Starting Uni Student-made

Tips for going back to university as an older student

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Making the decision to go back to university is a daunting one at any age, especially in the throes of a pandemic. It’s been difficult enough to survive and put one foot in front of the other, let alone learn something new.

I’m turning 30 soon (don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a morose monologue on the passage of time) and have returned to university this year for a full time postgraduate degree, alongside working full time as a doctor.

I find that the skills that I used as an undergraduate haven’t quite worked as an older postgrad, so find myself navigating these murky waters in an attempt to stay afloat. I’m sure I’m not alone here.

There must be many of us out there who:

  • Are older
  • Have jobs, full time or otherwise
  • Have family/caring commitments
  • Have competing demands outside of the university setting

And it’s hard to juggle these other aspects and still focus on university work!

I want to emphasise that I by no means have any or all of the answers! I modify my approach all the time, trying to look for the holy grail of productivity.

1) Stay organised

I would barely survive without structure. It’s difficult getting the motivation to get things done but when you feel like you have a million competing priorities it can be paralysing, and then you end up getting nothing done!

Prerana’s tips for staying organised:

  • To do list: I LOVE a to-do list, whether it’s for housework, packing, work or studying. I usually add some easy tasks as well as harder ones, along with an indicator of how long the task should take. There’s nothing more satisfying than ticking a box once the task is done!
  • Calendar: I use my phone calendar with alerts to stay organized and make sure I’m not double-booking various commitments
  • Gantt chart: I groaned internally when my MRes supervisor recommended a Gantt chart. For the uninitiated, it’s a bar chart that a man called Henry Gantt (a man who either had too much or too little time on his hands – you decide!) created which is a mainstay of project development. But I guess I’m a convert because I’ve actually ended up using it not just for university-related project planning but also for work and personal projects!
What a Gantt chart might look like if I wanted to develop the perfect vegan gulab jamun recipe.

2) Is this your designated time for university work? Do you feel unusually productive? Go for it!

Put your phone on “do not disturb”, fill up your water bottle, and plonk yourself in an area that is designated for doing university work (whether it’s the library or your kitchen table). The university has an excellent resource on procrastination that I found helpful in overcoming the negative dialogue that we can experience when faced with a daunting task.

A screenshot from the university’s procrastination exercise. I feel SEEN.

Something I had to train myself to do was to stop having “background TV shows that I have watched a million times before so they won’t distract me” playing whilst working. I’d somehow convince myself that it was making me more productive, but I secretly knew it was hampering me. If you’re guilty of this too, stop it! By finishing your task on time, you’ll have more time to actually engage in quality entertainment.

On the flip side, I sometimes have times where I feel unusually productive. If you have something scheduled that you can miss in favour of doing more university work in a time of feeling productive, reshuffle your schedule and make the most of your streak!

3) Change your perspective

Over the years, I have found that a good way to re-energise and re-stimulate my interest in a project or my work is to talk about it with someone. It can lead to a passionate debate on the topic and sometimes a fresh angle on the topic you’ve been stuck on forever.

4) Go on a mission

What mission? Any mission. Pick something random.

I’ve decided to try to make the perfect vegan version of a gulab jamun (I’ve sorely missed them since going vegan).

Brains are odd creatures; often by making them work very hard on something not related to what they identify as being work, they actually become more productive overall!

My jamuns aren’t there yet though – maybe I’ll use that example Gantt chart and get to work on them more seriously.

Image of jamuns.

This was my first attempt at an original recipe – more like doughnut holes than jamuns!

5) 100% monotasking vs multitasking

I personally find that multitasking is overrated. As the legendary Ron Swanson from the sitcom “Parks and Rec” once advised, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing”.

I have previously fooled myself into thinking that by doing multiple things at the same time that I was somehow being more productive, but it was actually making me more distracted with a lower chance of getting projects completed.

Now I would much rather focus intensely on one thing at a time for a certain period of time; fully immersing myself in that activity. This can be as simple as putting your phone/laptop away when spending quality time with a family member or friend so that you’re actually focusing on them and feel satisfied about the time you’ve spent with them.

6) Sometimes, it’s ok to be selfish

This was a hard one for me, but an important realization. I’ve often felt that I’m pulling myself in multiple directions in an attempt to support and please everyone around me. This feeling has only amplified with starting a new degree as there is yet another demand on my time.

But it’s important to protect yourself and say “no” once in a while. It will feel selfish at first, but it likely benefits the people around you in the long run; they’ll get a version of you that is rested and happier.

This also goes for work relating to a job. If you feel that you’re having too many extra responsibilities placed on you, make sure you escalate to your supervisor and make sure they know about your situation so that they can re-assign tasks more fairly to help you breathe.

And if you feel that there are people or activities in your life that you’re only holding on to for memory’s sake but no current positive feeling, it may be time to re-evaluate and let them go.

7) Go easy on me, baby

As if we needed further proof of Adele’s wisdom! She may not have been singing about being a postgrad, but her lessons still apply here.

You only need to go on social media for a few seconds to be bombarded by reminders of other people’s happiness and successes. When you’re getting older, it’s easy to feel that others are making progress with their lives while you’re somehow left behind.

People might be getting married, pregnant, having babies, buying houses, buying cars, celebrating work successes, running marathons… It’s easy to compare yourself to them and feel that your own achievements aren’t enough; that you aren’t enough.

But remember that people rarely post about their failures or insecurities, and even less so about their ongoing struggles. And that person that you might be envious of might have struggles of their own. Try to be more honest with yourself and the people around you, and you might find that you can help each other out, or at least lend a sympathetic ear.

Do you have any tips that you’ve found helpful? I’ll be conducting a live takeover on Instagram, so make sure to tune in and share your thoughts there!

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