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1 June 2019

My Postgraduate Experience | CSTPV University of St Andrews

Life has been so hectic recently that I haven't yet had the chance to reflect on my Master's degree and share my experience. Although this post is a little long overdue... better late than never!

In December 2018, I graduated with my Master's degree (MLitt) in Terrorism and Political Violence from the University of St Andrews and I could not be happier. I had a very intellectually stimulating academic year alongside a school trip, where I really wanted to share my journey with any of you that are interested or are thinking about studying in St Andrews in the future.

St Andrews is a small coastal village in the Fife, East Scotland. To be honest, after my great year abroad in Belgium, I was itching to study abroad again but the study programmes abroad focused mainly on international security and I realised after completing my dissertation in counter-terrorism during my undergraduate degree, a Master's degree more specialised in terrorism alone was more suited to my interests.

I started to apply for Master's degree programmes when I started to write my undergraduate dissertation around Easter time and by the summer, I received offers for Queens University Belfast (MA Violence, Terrorism and Security), the University of Buckingham (MA Security and Intelligence Studies), the University of Nottingham (MA International Security and Terrorism) and the University of Dundee (MSc International Security - Terrorism).

I found the Terrorism and Political Violence programme at St Andrews really late in my search in May and was given an offer 3 weeks later. After some further research, I found that the school of International Relations in St Andrews was ranked 2nd in the University league tables and CSTPV (Centre of Study for Terrorism and Political Violence) was very highly commended, especially for research, so I would have been foolish to decline such an offer!

My boyfriend also received an offer to study in St Andrews that following month so in August, we arranged to visit St Andrews and look for accommodation. As we received our offers later on in the summer, the University accommodation was either fully booked or the remaining rooms were outside our budget. We contacted various estate agents in St Andrews and after a few viewings over the course of 2 days, we managed to secure a two bedroom flat rented to us by Stonehouse Lettings just off Abbey Street that was within our budget.

Classes started in September where I followed two modules: 'Fundamental Issues and Structures of Terrorism' and 'Research Methods'. The former focused on the contentious definition of terrorism, history, human rights and operational issues such as weapons and structure of a terrorist organisation. The latter went through various methods of approaching research week by week, including surveys, observations, questionnaires and a tutorial on using statistical software SPSS. This module was very beneficial for me coming from a legal background, however, I know some of my classmates with backgrounds in social science did not appreciate it as much.

Each module followed a typical one hour lecture and one hour tutorial per week, where the majority of learning was through self-study through the assigned weekly reading list. What attracted me most about studying at CSTPV was that there were no exams and only assessed assignments. As someone who hates exam environments and much prefers to write essays, this was a dream programme layout for me. Each module had two assessed assignments, one halfway through the semester and the other by the Christmas holidays.

I was pleasantly surprised by the semester dates in St Andrews as we didn't actually start the second semester until February - a good month and a half over Christmas/NY and the start of January to fully unwind! During this time I managed to pick my modules for the second semester which were: 'State Responses to Terrorism' and 'Terrorism and Liberal Democracy.' The former focused more on individual country case studies of historical political violence/terrorism and the latter allowed me to study the UK's counter-terrorism policy in more detail while also learning about attempts from other democratic states.

The structure of this semester was a little bit different and instead of two separate one hour lessons, we had a 2 hour seminar for each module per week. Similarly to the first semester, I had two assessed assignments per module up until May. Unfortunately, I was majorly affected by the University and College Union strikes during my second semester where the majority of my teachers decided to take part. As a result, around half of my classes were cancelled which was really disappointing but some of my teachers re-arranged class dates and sent us a video lecture instead which was very helpful.

May until September were dedicated to dissertation writing, where we were tasked with putting our research methods skills to the test. I dedicated a good two thirds of this time to gathering research, topped off with a good chunk of long writing sessions towards the end. I really enjoyed writing my dissertation over the summer as I had enough time to fully concentrate on my work as well as take a couple of guilt-free days off if I ever became overwhelmed. This method of working was such a drastic difference compared to my undergraduate dissertation where I had to research and write alongside attending classes and tutorials - a complete nightmare! I really enjoyed writing in St Andrews too as there were many locations to study in. I often find it difficult to concentrate if I am in one location for an extended period of time so I was able to switch between the main library, postgraduate library and various 24 hour computer labs with ease. 

