Saturday, 23 February 2013

Dealing with crisis

Who knows what's drifting towards you on the river of life?
A degree takes a long time.  Even for full-time students, it takes three or four years, and if you're part time, it could be more than 10.  And that's a lot of time in which life can happen to you.  So there's a very strong chance that at some point in your academic career you're going to hit a life crisis that interferes with your study (for myself, I've had a nephew in intensive care, death of a step-parent, natural disaster, and a relationship breakup, just to name the biggest things).  And of course as mature students we have many more responsibilities than our 18-year-old classmates - we can't just go home to mum and dad if it all goes horribly wrong.

It's a good idea then to know what to do when the big life stuff gets in the way.  Being both a student and on university staff, I've seen disaster from both sides, so hopefully I can give you some useful advice on how to handle it.

  1. Communicate.  This is the most important thing.  If there's any problems in your life that could affect your study, let your teachers know straight away.  Even if you don't have any assessment due immediately, it's still a good idea to talk to them as soon as things go wrong - you never know how long the effects of a crisis will last for, so when you go to them in a month's time to ask for an extension on your essay because you still aren't sleeping, it helps if they already know the background.  As well as the obvious things like granting extensions, your teachers will be able to help you plan how to manage your study around the problems, and point you towards other help (like counsellors) if you need it.  Which brings us to...
  2. Get help.  Find out what assistance the university can give you, and make use of it.  At my university, for example, there's a Student Health Centre that provides low cost medical and counselling care, there's Student Advisers who can help you plan your study, there's a Disabilities Service for help dealing with long-term disabilities, and the Student Union who can help with a whole range of issues, from budget advice and emergency funds to dealing with difficult landlords.  A lot of this stuff may not be widely advertised, so make sure you ask what's available.  If your department has a secretary or administrator that's often a good place to start.
  3. Get information.  Find out what your department's policy is on extensions and make-up tests, and check whether your lecturer follows these (they don't always!).  Check your university's regulations around aegrotats or special considerations - what percentage of your coursework can you apply for consideration on, when does the application have to be in, what documentation needs to accompany it (medical certificate, death notice, police statement...).  Find out also what the deadlines are for dropping a course without it affecting your GPA, and what the regulations are around fee refunds.
  4. Do what you can.  Turn up for the test and make your best effort, even if you know you haven't studied as much as you should have.  Hand in the essay, even though it's not perfect.  When the department is assessing an aegrotat or special consideration application, the more evidence they have of the work you could have done the better.  Faced with a half-written essay that starts as an A but peters out to a C, they'll at least have evidence that you are capable of producing A work when life is normal.  Faced with nothing handed in at all, they have to rely on work you did in other papers - and if your crisis affects those as well, there might not be enough evidence to grant you a pass.
  5. Look after yourself.  Take breaks, give yourself treats, and most of all give yourself the mental space to deal with your crisis.  Eating well and getting plenty of sleep and exercise is important anyway, and even more so when you've got a lot on your plate, so try not to fall into the temptation of living on junk food and a few hours sleep.  If throwing yourself into your study helps you feel better, then by all means do so, but keep an eye on your stress levels and make sure you don't burn out.  No matter how important getting this degree is, keeping your health is more so.  Which leads to...
  6. Be realistic.  If your crisis turns into a longer-term problem, you might need to take a break from study for a while.  Look at your schedule for the year and assess whether you'll really have the time and energy to devote to study.  In making your decision, think about what taking a semester or year off will cost you - things like non-refundable fees, potential lost income if you're taking a course to improve your employment prospects, losing momentum on your study (it's hard to catch up when you've been away from study for a while), missed opportunities.  But also think about what effect not taking a break might have: stress leading to health problems, a lower GPA because you couldn't keep up with the work, not being able to fully concentrate on sorting out your life.  In the end only you can decide which of these factors will weigh heaviest for you, but remember that taking time off isn't the end of the line for your study - as a mature student you've already come back to school once, so you can do it again.
 And even before crisis hits, there's a few things you can be doing right now:
  1. Be organised. Know when all your assessments are due, and get started on them as early as possible so that a last-minute problem won't be as big a deal.  Going to your lecturer a week before the big assignment's due and saying you need an extension because your husband just got laid off is going to go a lot better if you can show them what work you've already done and that you've got a plan for the rest of the work, than if you admit you haven't actually started the reading yet, and were relying on pulling an all-nighter the night before the due date to get it finished.  And if you can't be organised...
  2. Don't cry wolf.  Even if you're in a class of three hundred students, your teachers will rapidly get to know who you are if you're constantly inventing crises.  'My dog died' is not a reason to ask for an aegrotat.  'My house was burgled' is.  In my experience, teachers are always sympathetic to genuine problems, but if they sense that you're just making up excuses to cover for your own lack of organisation, they'll rapidly lose sympathy, and won't respond as well when you've got a genuine problem.  And needless to say, never lie.  University staff all talk to each other, and keep records of discussions with students, so whatever you've told one teacher or administrator will soon be passed on to others (which is not to say they'll gossip about you, but rather that anything that may affect your study will be shared with any staff who deal closely with you, so that they can all give you the best possible support), and any dishonesty will be quickly spotted. 

Do you have any advice to add?  What support is available at your university?  Have you ever had a crisis that affected your study?  How did you cope?  Let us know in the comments below.


  1. This is such great advice. There is a lot that COULD happen. I think now I was incredibly lucky in the time I picked to go back to school. Thank you for sharing this posting. I plan to share it with other students too. :-)

    1. Thanks! Glad you found it useful, and I hope your other readers do to.