What I learned from being a Master student at the University of Oxford
It’s been a long time coming. I graduated from Oxford in July 2013, with a Master’s degree in musicology. More than six years later, I feel I have the proper mindset to reevaluate the year spent at the celebrated institution. However, before exploring the diverse states of mind I found myself in during my time as a foreign student in the UK, I think it’s worth providing a bit of context on what made me dive headfirst into the unknown.
Before I was ever enrolled in any music-learning institution, I had a passion for music, as detailed in a previous article. This passion led to an obsession that culminated in my decision to pursue a ‘career’ in music. The only discernible way of doing this was through academia — I figured that even if I don’t end up being the next Steve Vai or Leonard Bernstein I’d at least find a job as a music teacher. (If you can’t do, you teach, amirite?) Thus, plan B became something that, while not particularly desirable, would still mean sticking to the field that brought me so much joy and fulfillment.
I lost track of the objective of becoming a great musician, however, and, in the confusion, I reached the conclusion that being an academic should be the endgame. Writing seemed effortless, I was a fast reader, research seemed fun, and it had been pretty easy to produce articles and essays until that point. Perhaps a bit too easy, so, thinking I needed a challenge, I decided to explore the unknown and continue my studies in the UK. The University of Oxford opened its doors to me and my brand of Eastern European musicology. For a (hefty) fee, of course.
I finished the BA at the UNMB back in my native Romania, sent the enrollment agreement, and booked the flights. I got on the plane and, after I landed on Luton Airport, hopped on a National Express bus that dropped me off in Oxford, in Headington. I was a stranger in a strange land at this point. It was 2012, but I still didn’t have a phone capable of reliably showing maps. I had no idea how to get to my accommodation on Westlands Drive, so I walked into an estate agency’s office and asked for directions. The folks there where really helpful and, with a few hurdles along the way, I finally managed to reach the flat and set up camp in my cozy room sometime after lunch. But I still felt out of place. I was exhausted and went to bed almost immediately after getting there. Waking up at around 7pm, I started realizing that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Things were about to get real.
The academic side
One would expect this to be the most educational aspect of being an Oxford student. Alas, it wasn’t, at least not for me. That being said, I did learn a lot from the experience, particularly about how to think. Just to provide a bit of context, teaching in Romania is based on the kind of approach where the student, all the way from grade 1 to grade 12 and beyond, is taught to keep their mouth shut, keep critical or original though to a minimum, and just focus on regurgitating whatever the teacher espouses from their podium. It is about teaching you what to think rather than how to think. Granted, this might be an afterimage of communism that still lurks in some uncleared cache of the collective consciousness of Romania, but I was more interested in its effects than in its causes at that point. The situation was completely different in the UK.
There was no time for pleasantries, with the culture-shock kicking in as soon as the first words of the first seminar were uttered: “how do you think music history should be studied?”. While I am exaggerating the lack of focus on critical thought in the Romanian system to some extent, it was not a skill the system was eager to develop. But, right out of the gates, the emphasis on memorizing information vanished in a single question and all I was left with was a moment of panic. I did provide an answer to the question, but mainly out of a fear of being seen as the dumb kid rather than because I had anything meaningful to add to the conversation. The practice of discussion was that alien to me. I slowly noticed a pattern, where every session was about you uncovering knowledge through individual research, debate, discussions, and writing. While the latter wasn’t as culture-shock inducing, given I had gotten used to producing words during the final year of my BA studies, all of the former, on the other hand, were a novelty to me.
I spent a lot of time emotionally preparing for seminars. Not only was I supposed to talk and give my 2 cents on the topic at hand, but I was also supposed to do it in a secondary language. I was initially frustrated on that front because I was the only person from continental Europe — most of my colleagues were from the UK and the US. Fortunately, no one seemed to be that bothered by my hard r’s and th’s, so I eventually got over it and started expressing my thoughts more freely. But with that out of the way, I ran into a new problem.
Coming from a country that doesn’t have proper access to Western musicological texts, particularly of the contemporary variety, I was at a disadvantage when it came to using research to support my intuitions and ideas. I knew that Stravinsky was a chameleon that went from modernist to neo-classicist to serialist, but I had no idea why and what to do with the information on a macro level. I read more than ever during that year and only at the end of programme did I feel that I was ready to start the programme. I became quite apt at writing and editing in English, being able to synthesize information and give an essay shape and purpose in a timely manner. (I actually submitted my thesis a month in advance. However, that wasn’t because I was precocious. It was because of my dire financial situation.)
The financial side
I think no one would be surprised to find out that the Oxford University fees are exorbitant. Brand aside, because of the Oxford system, you’re actually part of a college that is responsible for managing you while you’re there. And they charge about £2.5k per year for that; accommodation costs not included, of course. Thankfully, as I later found out, I was actually lucky to have missed the college room application deadline, as it would’ve meant I had paying the rent for the entire academic year upfront! As I ended up renting privately, I paid £400 per month for a room in a house shared with 3 other people. (The monthly fee wouldn’t have been much higher than renting privately.)
