Master’s Degree After 30, or How I Studied Cognitive Neuroscience in London
After moving to the UK with her family, Nastya decided to learn more about how the human brain and thinking work. So she enrolled in a master's program in cognitive science and decision-making at the University College London (UCL).
In this article, Nastya tells StudyFree what cognitive science studies and what career prospects graduates of this major have. She’s also sharing her experience of organizing remote work, studies, and family life during a lockdown.
First Experience of Living in Wales
My first degree was in teaching. Before moving abroad, I had worked as an English teacher in different language schools in Russia for four years. Then I enrolled in a master's program at St. Petersburg State University to study management. As part of it, I spent one semester as an exchange student in the Netherlands.
In 2013, I came to Wales as a volunteer of a long-term program by the EVS - European Solidarity Corps (formerly EVS). It’s an opportunity for young people between 18 and 30 to spend up to a year in Europe doing volunteer work with the costs fully covered. When I was a student, I used to organize festivals and cooperate with the local branch of the Peace Foundation as a translator. Volunteering is what resonates with my values, so I couldn’t miss the opportunity.
Before that, I had spent two summers in the US. As an English teacher, I always wanted to live in an English-speaking country for a while. So I picked a project in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. There was an element of romance too: my then-boyfriend, who I’m now married to, was living in Britain back then and we wanted to try living together.
I need creativity in my life. Music has no boundaries and is available to everyone. That is why I chose to volunteer for an organization that did social music projects, including organizing workshops and other events for troubled teens, families in difficult circumstances, and people with disabilities.
My job involved all kinds of responsibilities, from maintaining social networks and preparing photos and videos to helping tutors in workshops and interacting with school children at events. Throughout this work, I learned how NGOs work in the UK, how they get funding, help real people from small towns, and contribute kindness to their lives.
Life in Spain
Then I got married. We had our first child. We moved to Spain when my husband was offered to be transferred from Cardiff where he worked remotely to his company’s office in Madrid. We stayed in Madrid for four years. For a while, I stayed at home with my little son and learned Spanish. Later, I worked as an English teacher in a language school, and then I switched to remote work in translation and localization.
I was seeking to get another degree in Spain. It would definitely cost less than in the UK.
The first problem was that I couldn't find "the" master's program in Madrid. A program in bilingualism was the one most in keeping with my interests, but it was pretty close to what I had studied in my first degree. There were some interesting programs in Barcelona, but moving to another city was not an option for us.
Second, the bureaucracy behind the process of recognizing foreign studies is pretty complicated in Spain. You need to get an apostille, submit a package of documents to the Ministry of Education, and then wait for a long time.
My husband and I started to think over whether we should stay in Spain permanently or return to the UK. The pros list for the latter included “the” study program in London that I had finally found. So, when applying to UCL from Madrid, I already knew that we were going back to the UK.
Why Cognitive Science
Continuous education is of great value to me. I think that I’ll still be learning something when I’m sixty. It’s my basic need.
In my work, I realized at some point that I wanted to learn more about language, but not from a linguistic perspective. I started to grow an interest in its behavioral, psychological, and neurobiological aspects. This is how I discovered cognitive science.
Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field that embraces psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, psycholinguistics, and neurolinguistics. It studies how we think and what is going on in our brain when we do that.
I really wanted to give myself a challenge and not take the easy route by going into the world of linguistics again. So, instead of language, I picked a master's program in Cognitive and Decision Sciences, which studies cognition and decision-making principles. This program deals with emotions, language, and cognitive distortions. It investigates how we think and what principles and flaws this system has. It also looks into our illusions associated with the way we think. Now, I apply this knowledge to language in my work.
Graduating from a UK university does not prepare you for a particular profession. You just become a specialist in a certain field. So cognitive scientists can work wherever their knowledge and skills are applicable, whether it is consulting, product design, marketing, or education.
Many large companies set up Behavioral Insights Units that research the behavior of potential customers. This way, marketing research takes on a new dynamic and depth of focus.
The public sector needs such professionals too. For example, they may inform organizations and departments of social services agencies about the behavioral characteristics of people in certain situations, so that the government can deliver a more convenient service or do their job more effectively.
