After a decade of working in communications, research and policy analysis, I took the plunge and went back to school.
A master’s degree has been on my bucket list for some time. With the gift of a year off ahead of me, I resolved to make it a great and memorable year. I began making lists: countries I’d like to live, areas of research I’d like to focus on and faculty I’d like to work with. The University of Edinburgh and Scotland quickly rose to the top of all those lists. Last April I was accepted as a master’s student in the Science and Technology in Society (STIS) program at the University of Edinburgh.
On August 28, 2013, I arrived in Edinburgh. I was brimming with excitement and anticipation and nervous energy for what the year ahead would hold. Would I like being a student again? Six months later, I find myself soaking in the culture, learning a new language and developing new learning habits. I am making friends from around the world and realizing I have as much to offer as I have to learn.
History and culture
Although I can boast Scottish heritage, I didn’t have a true appreciation for Scottish history and culture until I got here and started to explore the country. Scotland has given the world many gifts, not the least of which include golf, curling, Scottish whiskey, beautiful poetry, captivating literature, and political and economic theories that continue to shape many countries and behaviours around the world today. The Royal Mile of Edinburgh is perhaps the best example of a summation of Scottish contributions. In a single mile, you can visit St. Giles Cathedral where the members of the Scottish Enlightenment (including David Hume, Adam Smith and Joseph Black) first started to meet, dine at Deacon Brodies’ Tavern (named after a former Scottish municipal councillor whose dual life inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), sample some of the world’s finest whiskies, buy a tartan and learn about golf and curling. At either end of the Royal Mile are Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle, a reminder of political and power struggles that characterize so much of Scottish history.
Exploring all that Scotland has to offer includes learning the language – and that is more than learning to understand the accent. Like any dialect of a language, there are expressions and turns of phrase that are unique to the area and reflect a certain outlook on life. Scots are frugal in many facets of life, including with their words. If someone says class starts at “half two” it means 2:30. There are also common expressions that I didn’t realize were Scottish in origin: speak of the devil, neeps, and ta (which can mean both “give that to me” and “thank you”). There are, of course, other expressions that require more practice in Scots to discern, such as: I dinna kein, bile yer heid, and tha’s you thein (you hear the latter from anyone in the service industry once they’ve finished serving you).
And then there’s school …
Student life at the University of Edinburgh is distinguished by independent inquiry and study – could this be another Scottish legacy? Unlike my Canadian postsecondary studies, lectures and seminar discussions here are comparatively brief, with much greater emphasis on readings and self-directed research. Self-driven study carries through in program design: only half of my courses are core and the other half are electives. Grades are based entirely on a single paper handed in at the end of the term. It may focus on any topic covered during the semester. Grading is blind, and the grading scheme is reputedly one of the most rigorous in the European Union. This is both a blessing and a curse. If you are someone who finds many things interesting, it is easy to read across a broad range of topics, and then to find yourself on a tangent that you need to back away from.
But independent study doesn’t mean without guidance. Each program is assigned a “personal tutor” – a faculty member from the department who meets with us regularly (in a group and individually) to discuss program expectations and elective choices and to identify an appropriate thesis supervisor. I have found our tutor’s insights and knowledge valuable in scoping my thesis and in choosing electives that target my specific interests.
Science and Technology in Society
The interdisciplinary field of STIS is a nascent one. It borrows from economics, sociology and philosophy, among other social science disciplines, to examine the implications of advances in science and technology on society and vice versa – how we co-evolve with science and technology. It then links with innovation studies for a healthy debate on governance and regulation when the long- and short-term benefits, impacts and consequences are often unknown.
Only a handful of universities around the world offer STIS programs (though many, like the universities of Ottawa and Toronto, are in the midst of developing their own offerings). The benefits of learning in the early years of a new field far outweigh the need for a longer elevator pitch when I explain my studies. Many of the seminal works that contextualize this field were written by faculty who continue to work at the University of Edinburgh; this gives the impression of studying in a STIS mecca. The program attracts people from around the world. My program has 10 students from nine countries: Scotland, Norway, Japan, Malaysia, Belgium, Taiwan, China, Slovenia and Canada. Our social and political views and our academic backgrounds (engineering, sociology, philosophy, and biology) are as far apart as our home countries. The richness of our diversity is, frankly, incredible. I have had to look at some of my subconscious assumptions in a new light.
So, what do I think about being a student again? Brief as it is this time around, it’s a wonderful life.
Rhonda Moore is on a leave of absence from her position as senior research analyst at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.