Looking Back In…

There are a lot of beautiful places in the UK. Coventry is not one of them. I wish I had paid more attention to that when I decided to go to school there.

Sure, there are nice parts like anywhere, but they are few and far between. My current town is a much nicer place. It was recently ranked the second happiest place to live in the UK. Having lived in Shrewsbury for almost three years now, I can attest to it being a happy place. Quite a bit nicer, too, than Coventry.

Though I live in Shrewsbury now, I won’t for much longer. Part of me, too, wishes I had never moved here. It’s the same part that wishes I had never decided to attend Warwick; if I hadn’t moved to Coventry I most likely never would have moved to Shrewsbury later. If I had to do it all over again, I would have chosen a different university, and the last few years of my life would be completely different.

If I had been paying close attention at the time, there were signs Warwick was not the place I should have gone. Having spent basically the last three years fighting them on one issue or another, I am perhaps a little biased on the subject. But if it can happen to me, it could happen to you, too. If you’re thinking of attending university (for an undergraduate degree or a postgraduate one) I suggest taking these things into account.

Visit

Having lived in the US before coming to Britain for Warwick, I didn’t have the opportunity to see the university in person before applying, accepting and attending. Instead I had to rely on web pages, testimonials and pictures online. Of course the university puts its best view online, including glowing testimonials of happy graduates. Whilst there are nice towns to live around Coventry, it’s hard to get a proper perspective on distance online. Had I been able to visit in person, I might have had different thoughts on coming.

Plenty of students do live in the nicer towns, commuting in as necessary. I’ve commuted in my life, it’s not a huge deal. Knowing what to expect — the times given online via the university and bus schedules are the best case scenarios — would have been useful.

Even campus itself has issues. Warwick is a typical ’60s institution build solidly of concrete. It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing university of all time. If that sort of thing is important to you, going to visit in person can persuade or dissuade you as appropriate. My undergraduate university, UC Irvine, was also a ’60s institution built of concrete. That aspect didn’t bother me. I actually quite enjoyed Irvine (the campus, not necessarily the town around it), despite the architecture. Having visited numerous universities while deciding where to attend as an undergrad was a very useful experience. I wish I would have done the same thing as a postgrad.

Research

Find out what is important to you in a university. Do you like a lot of extra-curricular activities? Do you want the top-ranked school in your field? Do you want a good sports/fitness programme?

If you know what to look for it can help narrow your search immensely. I went in looking for a good History department, as that was my field. Warwick definitely has a good department, ranking 4th in the UK (and 15th in the world) in the QS rankings. It’s a large department, too, with a lot going on for it — seminars, conferences, funding opportunities and other things.

Had I been a little more refined in my searching, however, I would have come to find that despite all its great qualities, the History department doesn’t have a particularly good focus on popular music or culture (at least twentieth century popular music and culture, which is my focus). My advisor has never published anything in the field. Maybe History wasn’t the best department for me; maybe I would have been better suited for the Film and Television department or Sociology, or even Politics and International Studies. Maybe History was, in fact, the best department but the university overall didn’t suit my needs the best.

Having now spent more than four years studying, meeting people and going to conferences I have found other universities that might have better popular culture areas, but worse history departments. Should I have tried finding an advisor who has published works in my field, even if the university doesnt’ have the same ranking? Would I have been better going off to one of those? Perhaps, it’s hard to know for sure. I might have prioritised those things and lived in a bad place or not been able to get funding for conferences, meaning I wouldn’t have all the connections and experiences. I might not have got along with my advisor. Who knows. The point being, I wish I would have done a bit more research into all the aspects that were important to me.

Ask Questions

This follows both previous points in a large degree. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Think you’ve found someone who might be a good supervisor (or, if an undergraduate, someone whose work you enjoy reading)? Get in contact with them! Ask them their thoughts about anything you can think of that might relate to your experience at the university. Officials will almost always give you positive reviews, so do take what they say with a grain of salt, but what they praise might not be the same things you were looking for. Reading between the lines might give you more insight that the actual words.

Similarly, find and ask students (current and former) if they’d be willing to talk or answer some questions for you. Most will give you a slightly more realistic expectation of the university. They will, of course, have their own biases, but it’s not their job to try to recruit other students in the way that faculty and staff try to do.

Try to find other local residents — from businesses, councils, libraries, whatever — and find out what their experiences are. Do they say there’s no good restaurants, the local football club is the best in the world and has a great fanbase, it’s a dirty town/city, transportation is convenient and great or something else?

Had I done the same thing I might have taken a different route. I thought that because Coventry has a busy train station and relatively good busses getting to campus would be easy. It wasn’t quite as easy or convenient as I would have liked — especially in cold, rain or snowy weather — and I probably could have found that out by asking local residents. Bus timetables and Google maps are great for getting some information. They’re rubbish for getting first-hand experience of matters.

Make Sure It’s What You Want

I can’t stress this enough. Make sure going for your degree (of whatever level) is really what you want. With university costs rising higher than ever, it’s going to be expensive to get a degree. That’s a lot of debt later on in life. It’s a big commitment (3 or 4 years at least in the UK, often 4 or 5 in the US) to get even a Bachelor’s degree; and similar timeframes, if not longer, for PhDs. That’s a lot of time and money; are you sure it’s worth it?

If you know you want to be a doctor, lawyer, professor, computer engineer or something that definitely needs a degree (or more) then yes, obviously it’s worth it. If you want to start your own business or spend your life in retail or a service industry, is a degree necessary? Would it be better to get an apprenticeship, internship or work experience and build from there? You could always go get a degree if it turns out that wasn’t what you wanted.

I’ve realised I wanted to get my PhD — which I still don’t have, and is one of the things I’m fighting my university about — not because I was going toward something, but because I was trying to get away from my retail existence.  I didn’t necessarily have the goal of wanting to be a university teacher, for which you need a PhD. I thought that might be a nice backup position if/when I got the PhD, but it wasn’t my main goal. My hope was that by researching for however many years I would discover what it is I really liked. It turns out it’s music and pop culture, hence the blog, but another degree doesn’t help me break into those fields. I probably would have been better off trying to find a job with a record label, a management company, a venue or even with music journal instead of working toward the PhD, at least then I’ve have some industry experience. It’s never too late, perhaps, to get into those fields, but am I now overqualified for them? It’s a balancing act, a juggling issue.

I look back and wonder if I would have been better off somewhere else, doing something else. It’s hard to know for sure. It definitely would have been a far different experience, that’s for sure. There are things I wish I would have done different, and things I wish I could have done differently. Of course, there are things that I’m happy happened and wouldn’t change them for the world. Looking back, though, if I had to do it all again I most likely wouldn’t have chosen Coventry and Warwick. Those places might be right for you, though. Good luck figuring it out.

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