In psychology, something called the Yerkes-Dodson curve gave rise to the theory that humans can reach what they call an “Optimal Level of Anxiety.” The idea is basically that too little anxiety makes you lazy, and too much anxiety hinders you; finding a balance, however, can keep you working effectively. My friends, I am here to tell you that the start of the second term has been a MAJOR BREACH OF THE OPTIMAL LEVEL.
The U.K. system is markedly different from the American university system in several ways, one of which is its exam style. (Note: I say “American” rather than U.S. not to marginalize university systems throughout North and South America, but rather to include “American Universities” across the world, not just in the U.S., that share our learning/teaching styles.) The vast majority of “marks” (or grades) in the U.K. rely heavily (if not entirely) on exams. This can include an in-test essay exam, multiple choice exam, papers, or some combination of the three. The upside to this is that it frees the student from the constraints that having several pointed assignments through the term can have, especially on what the student reads during the term. Here, not only do you have more freedom to navigate yourself through the reading lists, its encouraged– which gives you some valuable ownership over your learning process. The downside to this, on the other hand, is that it places a great deal of pressure on your exam performance. Because the requirements and expectations are different here, this can be a bit rough for international students.
On top of this, exams aren’t necessarily at the end of the term- in fact, many exams happen after a period of holiday. So instead of the atmosphere of fresh starts and new beginning I was accustomed to in my undergrad, the first week of Term 2 has actually been more stressful than the majority of Term 1. After a nice holiday spent forgetting about the pressures of academia (or, if they were wise, still worrying about them but from the comforts of home) suddenly everyone is back to reality and slapped in the face with deadlines and looming exams.
WELL, the first week is over. For better or worse, our exams are finished and our papers are turned in. But that doesn’t mean freedom is at our fingertips- rather, it just means a transference of that optimal anxiety from surviving Term 1, to thriving in Term 2. The second term brings a myriad of new challenges, including new module topics, increased workload, and wave 2 of the exam panic, but above all the forthcoming dreaded DISSERTATION TOPIC.
With only 6 weeks to go, many of us (myself included) are constantly obsessing over what our topic is going to be, and how the hell we’re going to do it. For the wander-lusting daydreamer, buckling down and committing to one topic can be quite overwhelming. There are several factors to consider in choosing a dissertation topic, not least of which will be its impact on your career. Because your dissertation is your first real, solid, practical, living piece of published research to enter the field, it will inevitably have a substantial influence on the direction your academic career will take, the jobs you’ll be able to get, the grants and fellowships you’ll be able to apply for, the programs you’ll get into (if you’re a Master’s student and a PhD is on the horizon). Lots, and lots, and lots, and lots, and lots to consider.
But fear not, my panic-stricken companions — stressing early in the game can be exactly what is needed to keep on top of the Yerkes-Dodson’s curve!