I wasn’t as lucky when it came to paying the tuition fees, however. As I said, as opposed to other establishments, the Oxford colleges get a nice percentage (roughly 25%) of the full tuition fee. And St Hugh’s wanted the full £8,200 in one installment. (I still get shivers down my spine thinking about it!). While this apparently is on the lower scale of the fee system (MBAs cost over £20k, Jesus!), it was more than I or anyone I knew could afford. I won’t go into specifics, but if it wasn’t for the unbelievable support of multiple family members (especially my mom, who’s the best person on Earth) and various maecenas, I wouldn’t have been able to get the opportunity to study at Oxford. I’m still in debt, but I’m fortunate enough not to have banks chasing after me.
The first few months were a shock to the system. All I had under my name for the first few days was a £20 bill. After sorting everything out and paying the college, I had close to nothing left in my account. I couldn't work because Romanian (and Bulgarian) workers were subject to transitional restrictions, so all I had was whatever money my mom could send me. I had to save every pence. The entire month of November 2012, I spent a total of £44 on food. I lost about 8 kg between September and December. The situation was getting a bit out of hand, but, luckily, St Hugh’s had a special fund in place for this kind of financial crisis. I got £2,000 — which I had to pay back at the end of the programme — and £10 a day to eat at the college cafeteria, which, thank goodness, I didn’t have to pay back. Going from about £1.5 to £10 per day made a huge impact on my well-being. I felt like a king. I went from eating plain rice, tomatoes, cheese, Tesco’s everyday value cold cuts and bread (lots of bread) to eating proper meals that were actually nutritious. One of my flatmates also started working at a sandwich shop and would often bring me leftovers. Those breakfasts where glorious. Moreover, the Graduate room had free biscuits every day, leftover pizza on Monday mornings, and the best free Sunday brunches one could imagine.
I paid back the grant by not going into it unless it was a matter of urgency as well as by saving up on the last month’s rent. Teaching ended at the end of June but you technically had until the end of July to submit your dissertation. I couldn’t afford another month’s rent, so I decided to shift into high gear and finish everything a month ahead of schedule. Thinking back, it was a crazy gamble, but it paid off. I graduated with Distinction.
I learned the value of money at Oxford. For the years leading up to me leaving for the UK, my mom was the sole provider, and her salary was on the lower scale, even though she was (and still is) a school teacher. But, alas, that’s Romania for you. We didn’t have piles of money, but I never felt we needed more than we had. But, as I eventually realized, even that was a privileged position. I didn’t really understand the value of money until I had to make every cent work like a dollar. I learned how to take care of myself in a completely unfamiliar and financially unfriendly environment. Albeit paradoxically, it was a lesson that was worth £8,200 and then some.
The personal side
The fact that I had no disposable income meant that my personal life was also affected throughout my year at Oxford. I didn’t really go out, and when I did, I would only order tap water, if anything. (I still owe a few people a pint or two!) The college often organized formal parties, but you had to pay to attend. Given my budgetary constraints, I couldn’t go to any, so I didn’t really interact with many St Hugh’s people outside of the Sunday brunches. I also work really well in the comfort of my home, so I didn’t need to be in a library to be productive, pretty as the Oxford ones were. This meant that my college interaction opportunities were even more diminished.
The situation wasn’t much better at the Music Faculty. The Master programme didn’t include lectures or department-wide seminars, most sessions being with only 4–5 other people. While I did make a few friends along the way, some of whom I still talk to and meet on a regular basis, overall, my existence at Oxford was mostly a solitary one. I’m not necessarily the kind of guy that needs a lot of social interaction, but the fact that I went from a place where friends and family were either within walking distance or a bus ride away to going days without really talking to anyone was taking its toll. Mobile roaming cost a fortune back in 2012 in the UK and I didn’t have a smartphone, so my contact with Romania was very limited, particularly if I was out and about.
While not necessarily the most important lesson, the lack-of-money and lack-of-friends combo made a much more independent individual. I didn’t really have anyone to help me with money in the UK, didn’t have anyone to ask about ‘living in the UK’ etiquette (even what supermarket is cheapest), not too many opportunities to ask for academic advice outside of regular classes, so I had to rely on my intuition and on my dear virtual friend Google. It was a difficult process, but also something I needed at that age. Again, the price of admission seemed to have been worth it, albeit for different reasons.
So, what did I learn from doing a Master at the University of Oxford? A lot, but less about music and more about life. I am extremely grateful for being born in a family that was as supportive as mine. I not only got to experience teaching at the highest level but also living in one of the most forward-thinking (Brexit notwithstanding) countries in Europe. I learned, the hard way, how to live by myself, support myself on multiple levels, and interact with a plethora of other cultures. I feel blessed to have had this immense opportunity and don’t take it for granted, even though it wasn’t exactly what I expected. And, on a more pragmatic level, I’m sure the Oxford brand opened a few doors for me since graduating.
The experience did drain me of my enthusiasm of studying music, though. I was done. I had graduated from the University of Oxford. I could hang up my boots and focus on something else. But that would’ve been too streamlined. I was apparently slow to learn the lesson, so, a year after getting the Master’s degree, I embarked on a new journey: obtaining a PhD in music.
To be concluded. In the meantime, you can get in touch with me on Twitter @AndreiSoraMusic. Thanks a lot for reading!