One course, some coffee and a chat – Katie Nicholas talking to Kathryn Graham

“Since graduating from my undergraduate degree in 2014, returning to university one day has been at the back of my mind. After leaving the University of Leeds almost exactly three years ago I have had a variety of jobs and visited a variety of places, but it wasn’t until I started working as a Library Assistant at Central Manchester Foundation Trust last August that I felt I had found my calling.

Almost as soon as I began in my first library role, the possibility of studying for a postgraduate degree was on my radar. The desire to study at a higher level and establish myself in a library or information management-related career, mixed with the encouragement from those around me, led me to apply for the Library and Information Management course at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Last September, as soon as news spread that I had a vague plan to continue my studies, it was suggested that I speak to Katie Nicholas who, at the time, was working towards completing her dissertation in her third and final year of the course. We met up for coffee and I grilled Katie on every aspect of the course, primarily focused on my anticipation and trepidation of becoming a student once more. Nine months down the line, with one dissertation completed and a successful university application behind us, Katie and I met up again to formulate those initial musings and worries into something a little more comprehensive.” Kathryn Graham, Library Assistant, Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CMFT)

“We decided to structure our discussion using a ‘quick and dirty’ version of the Knowledge Exchange template from the Knowledge Management toolkit – neither of us were leaving one post to start another, but we were sharing learning and passing on experiences gained so we thought it was an appropriate way to capture our chat. Kathryn thought of 5 top questions she wanted to ask someone who had finished the course as she prepared to start and I thought of 5 key learning points I wished I’d know at the start.” Katie Nicholas, Knowledge Officer, Health Education England


Returning to student life

KG: How did you find the transition of returning to university and becoming a student again?

KN: Becoming a student again, especially as I am now working and not a full-time student this time around, was definitely a culture shock. One of the best pieces of advice I could give for easing yourself through this transition, is to begin reading and assimilating back into student mode as soon as you can. Try to do a little bit of reading or research around the module topics before you start to try to get yourself into the right frame of mind. Buy a nice new pencil case! That’s always my favourite part.

KG: Did you find it difficult to balance your part-time student life with your full-time working life?

KN: It was hard at times but you soon get back into ‘student mode’. I quickly learnt that it is important to manage your time well. Once you begin setting aside time in your diary for studying and completing assignments, you realise that you have a bit more time to study than you thought. There is often time during the day at university, between lectures and seminars, to get on with work too. It’s all about utilising any free time you have.


Getting the balance right

KG: How did you balance your work, university, and personal lives for three years without losing the plot?

KN: With difficulty! The key is to compartmentalise your time. As I said before, it is vital to manage all of the time you have efficiently. I made sure I knew all of my deadlines at the beginning of each semester, so that I had a clear idea of what I was working towards. I tried to keep study time, work time and personal time separate in my diary, and in my mind, so that I wasn’t sacrificing too much of one to fulfil the other. Deadlines are obviously important but so is making time to relax, catch up with friends to keep the balance and still have a life! I think by the end of the course I was more content with the fact that it was better to hand something in on time that was the best I could do rather than delay to try and produce perfection when you just don’t have the time to do that. As a perfectionist that was a hard lesson to learn.


Theory informs practice

KG: Was it useful to be able to apply knowledge gained on the course directly to your working life?

KN: Yes, that was definitely one of the benefits of studying alongside working. I found it really useful to be able to apply the theory I was learning to the job I was doing. It was also interesting coming from a health library background and seeing the different focuses of the modules and lectures, and being given an introduction to a broader range of libraries.

KG: Have you applied anything you learnt on the course directly to your current role?

KN: Yes, I found the searching retrieval module particularly relevant to the work I do, and the work done generally in health libraries. I applied the information retrieval skills learnt on that module to my working life, and still draw on those skills today.


Library student turned library user

KG: Did you notice a difference in your perception and use of the university library between studying at undergraduate level and studying on the Library and Information Management masters?

KN: Definitely. Using the library while studying for the masters made me realise how much support and assistance is available from the library staff. When I was studying for my undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester, I never would’ve thought to ask for help or request papers I was struggling to access. But while studying for my masters, I attended training sessions at the library and ordered papers, I may not have known these services were available if I wasn’t actively learning about them on the course and they weren’t a core part of my job at the time.


Financial burden or invaluable investment?

KG: And finally, did the cost of studying ever discourage you from applying, or were you sure that the benefits would outweigh the initial cost?

KN: It’s undeniable that the tuition fee is a lot of money if you think about it in one lump, but it didn’t put me off. I knew that to establish a career in libraries and knowledge management the skills learnt and knowledge gained would far outweigh the cost. Plus, I never felt as though I was taking the cost on all by myself – the financial and pastoral support from HCLU and the LIHNN network made me feel less anxious about it. In terms of the experiences I’ve gained professionally and academically, as well as the network of new professional peers I now have, it’s definitely been beneficial.

KN: 5 things I learned that I wish I’d known before I started:

    1. Make use of the HCLU staff library – when it’s essay deadline time and 30+ people are trying to borrow one copy of the same book the staff library is a brilliant way to get hold of the titles you need without buying them.
    2. Course structure and deadlines: As a part-time student you’ll do three modules in Year 1, three in Year 2 and the dissertation in third year. The modules are usually broken into two halves (one half delivered in the term before Christmas and one after). The deadlines were mainly around Christmas time and in May (sometimes all very close together) though of course there are some throughout the course.
    3. Download the university App. You can check Moodle, email, library loans and locate available PCs using it. It’s really handy if you’re on the move and want to check a deadline or look at some course material – especially when you’re part-time and not always on campus. I also synched my uni email account to my phone so I got communications immediately. If a lecture room has changed or a seminar is cancelled you don’t want to be half way to campus before you know about it.
    4. Have a read of the Course Handbook (it’s usually located on the Moodle area somewhere). It answered some of those little questions that make you the most anxious when you first start a new course like what font type should I use for my essay or what should the title page say. If you’ve had a look at the start you won’t panic about when you get your first assignment.
    5. Get in touch with some wider library networks for new professionals or students. NLPN have lots of free events and you can meet other people doing the course at the same time across the country. They’ve also just started a shadowing initiative which, if you aren’t able to the do the placement element of the course (I wasn’t because I worked full time), you may be able to arrange a day shadowing in another sector. You might also want to join CILIP as a student member to get updates/ job adverts etc. and access training opportunities.


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