Applying to UCL
In the UK, university programs for similar majors can vary significantly. That is why I would choose a program in the first place. I was looking for cognitive science programs in London because the city offers a wider choice. I believe the core of a university’s credibility is its research expertise and facilities. So the stronger the research expertise is in a field, the more interesting the program will be. I analyzed a lot of information, from program descriptions and courses to university rankings.
University College London is one of the world’s top 20 universities and one of the top 5 universities in the UK. It also ranks among the world’s top five best institutions offering programs in neuroscience. No wonder I learned from amazing professors!
Like most master's programs in the UK, the Cognitive and Decision Science full-time program lasts a year. I combined studies and work, so I opted for part-time. It was not an extramural study, but an opportunity to stretch the program. I completed the first half of the courses in the first year and the rest in the second one.
To apply, you have to provide the following documents:
- a diploma from your previous studies with a translation;
- a language certificate (e.g. IELTS, TOEFL, CAE, CPE, Pearson);
- an essay (personal statement);
- two letters of recommendation.
There are no entrance exams, so I would like to highlight two things that are crucial for admission.
First, grades on the diploma matter. Major master’s programs require applicants to have an average score of 4.5 or higher. So if you are an undergraduate student and pursue to apply for a top master's degree, start working on your academic performance now.
Second, take your personal statement seriously. It may seem like a regular essay, but it takes effort for it to get you into a university. Before you start, find out about the university's values, their expectations from students, and view the profile of the program. Every sentence of your essay should convince the admissions committee to invite you to join the program.
The list of my subjects included:
- Philosophy of Mind;
- Python Programming;
- Principles of Cognition;
- Neuroscience of Emotions and Decision-Making;
- Brain in Action.
For most courses, there were lectures. They would send us the slides and necessary articles in advance so that we were more involved in the discussion during the class. In statistics and programming, we also had practical classes where we solved problems and could ask professors any questions whenever we had a hard time figuring something out.
There was not so much group work, mainly as part of the discussion during lectures. As a part-time student, I had 4-5 hours of classes a week. With full-time study, they were twice as many. At the same time, my format entailed a lot of independent work. I had to read tons of articles and textbooks, so I never seemed to have enough time.
The only exam was in statistics. All the other courses suggested term papers at the end. Academic writing where you need to express a critical stance was not easy for me, but it was one of those challenges that I had been looking forward to. Even though it often seemed like nothing was working out, now I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress.
My dissertation was about emotions and how they affect behavioral decision-making. My work was based on the appraisal theory, which links the evaluation of information and the emergence of certain emotions.
For example, a public service announcement about ocean pollution is more likely to cause a negative emotion. We are also likely to experience a feeling of uncertainty about the situation if we don't know much about it, or quite the opposite if we have already heard a lot about it. Besides, we try to evaluate whether the problem is our responsibility and whether we are capable of solving it. A combination of cognitive assessments based on parameters like these builds up an emotion.
Some emotions are very similar. Fear and anger are often different only in that fear is triggered by uncertainty, while anger is the reaction to certainty. Meanwhile, these are two different emotions that induce different behavioral patterns. Among other things, I investigated whether information about the coronavirus and the call to wear masks and gloves affect people's behavior regarding the use of disposable plastic.
My Experience of Combining Distance Learning, Work, and Family
In the second trimester of my freshman year, our classes moved to Zoom because of the pandemic. Even though I love it when you can have more comfort and save time, fully remote learning at the university is not for me. After all, university life is not only about classes. It’s a unique atmosphere, where you chat with your groupmates between lectures, go to the student cafeteria, and work hard on a report in a library.
I’m not going to lie: it was one of the most difficult periods in my life. At some points, it seemed like I was about to burn out. What helped me back then was planning, sticking to a daily routine, and the support of my family who would remind me of how much I had already accomplished. When you are stressed out, just hearing “You are enough” is a lot.
It also helps to keep in mind that even if I sign up for something, it doesn't have to squeeze out the rest of my life. When having a hard time, you need to praise yourself. Besides, always remember that you are dealing with people which means you can always find a way out by asking for help, a delay, a piece of advice, etc.
