From My Perspective – Graduate Studies Begin, part 2

Finally the day arrived! Although I had many encouragements from people who felt my acceptance would be a foregone conclusion, I had not been so confident. So when the letter came, I was thrilled beyond belief. I proudly showed the letter to everyone who came into my house, proof that I was actually good enough to be accepted into master’s studies!

The letter advised me that I would need to participate in an orientation course during October and November, in which I would be marked on a pass/fail basis. This course involved becoming familiar with the online environment, as well as a student interaction component where I would have to make a number of discussion forum posts. The exercise involved writing a paragraph on graduate studies, then doing simulated research by accessing the online library and other resources, and preparing a reference list. The online part of it was relatively easy for me, but I was surprised by the amount of online reading involved. Although I’m very comfortable with the distance learning model, none of my courses have ever been primarily online before, and I found myself having to do several re-readings before I understood the assignment instructions.

During orientation we were also required to submit a program plan. Initially my goals were to finish the Master of Counselling program as quickly as possible. In its first year, the program only offered the option of a three year stream, but since then some modifications have been made so the option of a two-year program completion is possible. The two-year model requires two courses per semester, and I initially felt confident that I’d be able to do it.

All new students are assigned a course teaching assistant, who is a student already in the second or third year of the program. In a discussion forum post, our TA warned all students that if they wanted to have any kind of a life they should not attempt the 2-year stream, simply because the requirements were far too heavy to do two courses at a time. According to the TA, most students need a minimum of 15-20 hours a week to complete the coursework for a single course. This warning didn’t really faze me, as I’ve always worked fulltime, holding down several jobs, and still managing somehow to maintain a fulltime university courseload. However, as I thought it through and looked at different developments in my life, I realized that I was getting further and further behind in the courses I was taking for my Career Counselling certificate, and I realized that with master’s studies course extensions were not that easy to come by. So after some serious reflection, I decided that I had to be realistic and would have to add yet another year onto my goal schedule. Just before the holidays I emailed the course coordinator asking if it would be possible to still drop back to three years instead of two. I received a response stating that I had been moved to the three year plan.

So as of January 7, my master’s studies have officially begun. One of the things I think I’m going to find most different and possibly the most challenging is the communication aspect of it. I’ve always been a highly individualized learner. I like studying on my own, going at my own pace. The AU individualized study model suits me perfectly since I’ve never felt any need to connect with other students when learning. Even in the odd course where there has been a forum communication component, I find it an onerous task that just doesn’t fit in with the way I like to study. As the president of the student union, I’ve certainly worked hard with my colleagues on different initiatives to connect students, things like study groups, coffee groups, and other types of communications. I know that for many students, reducing the isolation of distance studies by connecting with other students is absolutely essential to success. Others are like me and have chosen AU because they are just as happy to study on their own, not needing that connection with other students. I enjoy communicating with my fellow students, and I have done collaborative academic papers with colleagues, but when it comes to coursework and studying I’m a loner. I’m the same way with tutor contact. I rarely contact my tutors, and prefer to do everything by email rather than telephone. So I think it’s going to be a challenge to have to do this as part of my program. Doing coursework together, working on assignments as a group, talking to my tutor on a regular basis; these are all things that will require a significant adjustment in my study style and my way of thinking. While I may find this difficult, I think it will be a valuable change – since we often learn as much from each other as we do from a textbook.

What advice would I give fellow AU students who are hoping to be accepted into master’s studies? First, most importantly, plan ahead. Investigate the program you are interested in, and be familiar with the admissions requirements. Graduate programs are difficult to get into, and some have very stringent entrance requirements and limited spaces. The better-prepared you are, the more likely it is that you will be successful.

Most programs look at not just overall GPA, but your GPA during the last two years of study. For most campus-based university students, the final years are usually senior-level courses, and by the time you are nearing the completion of your degree you are well-oriented to university studies and your marks should be indicative of that. This is not always the case with students from AU, though, and its an important consideration for us when making course selections. If master’s studies are a goal, you may want to follow a more traditional course sequence, doing the junior level ones first, and averaging out your options over the years. If you want to try out a subject you may find extremely challenging – leaving it till the end of your studies could mean that your GPA for the last two years could be negatively affected. Most master’s programs also have specific course pre-requisites, so you will want to factor these in to your undergraduate program.

Another important way to prepare is to become familiar with how research works, and start thinking about the type of research you want to do. Many programs require that students already have their research topics in place before they even begin master’s studies, and some graduate scholarships and funding are allotted on the basis of the research chosen. For this reason it is important that AU offer opportunities for undergraduate research, and that research be promoted at the undergraduate level.

All graduate programs require a practicum. This usually involves a specific number of work hours done under the supervision of an approved supervisor. If you are attending a campus university, there are opportunities within the graduate studies departments themselves. At AU, students generally must arrange their own practicum, so this is something you need to plan for. For the Master of Counselling, for example, the practicum requires students to work at least 10 hours a week over 13 weeks in an approved place of employment, with at least 5 hours spent in direct client time and 2 hours with the practicum supervisor. All practicum arrangements and supervisors must be approved in advance.

When it comes to the actual learning part of master’s studies, the coursework itself is similar to undergraduate courses. However, students are expected to go into the topic to a far greater degree, using critical thinking skills to apply what is being learned. Expectations are higher, and many students who have done very well as undergraduates find graduate studies much more difficult. I think one of the biggest differences is that at the undergraduate level most of us are still fairly new to university studies, and we are able to try out a wide variety of topics as we find our area of interest. As graduates, we are now focused on a particular career, and we are expanding our knowledge and striving for excellence within that field. Some graduate programs still have a fairly general first year, with a specialization in the second or third years, but by the time you graduate you should be focused on a fairly specific career goal.

There is also a difference in perception, and it feels quite different to call myself a graduate student. It’s exciting and challenging to be moving into this new phase of my life, and I’m eagerly anticipating the experiences of the next three years.

Master of Counselling program info:

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.

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