At 9pm on Thursday I walked out of an exam hall marking the end of the first year of my masters degree. For 38 weeks I'd worked relentlessly, juggling a full-time professional career in financial services with the demands of studying and everything else that life brings. Each hour of life was meticulously planned for, organised and thought out. There was little room for slippage or error as I worked out how to use my time as wisely as possible to try and be everywhere at once, but I ploughed through, living life according to my diary and hoping that it would all work out in the end.
When you're in the middle of these things you rarely realise the significance of what you're doing. You're too busy trying to keep up with everything that needs to be done. It's only when you take a moment that it hits you that, maybe, all this is a pretty big deal. A fact that hit me at about 9:30pm as I stood on the roof of my college drinking the world's cheapest gin and realised that it's no small achievement doing everything I'd been doing for the last year. It's always odd when you realise that things in your life you think are totally normal, probably aren't.
For those who are new, or those who I've not explained how it all works, I'll go through things briefly. I'm studying sport management at Birkbeck, University of London with a view to being awarded an MSc (master of science) next year. In terms of commitment, I'm on the part-time track, which means between three and six hours of classroom teaching a week, which takes place between 6pm and 9pm - so after a full day of work (I usually start at 8am) I haul myself into a classroom and sit down to learn. Usually while chugging down large quantities of coffee and diet coke. It's a really good thing that I love what I study, to pull off a stunt like that you have to really want to be there.
This year I studied economics of sport, a course that initially intimidated me, but I ended up really enjoying; research methods, which was a necessary evil; sport and society which I LOVED (you can read a version of the paper I wrote for that course here); sport event management, my last exam of the year; and strategic sport marketing, which was by far the most practical course of the lot. I enjoyed all of it more than I can explain. The whole course has enthralled me and I really don't mind sitting down to read piles of paper each Saturday instead of having a lie in, or working on a paper late into the night. Which is just as well, because of every three hours you spend in the classroom there are at least six more on your own time, if not more when exams are looming.
I'm not sure what I expected when I embarked on this journey. I guess I figured it would be a challenge, but as with all the 'dumb life choices' I make, I had no doubts in my mind about whether it was possible and I never thought twice about whether I'd be able to give everything that was required. Which I have. Although that's not to say it hasn't been hard. Harder than expected. I've felt doubt about my abilities that, at points, has been crippling. Never have I been so invested in anything academic, and never have I judged myself so hard. I've also felt massive guilt. Guilt that I'm not giving enough to all the parts of my life, and that ultimately I'm letting everyone down. It's been as much a learning process trying to workout how to balance all of that as it has working out how a football club might ever be able to make any money.
Of all the challenges, social stuff has been the hardest. When life is finely balanced, and sometimes overwhelming, it can be hard to shut off, and you can feel very alone. Saying no to social events and feeling like you're letting everyone down or being a killjoy can feel alienating. You worry that you are the most selfish person in the world and well meaning comments can start to feel like criticisms. For far too much of this year I've felt like I've been letting my friends down by not seeing them, saying no to events and ideas and generally being too tired to enjoy things, and I don't really know how that's going to change next year. It's something to work on both in term of making time, but also in terms of turning off the inner critic.
One of the real plus sides is that studying in this way has been that it's really improved my relationship with my parents, who have both studied while working. It's really nice to have people there who 'get' what's going on. Who understand what it feels like to be pulled in a million directions and never quite feel like you're doing anything right. That's been reassuring. In fact, next year I'll have support on site as my Dad starts a master's degree at Birkbeck as well. I'll have to show him where the cheapest gin in the world is.
This year hasn't been free of challenges, but I'd count it as one of my most successful ever. I'm doing a course I love, I'm still good at my job, when I've struggled with anxiety I've recognised it and managed it better that I could ever have imagined, my grades so far have really awesome. There is always room for improvement in life, and it's an art finding (and accepting) your own balance, I'm not quite there yet, but that doesn't detract from what an achievement it's been getting through this year.