The sad myth of student holidays.

Disclaimer: this was originally intended to be posted on Sunday 20th December. However, proving that I persist in being the living embodiment of Murphy’s Law, my laptop decided it wanted a new battery for Christmas. So, have a flashback to last week instead.

Today is the first weekend of my Christmas holidays. I finished my first semester of final year Law this Thursday (which was also the so-called ‘Trash Day’ in relation to government announcements; is there a connection, I wonder?) after what feels to have been a long twelve weeks. Thus my first semester is concluded, and only one final semester now lies between myself and graduation in summer 2016. A sobering realisation indeed, but I have a veritable mountain of work to get through between now and then. In actual fact, I have a veritable mountain of work to complete between now and February.

I have three coursework assignments to research for and complete, one per module studied this semester. Each will be several thousand words long, and all are due in rapid succession in January: the 11th, the 12th and the 13th. The New Year may feel far away at this point, but I know too well from experience as a student that Christmas comes and goes quickly, and January deadlines raise their gloomy heads in the blink of a weary eye. Even as you happily wrap presents for family and friends, even as you write Christmas cards and decorate the family Christmas tree, you are always aware of the ominous countdown in the back of your mind.

Essentially, these Christmas holidays of mine are a myth. I will be celebrating Christmas in name only, as I resign myself to sticking my head into books and articles throughout the next few weeks. I will be told by family and friends to relax, to unwind and enjoy the time off. But how can I really, when I am constantly aware of coursework deadlines? How can I relax, when I know I have research to undertake, notes to take, and typing to make a start on?

Oh, I know the retort: we students have an easy life, attending a few lectures and seminars during the week. It is not as thought we work a nine-to-five office job. If we have to work over the holidays, then that it the price we must pay for the easier ride during the year. This goes hand in hand with the argument that we are essentially paid to go to university thanks to the Student Loans Company, and do not realise how fortunate we are.

You know, whilst I can understand where these arguments come from, I still have to respectfully disagree with them.

We students may appear to have an ‘easy life’ in comparison to graduates and those in full-time employment. But that is in appearances only. For my Law degree, I may only have around eight to nine hours scheduled teaching time a week. However, I am expected to spend approximately 36 hours reading a week, cue multiple library adventures and late nights researching journal articles and reading additional material to boot.

When I am not reading or undertaking prep for seminars and lectures, I am preparing for tutorials. When I am not doing that, I am most likely in the library, planning for coursework questions.

Outside of my degree, I am involved in student organisations and volunteering. As I hold a committee role for one of the student organisations I participate in, that requires me to attend committee meetings, and society meetings. In addition, as Secretary for this organisation, I have to take meeting minutes, disseminate information around the committee and the society at large plus remain on top of all communications.

I am also involved in student programmes such as InnovateHer for female students interested in entrepreneurship and business, and also Campaign SU, a platform for student activism. Both of these require weekly meetings and workshops. I also recently completed a Leadership programme, which required me to attend a day-long course on a Saturday as well as attend a subsequent careers workshop.

Whilst these are not compulsory programmes, nor is it mandatory to be engaged with student life, I am not going to limit myself at university. That has never been the case with me; I truly believe in making the most of what is on offer and seizing every opportunity available. Moreover, arguably I must participate in different events and programmes for my CV. Yes, it can all be tied in to employability, whereby I can demonstrate to potential employers I possess a variety of transferable skills enhanced through my voluntary work, my student societal roles and so on.

I thoroughly enjoy the student life, and I love being able to work with other students on issues I feel strongly about, and work towards a common objective together. But I cannot deny that it can be tiring, and goodness knows it can be stressful. So, I often look towards the holidays as a time to unwind and recharge myself, in preparation for the next term. Alas, this rarely happens now – not since coursework and application deadlines instigate fresh stress and tiredness.

A few months ago I came across an article on The Guardian’s website, entitled ‘Are young people working too hard?‘ This article covered the results of a survey which found that contrary to popular stereotypes of lazy and uncommitted , young people aged between 16-24 today actually put in more hours at work than expected, and more hours than any other working age group. Questioning over 1,000 (mainland) UK office workers on how much overtime they do, the survey discovered that on average 16-to 24-year-olds clock up an extra seven hours and 22 minutes each week; this is two hours more than office staff aged over 55. Furthermore,the results also show that 11% of 16- to 24-year-olds work more than 20 hours overtime each week.

