop and grow as a person and I am grateful for the experiences that have shaped this time of my life. At times I have worried about fitting in, but I have a great group of people around me who make a wonderful support network.
One final word of wisdom is to believe people when they say your time at university goes in the blink of an eye, because they mean it. Don’t waste a second of it but remember: you deserve that night off to have a pint in Teviot.
Over and, not sure if we’re*, out (yet) Edinburgh (*Edinburgh, just waiting for you to get back to me about funding…)
Written by Mhairi Ferrier