Reflecting on my Open University journey

A222, Excruciating Philosophy, was a pit of despair.  Nine months of painful TMAs and material I could not abide will be the scar I carry from my degree.  Sitting there into the night for every TMA despairingly wondering “Why can’t they just tell us what they want?“.

It wasn’t until five days before the exam that I went to a day school 200 miles from home and found a tutor group of engaged, motivated students being led by two brilliant tutors, and their advice and superb handouts got me through the exam.

“I do think good tutors make such a difference to your outcome and experience throughout.”

It does.  When I did DD101 Obfuscating Social Science the only advice our tutor gave was “Don’t say ‘I’ or I’ll kick your windows in and everything you write must have a reference“.  He repeated it in every tutorial and in every TMA’s comments and never provided anything else.  Loads of people dropped out through the year and I was getting 40% to 45% for every essay and not getting any useful feedback.  For that module I was saved right at the end by a student who also had an IT background who explained how social science is not actually a science and told me how to write social science essays.  He had himself been told that by another student.

I know many people who have said they have had great tutors all the way through.  Some of mine have been shocking and, going by the drop-out rate, those who get them tend not to stay with the OU so we don’t hear from them again.

I have often learned more from my fellow students than from some of my tutors.  That’s why I now go to every tutorial I can.  The OUSA Open Degree forum for was absolutely brilliant for advice, better than Student Support, but they got rid of that.  It’s no wonder people are moving to Facebook for support.

Sadly, I have not enjoyed much of my OU experience and will genuinely be glad when it is over.  The exception has been the interaction with other people, the support from others who have been there before and those who are also struggling, often alone in the night.  I think this confirms that distance learning is not for me.

When I started my OU degree this time around (I also had a go in the 1980s), I saw a few comments from old hands saying it is the students that make the OU, and I did not understand that then.  I do now.

Thank you, my fellow OU students, for being out there and being supportive, I couldn’t do this without you.

A quick reflection on where I’m at so far, and generic advice to others

In 2012 I decided to change career from large scale IT project management to war prevention.  I have made progress in doing so.

  • I’ve nearly finished my ‘Peace Studies’ Open Degree.  In the next few months I’ll be putting in applications for doing a Peace Studies Masters Degree starting in 2018.
  • I’ve a few years experience at volunteering in the sector, giving me work experience to talk about.  I also have and have had director-level voluntary posts in the sector, giving me kudos and credibility.
  • I read everything I can so can hold meaningful conversations with interested people about peace work.  I think I can just about cover a stand at a conference or exhibition on my own (having just done so under tuition and supervision of an expert) although I need more practice.
  • I am working for an employer who advertises roles I would like.

That is in accordance with the plan I had in 2012.  I have not done everything in the plan as some has not worked out – I was too optimistic about being able to change the world quickly.  But I am getting there.

My ‘how to change career’ plan came from books I read about 5 years ago, and the generic advice boils down to this:

You need three things: relevant qualifications (to get your CV through the tick-box checklist); work experience (nobody wants to give training or risk taking on someone who may be unable to do the job); to know the culture (so you can get through the interview).

To get these three things:

1. Volunteer for anything in the same sector or doing the same kind of work. This gives you knowledge of the culture and starts your people networking. Volunteering is way to get work experience.
2. Make sure your study is appropriate for what you want to do. I am doing an Open Degree because the OU doesn’t do a Peace Studies degree. Check the careers information on government and academic resources for what qualifications are expected and decide if you need anything else. Sometimes free courses through MOOCs can be a good enough substitute
depending on what you want to do.
3. Read everything you can about your desired role / sector. Wikipedia, text books, online articles, journals, e-journals, blogs. Get to know how things are done, what is the jargon, who are the big names.

Also, networking is essential these days.  See who is doing the job you want on LinkedIn and try to join the same groups as them to see what is being discussed and what is important. Also, try to make connections with them.

Getting a job doing what you do now in an organisation which also does the job you want, and then moving sideways, can be much easier than trying to get the job you want straight away.

I would also suggest self-advertising.  Blog about what you are doing and how you are getting on. Create a web site about it. Have business cards describing you in your new role. Give them out and tell people what you are doing: strangers like to help and offer advice and there can be gems in that free advice.

That is what I have been doing, so I do follow my own advice.  🙂