Being a mature student

How to choose a degree course as a mature student

Note: I’m a mature student currently studying with the Open University. I’ve also got a degree from a bricks and mortar university, so I’ve studied at degree level both ways. This is the first in a series about being a mature student.

Embarking on a degree course at any age is a big deal, but I think there’s a particular set of things to consider as a mature student. You might be thinking of taking time out of work to study or wondering how you might fit studying in alongside work and, you know, real life.

Here’s some things you might consider while you weigh up your options.

  • Do you actually need a degree? If you’ve decided on a career change to be a doctor, then obviously yes. But if you’re thinking about career enhancement, or studying for pleasure, does it need to be a) as rigorous and b) as expensive as going the degree route? There’s loads of free / cheaper courses available everywhere on the internet. I list some examples below. Ultimately, for me, I wanted the rigour and the structure which I knew would make me get the work done, but you might (very likely) have better willpower than me.
    • OpenLearn from The Open University has cut down versions of some of its modules available. This is also a great resource if you’re deciding whether to study with them on the paid route and want to sample some of the materials.
    • Harvard have free courses here and MIT are here.
    • Udemy have tons of pay as you go modular courses.
    • Many universities have lifelong learning or continuing education departments, which offer anything from paid short courses to paid masters degrees. For example, Cambridge ICE is here.
    • And of course YouTube is your friend to find info on almost anything, although you might need to hunt around to find quality videos on your chosen subject.
  • What do you want to study? Again, if you want to be a doctor, or your employer is funding an MBA, this is not going to trouble you for long. However, if you’re looking for a degree to enhance your career or for your own interest, then you’ve got more options to think about. Don’t think you need to study one ‘pure’ subject like English or Psychology necessarily; lots of unis now offer joint honours courses where you can mix two subjects and some like the Open University offer a lot more flexibility than that (I’m on my fifth of six modules, only two of which have been in the same subject). Also think beyond the subjects you studied at school; lots of uni subjects aren’t really covered at school but you might absolutely love them.
  • How will you fund it? Great news if your employer will pony up for a work related degree (although check the T&Cs) but for the rest of us we’re going to need to find the cash. In the UK you might be able to access loans via Student Finance, and depending on your circumstance its always worth checking what bursaries and grants the institution you’re applying to can offer. Make sure you’ve taken all the costs into account, not just tuition. That might include accommodation and equipment.
  • Do you want to study full-time, part-time, fully remote, partially remote or on campus? This is going to have a huge impact on which institution you choose. If you’re going for the on campus route, it’s worth finding out how many mature students they have. You might love being the only one with a bunch of 18 year olds, or hate it – only you know. Some institutions specialise in mature students, like Birkbeck London. If you’re going partially or fully remote, definitely check out their credentials for remote learning. Some bricks and mortar unis have had to pivot hard to this model during the pandemic, with understandable teething problems, whereas others like The Open University have been built for remote learning from the ground up. This means, for example, that they’ve got materials designed to be consumed in a variety of ways like video, audio and e-books, that you can download and take with you.
Blog Tour, Crime, Fiction

If Looks Could Kill by Olivia Kiernan – Blog Tour

It’s a joy to get into a series of books and read along as an author really hits their stride. I very much enjoyed the first two in the DCS Frankie Sheehan series by Liv Kiernan, Too Close to Breathe and The Killer In Me, so am really pleased to see the character reappear in If Looks Could Kill.

In her third case, Frankie leads an investigation into the disappearance of Debbie Nugent, a woman who lives in a rural area, and whose home shows obvious signs of violence. There’s no body to be found though, and the behaviour of her two adult daughters is frankly baffling – one of them has clearly been living in the house with a bloody crime scene. In order to solve the crime Frankie has to lead a team of her own detectives and local Gardaí to investigate Debbie’s past and uncover long held secrets.

It’s great to see a strong female lead in a police procedural that’s both intelligent but fallible, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next in the series.

Many thanks to riverrun, Quercus Books and NetGalley for the advance copy provided in return for my honest review, and for the invitation to take part in the Blog Tour. If Looks Could Kill is published on 23rd July 2020 in hardback. Please do check in with the others on this blog tour, listed below, for their reviews.

