Day in the life: Masters of Literature at Oxford

07 JAN 2022

Welcome to a day in my life as a postgrad at Oriel College, Oxford! As a Master of English Literature student, I focus particularly on literature written between 1700-1830 and I have a particular interest in Romantic poetry. 

8am: Normally I wake up quite early so that I have more than enough time before my classes start. I like to start the day by reading something I’m not currently studying. The master’s of Literature degree at Oxford  is very book-heavy – as you can imagine – so it’s important to continue reading for fun and to keep your brain stimulated by different material. As I study eighteenth-century literature, with a focus on poetry, I like to go for more contemporary novels when I read for enjoyment.

My master’s course is much more self-directed than my undergraduate course was, so its critical to be strict with yourself regarding time management. After a quick shower and breakfast (always lots of coffee!) I begin my school work by re-reading some of the primary texts we will be discussing later in class. I find that this is a good way to keep my thoughts about the primary text fresh in my mind before making a start on secondary criticism. I usually do my morning readings in my room or in one of the many beautiful libraries at Oxford. My favourite are the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian Library.

Now, it’s time for class. I head out to a beautiful reading room in Balliol College which is just a short walk from my room. Today’s class is Romantic and Victorian Sonnet, one of the optional courses. At the beginning of each year, there are a long list of different topics to pick from, including Old Norse, Prison Writing, Shakespeare and History, and African Literature

Unlike my undergraduate degree, there are no postgraduate-specific lectures in the master’s program (although you can attend any lecture you like across the university). This means the majority of your learning happens in small groups and through discussions. Classes are my favourite as you can talk through your own ideas and then hear about what other people are researching. Today we looked at a range of poets, including William Wordsworth, John Clare, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, then discussed our interpretations as a group.

After class, I pop back to the library to finish off a draft of my dissertation proposal. Even though we do not begin our dissertation until Trinity term (the last term), we are encouraged to develop our ideas from the start of the year and have relatively frequent meetings with our supervisor to guide our preliminary reading. 

Though the master’s course is structured quite rigidly, we are still expected to undertake independent research alongside regularly studies - like the dissertation. This means time-management is really important.

I always have lunch with friends, either from my course or my college. As postgraduate study involves a lot of independent research, it’s a good idea to squeeze in socializing whenever possible! 

Time for another class, although this one is a bit different! All literature postgraduates are expected to write a paper called Material Texts, in which we are asked to consider how texts are produced and how this affects meaning. We look at everything from manuscripts, early modern printing, book binding, and notebook drafts, all housed in Oxford’s extensive Special Collections. 

Part of this involves studying palaeography and handwriting to prepare us for looking at original manuscripts. As a class, we take turns to reading lines from the original text and then write a full transcription as a group. Sometimes the handwriting is really difficult to decipher! Today we looked first-hand at an early draft of John Keats’s To Autumn. Seeing these kinds of artefacts is amazing and one of the many reasons why studying literature at Oxford is such a unique experience. 

After such a busy day of classes, I like to unwind by going for a run, either in Christ Church Meadows or University Parks. 

In the evenings, the English Faculty runs a range of informal research seminar groups. Academics and students from across different universities are invited to present on their current research. After the talk there is a chance for questions and open discussion. Recent topics include: Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, William Blake’s watercolours, and Samuel Johnson’s tour of Scotland. 

These seminars are a fantastic way to stay on top of the current developments in the literary field and meet other academics. Often, even the seminars that initially seem irrelevant to my research are informative and help me look at my work in different ways. There is often plenty of wine provided, or a planned trip to the pub afterwards!

I love cooking, so most days my friends and I will rustle up something together for dinner.

After whatever evening activity I have on, I’ll head back to my room and do some more work before bed. Studying literature means there’s always more reading to be done – whether for an upcoming class, an extended writing piece, or following-up on independently-discovered leads. I tend to work best in the evening too, so if I have some writing to do, I tend to get a lot done around this time. At 11pm I organise everything for the following day and head to bed. Oxford days are jam-packed so I fall asleep straight away!