Jami Dixon

Towards the end of my undergraduate degree at University of Leeds (BA Political Studies) I became increasingly interested in the interrelationship between the environment and development and concept of ‘sustainable development’. I felt that although I’d gained broad based knowledge from my undergraduate degree, I wanted the opportunity to explore my interests further and gain some more practical and transferable skills. When I came to look for courses on the MSc Sustainability and Environment ticked all my boxes in terms of content and approach. I liked how the teaching and assessment methods were varied and the focus seemed to be on fostering well-rounded individuals, not just as academics.  I had also heard from friends studying in the School of Earth & Environment that it was a very supportive department with inspiring members of staff. Ultimately I loved living in Leeds, had read & heard great things about SEE and the course seemed like a perfect fit!

My course was a one year Masters programme that I opted to do on a part time basis over 2 years. In the end I feel that I really benefited from doing it part time as it allowed me to enjoy the experience and really explore my interests, rather than just doing the bare minimum to get by.

The course included a range of modules that approached ‘sustainability’ from different perspectives. Some modules focussed on theory, governance or policy issues while others provided practical tools or approaches to sustainability.  There was also quite a large degree of flexibility when it came assessments, you were able to choose topics that you were interested in to give you an opportunity to apply your knowledge and explore your own interests.

Completing a research project was also a compulsory element of the course. I took this opportunity to undertake fieldwork in Uganda. I was there for 1 month carrying out the field work, but gained firsthand experience of the whole research process. I was responsible for every stage of the research process from problem identification and analysis to developing a research design, conducting the research and the final analysis and evaluation of the findings. My supervisor provided a lot of support and guidance through this process to enable me to complete this successfully. Being able to do overseas fieldwork provided me with invaluable experience and it was through being in Uganda and building networks that I was able to find a job starting immediately after the course finished. Undertaking fieldwork overseas also gave me firsthand experience of putting theory into practice and prepared me for some of the challenges I would face and for how to overcome them. I learnt that if you want to work or research internationally then you cannot underestimate the importance of being sensitive, flexible, reflective in considering ‘context’ and perspective and patient.

Before I started I don’t think I could have anticipated the amount that I would in the end gain from doing the course in term of knowledge gained and skills developed. I also met some great friends and inspirational people and learnt a lot by simply interacting and observing members of the department.

I feel like I benefited from the whole experience and over the 2 years my confidence and ability improved dramatically; I went into my first job feeling prepared and competent. Now I am back in academia working on a PhD I am now also beginning to appreciate the academic grounding that MSc provided me with.

One of the key highlights for me was the amount and diverse range of people that I met throughout the duration of the course and the friendships that I made as a result of this. I’m sure that if I worked it out I made friends from every continent!

Another element I really appreciated was the level of support from members of staff in the department. Even people who weren’t directly involved with me would be happy to share their experiences, offer a helping hand or point me in the right direction. I really benefited from the range of expertise the department has to offer, it really is interdisciplinary. The interdisciplinary approaches really enlightened me to what I now consider the most appropriate and effective way to approach sustainability issues.

One of the biggest challenges for me related to a big difference between my BA and Masters; the emphasis put on group work. I don’t think I had undertaken any assessed group work as part of my undergraduate degree programme. I found this a particularly challenging aspect in the beginning as working together effectively is not an easy task. It was sometimes difficult in group work when it was clear that some people hadn’t understood the lectures, or done any reading and some international students struggled with their English language skills. Trying to overcome these challenges in group work by being patient, understanding and supportive was of definite value for my own personal development. Though overall the emphasis on group work was of definite benefit to me as it allowed me to develop my communication skills, ability to compromise and allowed me to ‘master’ the art of teamwork.

Looking back now I see how important overcoming challenges are for your own development and how much they actually add to the whole experience. Overall I feel that the course gave me a different perspective on ‘sustainability’ and prepared me for a lot of the situations that I would go on to face when I started my job in Uganda.

I have just started a PhD back in the School of Earth & Environment, but for the last 2 years, I have been working for an NGO in Uganda.

As part of my role, I was responsible for a lot of the research the NGO undertook in relation to undertaking community needs assessments and monitoring & evaluation. I was able to use a range of quantitative & qualitative methods in order to do this and also provide training to other members of the team. The research, data management & analysis skills that I developed part of my Masters programme enabled me to do this successfully.

From my experience of working in an NGO in Uganda, they are really looking for individuals who not only have the theoretical knowledge, but also an understanding of contemporary sustainability issues in practice. They want people who can work independently with initiative and enthusiasm whilst also being a key team player. Basically, they want a bit of expertise and experience, but also actual practical skills and personal qualities. I felt that by undertaking the Masters course in the School of Earth & Environment I already had a lot of these basics that I was able to go on and develop.

When I was considering applying for a PhD, I realised that a lot of the skills that I needed, e.g. the research and project management skills I actually gained throughout my Masters course that I then went on to develop in the workplace. I’m sure over the coming years I will come to appreciate how much more undertaking a Masters prepared me for the world of academia.