Blog Tour, Non fiction

Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines by Henrietta Heald – Blog Tour

Rachel Parsons (L) and Caroline Haslett (R)

I’ve got a pretty busy Autumn coming up and so hadn’t planned to take part in a blog tour, but as a female Chartered Engineer I couldn’t resist the opportunity to review Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines, by Henrietta Heald. This book is being published in the centenary year of the Women’s Engineering Society, and tells the stories of many amazing and pioneering women. And when I say stories, I mean stories. This isn’t a dry tome listing the accomplishments of the great and the good – it’s a narrative biography set against a social revolution.

The central characters in our cast of magnificent women are Rachel Parsons, who effectively came from engineering royalty, a wealthy family with a rich heritage of scientific endeavour; and Caroline Haslett who came from much humbler beginnings but became perhaps the pre-eminent woman in electrical engineering in the 20th century.

The formation of the Women’s Engineering Society happened at a time of enormous social change and one that caused conflicting feelings for women. On one hand (some) women had just got the right to vote for the first time, but on the other, many women who had had interesting and varied jobs during World War One were being asked to return to domestic lives as men returned from the war. The prompt to create the WES was a proposed post-war bill outlawing the employment of women in engineering. Outraged by this, Rachel Parsons and her mother Katherine brought together a group of women to be a ‘fighting force’ that could become as powerful as the men’s unions had been. Along with the founders, former suffragette Caroline Haslett became the WES’ secretary. Thus their entwined stories begin, but as Heald leads us through the 20th century, we see that for one of the pair their career goes to greater heights and for the other their career sadly fades and ultimately their life ends in tragedy. This book is skilfully done and reads both easily and beautifully. It’s the story of two hugely influential women to whom I owe a great deal and of whom I’m ashamed to say I knew very little. I’m grateful this book came along so that I could find out more.

Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines by Henrietta Heald is published on 19th September, £20. I received a free copy in return for an honest review. Please do visit the other brilliant blogs on this tour, as shown below.

Fiction

Dystopian fiction – Vox and The Farm reviews

It’s release day for Margaret Attwood’s The Testaments, and book world is alight with discussion on all things dystopian. I’ve not yet got my hands on a copy of The Testaments, but thought I’d review a couple of other dystopian books that I’ve recently read that link neatly to Attwood’s themes.

Vox, by Christina Dalcher, describes the subtle erosion of women’s rights to equality by a hard religious right administration in the US. It starts so disingenuously – a proposal that if women simply stepped out of the workplace and returned to their ‘proper’ position of working in the home, that would free up jobs for unemployed men. And so begins a spiral to the point at the start of this book, where women’s voices are restricted to a small number of words per day. When the administration requires the unique scientific skills of one woman, though, they are prepared to make exceptions, and the story follows Dr. Jean McClellan as she sees another side to what is happening to women in the US. If this book had come out ten years ago, I would’ve seen it as an interesting dystopian take. With all that’s happening at the moment in the US and the UK, the subtle erosion of rights sat very uncomfortably with me. I thought the story was cleverly done, and definitely pulled me along to the conclusion.

The Farm, by Joanne Ramos, is a story that you could absolutely believe would happen right now. Young women are recruited as surrogates for wealthy women, and housed in a luxury ‘retreat’ where they are served all the right foods for pregnancy, given exercise regimes and told they are helping a woman who is unable to have a baby herself. As the women at The Farm compare stories, things start not to stack up and they begin to question the restrictions around their lives there and the motivations of the women that have hired them. It’s written with verve and with authentic experience of the vulnerability of recent immigrants, and I loved some of the characters. Nicely done, and another good tie in with Attwood’s work. On to something a little more cheerful next!

Crime, Fiction

The Poison Garden by Alex Marwood – Review

On Twitter recently someone asked which author you’d read without seeing either blurb or cover, and my immediate answer was Alex Marwood. I’ve read all of her books, which are standalones, and they’re all utterly brilliant. She’s the queen of beautiful tension – there’s no wham bam drama, just this awful foreboding in the telling. You know something terrible is going to happen (and in fact in this book you know that from Chapter One), but her plotting is subtle and gently leads you through twists, turns and revelations.