To break up the dissertation writing period, the programme organised a 4 day field trip to Belfast to focus and learn about the conflict between loyalist and republican paramilitaries that occurred over 30 years between 1968 and 1998, also known as the Troubles. This trip was included as part of the tuition fees paid towards our degree. We went with staff who had previously lived/studied in Belfast and upon arrival, they took us around Shankill Road and Falls Road, two locations where sectarian violence escalated during the Troubles in the 1990s. It was very interesting to see the contrast in street art between Shankill Road (loyalist) and Falls Road (republican) territories alongside memorial exhibitions and artwork for those who died in the conflict as a reminder to promote peace between both groups.

On our second day, we went to the WAVE Trauma Centre, a charity that provides support and assistance for those affected by the Troubles. We were fortunate enough to be able to speak to three inspiring women about their experiences; one lost her brother, another lost her Dad and the final woman was physically injured as a result of a roadside bomb during the Troubles. Hearing about their experiences was really emotional, yet served as a powerful reminder of the reality of political violence. We are often so overwhelmed with studying terrorist organisations and cell structures, it is easy to become numb to the effect an attack has on the victims.

In the afternoon, we headed to Queens University Belfast to join in on a seminar with the MA Violence, Terrorism and Security students. A Q&A session was held where ex-combatants from both organisations and UK security forces participated. Everyone has their own side to a story and it was interesting to hear from both sides of the conflict, where they have since managed to make peace and live comfortably as neighbours in Northern Ireland today. 

On our second day, we drove to Londonderry/Derry to visit the Pat Finucane Centre, named after a human rights lawyer killed by loyalist paramilitaries, where we learned about the centre's current projects with regards to legal issues and human rights concerns as a result of the Troubles. Afterwards, we went to the Museum of Free Derry where we were shown around by a member of staff who had lost a relative on Bloody Sunday. The museum is located where Bloody Sunday took place in 1972 where British soldiers shot 28 civilians (14 deaths) who were taking part in a protest against internment. The visit was very interesting, yet emotional. I have no idea how the staff member manages to take visitors on a tour around an event that was so devastating and life changing for his family - he is indeed very brave.

On our final day, we visited the Police Service of Northern Ireland to have a discussion with one of the chief constables about the Troubles and the current threats the service face. Later that evening, we headed back to Edinburgh and then onwards to St Andrews. Overall, the trip was very inspiring and the staff that accompanied us really made sure we were able to learn about the Troubles from a whole spectrum of different experiences - a very rewarding academic trip!

Fast forward to December, I had submitted my dissertation, received my final transcript and was all set for graduation. My boyfriend's graduation was on the 6th of December so I was able to attend and get the gist of what my service would be like the day after. Compared to the University of Edinburgh, I felt as though graduation in St Andrews was a lot more formal and traditional. 

Instead of putting our full gown on before the ceremony in Edinburgh, in St Andrews we were told to wear the black gown without the hood. We were sent an instructional video of how to graduate which demonstrated the formal way of being hooded on the stage. Part of the ceremony was conducted in Latin too and although Younger Hall wasn't quite as glamorous as McEwan Hall, I enjoyed the ceremony in St Andrews a lot more.

After receiving our hoods and degrees, a bagpiper led us to St Salvator's quad where we circled around waiting for our families to join us for photos and to start the celebrations. Unfortunately the Scottish weather meant that the photo taking session was cut short due to high winds so the quad was empty after around 30 minutes and my family and I moved to St Salvator's hall where it was a little bit more enclosed and wind free. Later on in the day, we were invited to a post-graduation celebration in a nearby marquee where food and drink was provided. 

So, I'm officially a university graduate again! At the moment, I am very eager to start working in the field of either my law or international relations degree but in the future I may consider a PhD as I really believe my years as a student have been the best years of my life so far. The bubble of St Andrews will always have a special place in my heart and I'm already missing having the beach so nearby, Mozza pizzas and my classmates and lecturers who never failed to inspire me with their knowledge.

If you would like to find out more about the MLitt Terrorism and Political violence programme at the University of St Andrews, click HERE.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments or visit my CONTACT page.

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