Finding ways to fail: my postgraduate taught journey

Published: 23 October 2023

Recent PGT graduate Craig Houston reflects on "surfing an ongoing wave of excitement and anxiety" as a student on the Global Mental Health programme, and the elements that helped him overcome self-doubt to enjoy and successfully complete his studies

Global Mental Health graduate Craig Houston shares the highs and lows of his recent PGT journey, the elements of the programme that helped to build his confidence, the crucial support of classmates, and the importance of work/life balance in seeing him through academic doubt.

Photo of Craig Houston reading from a book

Who am I?

Hey! I am Craig and I recently undertook the Postgraduate Taught (PGT) MSc in Global Mental Health. Over the last few weeks, I have been reflecting on that journey, the highs, lows, and everything in between.

I achieved a BA (Hons) in Childhood and Youth Studies at the Open University. The full term of this degree was distance learning, occurring alongside full-time employment. I worked for several years in the third sector with young people who were involved in the youth justice system. Following the completion of my degree I was at a loss as to my next steps; but knew I loved combining my professional experience with academic learnings. Despite being interested in gaining research skills, I did not feel confident or equipped to undertake a Postgraduate Research MSc. During one of my late-night Google searches I found the answer – a course which explored my passion (from differing ideologies and theories), provided academic learnings and the opportunity to gain the research skills I so desired. A match made in heaven….BUT making the decision to leave full-time employment to study meant that I surfed an ongoing wave of excitement and anxiety from the minute that acceptance letter landed in my inbox.

The programme was a great remedy for some of these anxieties. I was able to engage with and select the modules which aligned with my interests and see clearly how this would progress through the year. Furthermore, there were practical benefits to the PGT programme, knowing the structure and timetable enabled me to continue working in a way that gave me the best chance of success.

Before the kick off

As I reflect, what comes screaming back into my mind was not the programme itself it was the weeks and months leading up to the opening day, where, despite being excited, nervous, and impatient to experience new relationships and learnings, my mind took great pleasure in providing me with an array of innovative thoughts about that I was going to fail. Thoughts that felt very real in my mind at the time! It makes me smile when I think about those thoughts now. I felt it important to reflect from this point as to manage this internal dialogue my determination, passion and commitment were tested even before the programme began. This served as a reminder of exactly what brought me to the programme and was undoubtedly a strength, I was able to draw on during the more challenging moments of the year.

Confidence and class

The programme had a sneaky way of building my confidence, the taught classes included guest speakers with a variety of experiences (lived, professional and academic) from a diverse range of backgrounds. This was fascinating as every speaker brought their own ideologies and perspectives to the class, which provoked thought, encouraged dialogue, and often challenged the status-quo. The online Moodle resources accompanied and complemented the taught classes, in a clear, structured, and easily digestible way. The online content was evocative and insightful. I noticed that reading these materials prior to class increased my participation as it gave me time to process the information, form my own opinion and direct any subsequent readings. This clearly had the same impact on my classmates. As the weeks progressed there were more and more voices heard in class and the plethora of diverse cultural, personal and professional experiences lead to the most valuable learnings. These learnings cemented and/or challenged the theory behind which ever lecture we were participating. It seems simplistic however, fully engaging in the blended learning approach set the foundations for my year, it built my confidence gradually (sneakily!) but of equal importance, it harboured the relationships with my classmates, who are by the way, the antidote for academic doubt, stress and/or demands!!

The classes facilitated those unplanned social contacts that come just at the right time, at those times where everything is overwhelming and where you can’t see past the difficulty right now. These moments creep up and bite you on the bum, they cannot be pre-planned for, but they WILL happen during any meaningful journey! My experience was, organising coffees, gym classes, walks, night outs, trips and study sessions all occurred much easier following class. The class whats app (highly recommended!!!) was an ongoing area of support; to post questions, double check things, share notes and organise social events. I am glad we started this during the opening weeks of the year.

One of my key reflections is not to forget about my own wellbeing. It seems painfully ironic now that I was studying mental health and (at the start of the programme) did not role model this, instead choosing to disregard the things that kept me well (playing football, having time off, running, listening to music), because, you guessed it, if I didn’t, this was another way my brain told me I would fail. That was not a realistic, enjoyable, or conducive with a positive academic performance! Don’t do it! But the message from my brain was consistent, it kept providing me with guilt and imaginations of failure, if I even considered some self-care. Thankfully self-care is prioritised, and discussed throughout the programme and by continually turning up for class, I encountered the wealth of informal support at the university. These were my of act of rebellion against those thoughts! I was able to align my interest with what was available at times that suited me which meant I could integrate these alongside my other commitment resulting in a support strong team, which stood me in good stead throughout the year.

By having fun alongside studying on campus I found myself being more proactive (as opposed to reactive scrambling about as deadlines approach) in tapping into and experiencing resources, such as, my most productive study spots, the best coffee, the IT helpdesk, student wellbeing services, peer wellbeing, academic masterclasses, library resources (that can support with search strategies) that would serve me well (and save me time!) as the year progressed toward that scary big thing (*whispers* the dissertation). Despite these supports, I did fall into the trap of overthinking my future following the programme WAY too early on. Had I taken a breath, I would have found out that there is time and support dedicated to supporting students move forward in their careers and exposure is given to the extensive opportunities that exist right here on campus.

As I mentioned I believe that the PGT journey has a fantastic way of guiding you through an MSc. However, I would encourage anyone undertaking this qualification to continually vocalise and discuss what brought them to the programme. Let these passions and interests guide the type of dissertation project you want, because in the dark moments, those inevitable moments where you feel like you are drowning and thinking "I can’t, I just can’t," these passions will be your float. My experience says the earlier you commit to some form of idea the more invested you will be and the more likely you are to make decisions that will benefit your project..

Why follow when you can lead?

The dissertation project takes up the whole of the final semester and I must admit that when I approached that semester I was subdued, I knew I would be losing the taught classes and formal and informal support these provided. Getting meetings in early and ongoing with my supervisor soon changed that! I soon realised that the learnings opportunities remained but took a different form…….with ME as the lead. It took some getting used to! Those initial meeting evoked feelings of apprehension and doubt but they were exciting! I was going to do something, armed with the class learnings and with my supervisor as my safety net, that truly spoke to my passions and beliefs. For me, this came in the form of a qualitative study – Exploring social connections for children aged 5–12 years-old in permanent foster or adoptive care, with maltreatment associated psychiatric problems, in the UK.

I would encourage others to explore a PGT programme and would strongly recommend the Global Mental Health programme. Highlights for me have been the diversity of ideas and speakers and how the blended learning approach-built confidence and encouraged dialogue. The programme has enabled me to meet so many inspiring individuals and make lasting connections. Lastly, this programme has had a major impact on my future in a short space of time, as I have recently begun as a PhD student within the same school.

Thanks for reading and take care.

Craig Houston
Global Mental Health graduate and current SHW PGR student 

First published: 23 October 2023