Reflections on Studying in the UK

So in September 2013 I flew overseas to fulfil a massive dream of mine – to study in the UK. Admittedly when I was in primary school (yes primary school, I was a super keen kid) I had imagined that being in Oxford or Cambridge, but as a 22 year old I didn’t care where I went; I just wanted to live there, study there, and get amongst the medievalness. My destination was Sheffield, and it’s where I had one of the best semesters of my university career. And let’s get this straight in the beginning it’s Uni of, not Hallam… dear god not Hallam…

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Sheffield Town Hall and the Peace Gardens

Many people said things like, “But it’s a northern industrial city, why are you going there to do medieval archaeology?” Well I’ll tell you why – because it’s one of the best archaeology departments in the UK: seriously, they’re amazing. Not only are their undergraduate courses top-notch, they also have a fantastic array of Masters coursework courses. That’s enough about their courses for now, if you are interested check them out.

I took 3 subjects whilst in Sheffield, which is the full-time load for the UK. This meant 6 contact hours – that’s right 6 – it was amazing. I took 2 archaeology subjects one of which was medieval, the other funerary archaeology, and the other subject was ‘The Medieval Inquisition’, a history unit. The most surprising thing was that tutorials appear to be an almost foreign concept, only my history subject had one and it was one of my two contact hours for that subject – very bizarre, but I was ok with that. The lectures themselves were definitely on par with, if not better than the ones at USyd, if only because they were super interesting and different. The archaeology subjects I took were theory and not lab based, which meant twice a semester the second hour of the two hour lecture became a “tutorial.” These “tutorials” meant that you discussed feedback from the major assignments or the course,  and in some cases had to bring in homework. – which is a very different set-up to Australia.  At home I had at least one or two science subjects a semester, each with 4-6 contact hours, so it was odd not getting to know my classmates or having frequent discussion around what we were learning. However, as an exchange student this was perfect – it meant I could party, socialise, and travel more. Although as I had picked the UK and Sheffield specifically to do classes to a) test run that I really wanted to do medieval archaeology and b) get a jump start on my honours research, I would’ve loved some more contact hours; I spent a lot of time raiding the Western Bank Library instead.

The Arts Tower and Western Bank Library from the duck pond in Weston Park

The Arts Tower and Western Bank Library from the duck pond in Weston Park

What Sheffield lacked in contact hours they made up for in very approachable and helpful staff. I’ve often felt unable to approach or form a professional relationship with my science lecturers (not so much in arts), but my lecturers in Sheffield truly went above and beyond. It helped that for two subjects the class sizes were very small, and as an exchange student I stuck out. Martial, John, Gareth and Katie could not have been more welcoming and helpful. John and Gareth in particular were beyond amazing: helping me with my research by sending me some of their own work, new monographs I would otherwise not know about, etc.

I should probably reflect more upon the general experience of studying in the UK, rather than go on gushing about the archaeology department (which is easy to do!) I think the biggest shock for all of the exchange students was the grading – the whole scale of marks was much lower in Sheffield and in the UK more generally. I know it varies between every university no matter where you are, but it is very different from Australia. 40 is a pass mark, anything in the 60s was great (in archaeology anyway), and 70s was 1st class. We were used to getting 70s and 80s in our Arts subjects in Sydney, and suddenly 70s were really amazing. It was a big adjustment, and even harder to explain to people when you get back home; “No I wasn’t slacking off, I swear it’s a great mark over there – see on the grading scale it’s a 2.1, basically a distinction… totally fine… I swear!”

Firth Court Building at the University

Firth Court Building at the University

The other big thing was trying to break into the local social scene. I had amazing flatmates and friends in the other exchange students from all over Europe and the world, however we were in England, so not being friendly with the locals would seem like a bit of a fail. Being there for only 1 semester made it a bit tricky, especially when you’re not living with Brits – by the time you’re solidifying friendships it’s time to go, but I made some good friends. The one huge piece of advice I can give is to get involved and do it early. I wimped out of some of the early events when someone from my res wouldn’t go with me, which I regret. Sadly the water polo trainings were at horrific hours where I’d get home from the pool at around midnight with early classes the next morning, so I ditched that which was a huge shame. But once I got involved it was great; you just have to brave the being the new kid from Aus, and there’s some territorial stuff that’s going to happen, you know how other girls are (or maybe not), and of course everyone closer to my age had known each other for years, but be nice and everything comes good. That’s one thing I’ve learned from changing schools during my life, and it certainly applies to changing countries.

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Sheffield Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul (because one saint isn’t enough!)

Overall it was an amazing experience.

On the medieval note I could not get over being able to go into the medieval cathedral whenever I was in the city centre doing some shopping on the high street (dear god everything is so cheap! Primark, Poundland, the 99p store etc. are a student’s best friend), or it was only about an hour to York or Lincoln to get my fix in a proper medieval walled town. Likewise having the WHOLE B.A.R. at my finger tips was amazing, sooooo many site reports it was archaeogasmic. 2.5 hours on the quick train or 4 hours on megabus and I was in London able to utilise the archives at MOLA (who were also amazingly generous with their time and resources), go to the museums… heavenly really.

Some quick tips if anyone is heading over:

  • Get yourself a 16-25 railcard if you fall in the demographic, it’ll pay for itself in no time.
  • Megabus is amazingly cheap, and whilst often late, quite a decent service if you’re not in a rush.
  • Link said 16-25 railcard with your oyster card, and load with a day or weekly etc. pass rather than pay as you go, PAYG often works out to be much more expensive.
  • Easyjet and Ryanair aren’t that bad, I never had a problem with them, and you can’t knock £13 tickets to Dublin.
  • An English Heritage or National Trust pass or membership may be worthwhile if you’re planning on doing a lot of trips out.
  • If you have a UK student card it’s gold for entry into museums, castles etc. as well as for public transport (not sure about in Scotland but it worked for me in Somerset and other counties well beyond Yorkshire).
  • BOOK YOUR RAIL TICKETS IN ADVANCE, it doesn’t work like here, most tickets fluctuate radically depending on how close to the date in question, time of day etc., so don’t get caught out.
  • Email anyone you want to meet with about your research, just go for it, almost everyone I approached was very helpful and friendly.
  • Apply for research permission at museums and other collections early and plan ahead as much as possible.
  • Go to research seminars and talks to network and find out what kind of research is happening in your new university and town, and even further afield.
Nothing quite says Sheffield more than Yorkshire crisps which are Henderson's Relish flavoured - Ey Up!

Nothing quite says Sheffield more than Yorkshire crisps which are Henderson’s Relish flavoured – Ey Up!

Any questions? Queries? Feel free to ask.

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