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Jessica Harrison

MA Victorian Studies

Since completing an undergraduate degree in English in 2007, Jessica has been working in the publishing industry. As such, returning to education after a seven year gap was a little daunting, though her passion for the nineteenth century won the battle, and led her towards Birkbeck.

Why did you decide to enrol here?

I wanted to do a Master’s degree focussed on the nineteenth century, a period that has always fascinated me. I didn’t know much about Birkbeck, but someone mentioned to me that it was especially strong for Victorian studies. I then found out that the college offers part-time evening classes and has a particular focus on continuing education – ideal for me as a full-time professional. The syllabus for the Victorian Studies course looked really exciting and, with its interdisciplinary focus, very different from my undergraduate degree. Both the course and college seemed absolutely perfect – I didn’t look at anywhere else after that.

How did you find the application process?

I had to write an application and a short 500-word essay on a topic of my choice related to the Victorians, before having an interview with one of the subject tutors. I think the written task was especially useful for coaxing me back into a student mindset – it had been seven years since I’d had to think in that way, so I was pretty rusty.

Why did studying in the evening appeal to you?

The course and teaching at Birkbeck have been absolutely fantastic. Whereas my undergraduate degree was fairly generalist, this degree has really allowed me to focus on my main interest, the Victorians. We’ve studied so many different aspects of the era, including literature, history, economics, art, philosophy and more – everything from Victorian ‘machine dreams’ to post-mortem photography to the Salvation Army.

I’ve also really loved my elective modules, on Victorian London and Death in Victorian Culture. I’ve enjoyed participating in classes, developing my research skills and writing essays – in general, challenging myself to think in new ways outside my working life.

On a professional level, the course has been directly relevant to my work in publishing, and the knowledge I’ve acquired has been feeding into my work.

How did you balance study with other commitments?

I work full-time, and juggling work with studying has been challenging, but manageable. I think this was largely because I’ve enjoyed the course so much; it hasn’t felt like a burden to do the reading at the weekends because it’s all been so interesting and because I’ve chosen to do it. Writing the essays has involved a lot of late nights and coffee, but again, they’ve been very rewarding.

What were your relationships like with staff and other students?

I really liked how mixed our classes were in terms of age: there were retired people, working professionals and recent graduates, and everyone brought different perspectives to group discussions. We had lots of contact time with tutors, and they were all really encouraging and helpful with any problems.

What are your plans for the future?

I wanted above all to gain an insight into the Victorians – their history, ideas and feelings – beyond the novels I’d read. I feel I’ve learned a huge amount over the two years (although I’m also aware I’ve barely scratched the surface), and I’ve gained valuable research skills. Above all, studying at Birkbeck has been a great pleasure – perhaps more so now than if I’d gone straight on from my undergraduate degree.

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‘The course has been directly relevant to my work in publishing’