Her new book is The Poison Garden, a story that explores what happens when a family emerge from a survivalist cult into the real world after a tragedy. Marwood explores the bewilderment of the returnees, who’ve never really known a life beyond their compound and the stories they were told by their leader. This is set against a family member who’d remained on the outside with no knowledge of her extended family on the inside, and who now has to pick up the pieces and adjust. There’s such skill in both plotting and writing here, and you just feel that horrible sense of what might be to come as you move towards the conclusion. I loved it, but read it way too fast and was very sad to finish it.

Fans of Alex Marwood’s writing might like Alice Clark-Platts’ The Flower Girls (although it’s on a similar theme to Marwood’s debut The Wicked Girls). I would also recommend the late lamented Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)’s books – such brilliant psychological thrillers. Savour this book more than I did, I read it far too quickly.

This review is of a NetGalley edition. I purchased all of the previous three Alex Marwood books.

Fiction, Historical fiction

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – Review

This is an astonishing literary fiction debut. Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott has done a very clever thing – written a semi-fictionalised account of a semi-fictionalised account. Truman Capote was the trusted confidant of much of New York society, listening to their intimate worries and travelling the world with them. His inner circle became known as the Swans, and included Jackie Kennedy’s sister Princess Lee Radziwill, Gloria Guinness and C.Z. Guest. But Capote decided to write a thinly disguised book about the Swans and they saw this as the ultimate betrayal (he never finished the book, but one chapter, La Côte Basque, was published in Esquire in 1975). 

This book swaps between the viewpoints of the Swans and Capote and must have taken an enormous amount of research. It’s a sumptuous sweep of a book, moving from both the peak of the friendships to the betrayal, and the voices come loud and clear through the pages. I loved it, but it’s a rich multi-course meal – take your time and savour it. It’s not one to be rushed. You might need to read a palette cleanser afterwards, and I will be picking up something much lighter next.

Blog Tour, Crime, Fiction

Razia by Abda Khan – Blog Tour

“Farah is a young lawyer living and working in London. She’s just ended a long relationship, and her parents are looking for a husband – whether Farah wants one or not. So far, so normal. But at a work dinner, hosted by a dangerously powerful man, she comes across a young woman called Razia, who Farah soon realises is being kept as a domestic slave.

We follow Farah’s daring investigations from the law courts of London to the brick kilns of Lahore, as she begins to uncover the traps that keep generation after generation enslaved. Everywhere she turns there is deep-rooted oppression and corruption, and when the authorities finally intervene, their actions have dire consequences.

Farah teams up with a human rights lawyer, Ali, and the two become close… but can she trust him; can they help Razia and others like her; and will they ever discover the explosive secret behind these tragic events?”

Razia by Abda Khan

These men and women would work in these fields and stand on the side of roads like this up and down the country, for hours, just so they could earn enough to feed their family dhal and roti. She felt a sudden pang of sadness, a strong feeling of grief, such as she had never experienced before; a fierce and unexpected attachment to these people, and their struggles, even though they were all perfect strangers to her.

Modern slavery is one of those topics that pops up on the news from time to time, but is primarily a hidden abuse that lurks in the shadows. It’s one of things that we think perhaps rarely exists in modern Britain, and yet the Home Office conservatively estimates there are 13,000 slaves in the UK today (see here for a recent example involving 400 victims alone). Abda Khan brings this subject out into the light in her new novel, Razia. Khan’s background as a lawyer and campaigner brings a realism to the story of Farah, a young lawyer who stumbles across a case of modern slavery amongst the highest echelons of society. The story moves from London to Lahore as she tries to help the victim and is an unflinching read – there are some lovely and touching moments, but with this subject matter it was never going to be hugely cheery. This book moved me and opened my eyes to something that I know must be going on somewhere near me. For an exploration of a difficult topic in an accessible way, I would highly recommend it.

For more on modern slavery see here from the charity anti-slavery. Abda Kahn is an author and a lawyer and won the Noor Inayat Khan Muslim Woman of the Year Award 2019. Razia is published to coincide with World Day against Trafficking in Persons, and can be pre-ordered here.

I received a free copy of Razia in return for an honest review. Please do visit the other amazing bloggers on this blog tour, as shown below.