Yes, this survey was designed for use in the workplace, and not university campus. But upon reading The Guardian article, it is evident that there may not be that much of a difference, given the general motivation behind this age group’s desire to work more. Essentially, it comes down to not just wanting to succeed, but wanting to impress – the graduate market is over-saturated, and given the recent economic downturn, competition for jobs is at an all-time high for young people. This age group of 16-24 know that in order to stand out, they must work hard at their studies, participate in extra-curricular activities, perhaps work at a part-time job and also gain relevant work experience. Then, for those lucky few who are fortunate to be hired, they transfer this mindset to the workplace: they will work additional hours, ask to participate on different projects, enquire if anyone requires assistance, join social clubs etc. We know that in order to stand out, we must impress. And to do that, we must learn how to balance our time, and the importance of task prioritisation.

However, the survey also noted that ‘these findings are perhaps reflective of a more worrying situation.’ It makes for grim reading, and highlights what I have been saying about how this age group must be prepared to sacrifice time in order to stand out and impress:

This age group is facing high unemployment rates, increased tuition fees, and arguably taking the brunt of a rising costs of living.  And, with increasing numbers of highly-qualified young people having to take part-time or low-paid work, the situation does seem dire. So, people aged 16-24 may be working harder than any other age group, the question remains: Are they simply having to in order to get work?

But Leah, I hear you ask. What relevance does this have with the title and main topic of this post, i.e. the myth of student holidays? I am glad you asked.

Student holidays are never holidays, because when we are not inundated with coursework and examination revision, we will be inundated with applications, part-time jobs, seeking out work experience and volunteering instead.

I leave you with this thought: how often have you heard a graduate recruiter, a careers adviser or a relative in the profession you hanker to join say that you are entitled to chill out during your holidays? Exactly. You are more likely to hear the phrase, ‘make the most of your time off!’ instead. I do not know about you, but I have already lost count of the amount of emails from different law student advice websites this Christmas, urging me to spend an afternoon researching or a week filling out applications. (Consequently, I have a list of targeted firms, deadlines and key points about each scribbled down on my desk.)

On that note, I am away to wrap some presents for my family, but with my mind filled about the difference between the classic legalism approach versus the legal realism approach in jurisprudence. The sad myth about student holidays indeed.

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4 thoughts on “The sad myth of student holidays.

  1. As a final year business and management student, I completely agree with you! I definitely miss the feeling of guilt-free fun where I can relax without thinking I should really be doing that little bit more reading, revising, essay-writing etc. I spent the third year of my degree studying in the US so all of my exams and assignments were done before Christmas and so I actually had a ‘holiday’. Although the workload was intense and it was all very condensed, I actually preferred it. Do you think that could work in the UK?

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    1. Oh goodness, snap! I studied abroad in the US last year; I know exactly what you mean about the benefits of the different educational system. I had my final exams completed and final papers submitted and graded prior to ending the first semester, meaning I could fly home and spend the Christmas holidays catching up with family and friends – and of course, relaxing. I found the US liberal arts system to be different, but in a good way: I loved being able to study different areas Eg Political Science, but also Business and Accounting. I thought the workload was heavy, but the classes similar to the UK equivalent of GCSEs/A-Levels in terms of continuous assessment, unlike the UK university system of exams and coursework in the final weeks of the semester. It required good task prioritisation and task management, but the US system I felt provided for a better work/life balance, at least in terms of actually having holidays!

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      1. That’s crazy! I’ve had a little nose around on your US blog now, I didn’t even notice that when I commented. What a small blogging world we live in. I definitely agree with you in terms of how it felt a bit like A-levels, although sometimes the work-life balance during the semester was quite difficult to manage. I’m used to having longer deadlines so having to get all of the smaller papers in in time took some getting used to. I was never on campus on the weekends so sometimes it was a case of cramming all of my work in during the week, but I actually quite liked that and have continued to do that this year even though my weekends are considerably less busy. Do you think the task prioritisation has helped you at all now that (I presume) you’re in your final year?

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      2. You’re right, what a small blogging world we live in indeed. I always love hearing other people share their study/living experiences of the US. I hear you regarding the work/life balance; between Chapter meetings, events and volunteering with my sorority to other student organisations, and then classes, homework and revision… It never stopped! I did thoroughly enjoy it all to be sure, but it was intense.
        My campus was residential, but I was never quite able to have a lie-in on the weekends because that was when I tended to hit the books! I swear, our professors doubled the homework load for the weekend.
        Oh, I have carried my schedule on into this year. I think that because last year was so hectic, it really prepared me for final year. As soon as I come home from uni, I start planning what needs to be done and when, and get to work. America has taught me well!

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