Non fiction

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro – Review

It’s true of any change that there’s the possibility of unintended consequences. I wonder if, when companies like Ancestry decided to offer DNA testing, they considered what the fall out would be for those who, like Dani Shapiro, discovered something they really weren’t expecting. Shapiro took a test almost casually at the prompting of her half-sister (I must confess I have some doubts about the half-sister’s motivations here) and discovered that the man she’d always thought of as her father wasn’t her biological father at all. With neither parent alive, she embarks on what’s part psychology book, part memoir and part detective story to find out the truth about her conception and birth. It’s so beautifully written and completely up my alley. I’d highly recommend.

For another story (even more incredible, and in depth) about the unexpected results of a DNA test, see this piece in The Washington Post. It’s truly astonishing (you can read without subscribing if you click through). Inheritance is out now in the UK. I bought my copy.

Blog Tour, Crime, Fiction

One Way Out by A.A. Dhand – Blog Tour

A bomb detonates in Bradford’s City Park.
When the alert sounds, DCI Harry Virdee has just enough time to get his son and his mother to safety before the bomb blows. But this is merely a stunt.

The worst is yet to come.
A new and aggressive nationalist group, the Patriots, have hidden a second device under one of the city’s one hundred and five mosques. In exchange for the safe release of those at Friday prayers, the Patriots want custody of the leaders of radical Islamist group Almukhtareen – the chosen ones. The government does not negotiate with terrorists. Even when thousands of lives are at risk.

There is only one way out.
But Harry’s wife is in one of those mosques. Left with no choice, Harry must find the Almukhtareen, to offer the Patriots his own deal.

If you’re a fan of extremely pacy thrillers / police procedurals that are bang up to date, I have good news for you. If you like a copper with a difficult backstory, I have even more good news for you. And if you like a copper with a backstory but are a bit bored with that copper being a middle-aged out of shape bloke with a drinking problem, you probably shouldn’t bother reading the rest of this review. You just filled your bingo card. Go and buy this book immediately.

The set-up on this is cracking. DCI Harry Virdee has a catalogue of family issues, including an interfaith marriage which has not gone down well with the wider family, and a brother with an interesting business model. So when he takes his mum and son out to the park for the day, it seems a pleasant break from everything else that’s going on his life. But when a bomb planted by a nationalist group goes off, he and his family manage to get away safely, only to find that his wife is caught up in an ongoing hostage situation related to the original explosion.

Harry is obviously desperate to save his wife, and his deep knowledge of the local area makes him uniquely qualified to do so. With the help and encouragement of his politician friend, he sets out to find those that the nationalist bombers want handing over to them, the leaders of the radical Islamist group, Almukhtareen.

This is a really tight plot, which cracks along at pace. It’s also highly topical, covering the rise of both religious extremism and nationalism. The hostage scenario is a really clever set up, and I’ll confess to being worried that the rest of the book might disappoint. It doesn’t. Harry is an interesting and complex character who, especially given his own wife is in danger, is quite prepared to resolve the situation by any means. It’s a bit Roy Grace police procedural, a bit Jack Reacher action thriller, all set against a very modern British city. I loved it.

One Way Out is available on 27th June in ebook and hardback. It’s the fourth in the Harry Virdee series. I received a free copy for this blog tour in return for an honest review. Please do visit the other excellent bloggers on this tour, as shown below.

Crime, Fiction

The Whisper Man by Alex North – Book review

So this was a happy mistake. I spotted it on NetGalley and thought “ooh I love Alex North’s books!”. Well, I’ve no idea who I was thinking of because this is a debut, and it’s an extraordinarily accomplished one.

Tom and his son Jake have suffered the appalling loss of their wife and mother, Rebecca. Jake is showing great signs of distress, especially as he found his mother dead at home, so Tom decides they need a fresh start and at Jake’s prompting, chooses a curious and some might say scary house in Featherbank. But as they arrive, a boy is taken, bringing back memories in the community of the child abductions and murders carried out 20 years previously by The Whisper Man.

This is a multi layered book which is a proper edge of your seat thriller. Alex North pulls all the strands together at the end, and I was desperate to get there to see how he did it. Really nicely done and a strong plot and characterisation. In terms of the creepiness and oppression of living in a small village, there were resonances of The Killer You Know by S.R. Masters which I previously reviewed on a blog tour. The references back to historic crimes reminded me of The Flower Girls by Alex Clark-Platts and The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood. I’d recommend any of these as a tie-in read.

I received a copy of The Whisper Man from NetGalley in return for an honest review.