I have no magic bullet that will give you more time and help organize your life. All you can do is to schedule your day, find the time when your brain works best, and not be too hard on yourself when you cannot stay focused all the time because that is simply impossible.
Costs of Living and Studying in London
Those who are going to study in a master’s program in the UK can apply for a scholarship like Chevening. You can check the relevant opportunities on the university website. For UCL, it’s the Fund Your Studies section where you can find scholarships for international students from certain countries, loans for specific majors, benefits for disabled students, etc.
I applied shortly before the deadline and did not expect to be awarded a scholarship because you need to have an offer from the university to participate in the grant contest.
I paid the tuition fees myself. Since I lived in the UK, I was eligible for the home fee rate. In the end, my degree cost me about £11,000 (around $15,000) for two years. Now my program costs £12,900 ($17,500) a year for full-time students and £6,450 ($8,700) for part-time students. International students, which include EU citizens after Brexit, will have to pay a lot more. With my program, for example, it’s £29,400 ($39,800) for the upcoming academic year.
The cost of the program was big money for me, so I didn’t pay it at once. You can pay your fees in three installments over the course of the year. I would put aside about £490 ($660) a month, which helped me cover the cost of my studies within two years.
If you need to calculate the cost of living in London or any other city, I’d recommend checking the information on the university website. For example, UCL suggests that students should have at least £254 ($344) per week. This amount includes the cost of rent, food, and other expenses. When I studied there, I lived in Cardiff and went to London once a week for lectures. During the pandemic, we switched to fully remote learning.
Studying part-time is a great way to cut your living costs. You can live in cheaper towns that have easy access to London. I often used the bus because I couldn't afford to go by train. Although a bus ride took me about four hours, I had to pay £20 ($27) for the commute, while a roundtrip train ticket would cost me £80-150 ($100-200).
Studying After 30: Why So Great
Students who go back to classes after they’ve gained some work experience are called mature students. There were about a third of us in the program, ranging in age from 22 to 37.
When applying, I submitted my specialist degree diploma that I had got ten years before. The fact that my degree was not fresh from the oven did not bother the admissions committee. Since mature students have already gathered certain experiences, their contribution to the learning process is highly appreciated. So it is not too late to study after thirty, and I would definitely cross-age off the list of study abroad barriers.
Of course, things are more complicated when it comes to family commitments. Some people move to study abroad with their families. In Madrid, there were a lot of such families among those who had come to study for an MBA. It’s not easy. Family and children require a lot of attention and the lack of focus when studying can cause stress and burnout. I had to study at a tough family time: a year and a half in lockdown is a major challenge for two working parents and children of two and five. On the other hand, now it feels like nothing is impossible for us.
Of course, it's easier to cope with the workload when you don’t have children. However, they are no reason to give up on your plans and aspirations. I have a great example of my mother-in-law who enrolled in a bachelor’s program at 39 when she had three children. It was not enough for her: later, she got a Master's and a PhD and started to work as a professor at a university in Cardiff.
Work and Plans for the Future
While studying, I worked at Playrix, the world's largest mobile game developer. I was involved in game localization, first translating games into English and then coordinating translations into eleven other languages. I stayed there for almost four years, working in a team of true professionals, which was a valuable experience for me. However, in August 2021, I decided to move on and left.
My professional life always includes languages, people, thinking, and learning in various combinations. An interdisciplinary approach is very important in today's world, so I want to apply my knowledge in linguistics and cognitive science. Right now I'm moving towards working with foreign language teachers who want to enlarge their knowledge in cognitive science. I want to help them learn more about how brain and language processes work so that they can learn and teach foreign languages more effectively.
I write a lot about this and try out different platforms to share information with more people. Some day, I’d like to get a PhD.
Life in the UK
I love Britain, the English language, and British humor in particular, which includes a lot of sarcasm. It's a culture where people read between the lines and never say anything rude right in your face. Some may see it as hypocrisy, but I just find it polite.
Like most capitals, London is not very representative. It's a separate world where you can find anything and where everything is extremely expensive. I love to go there from time to time, but I feel much more comfortable living with my family in Cardiff where there is less noise and the amenities are easier to reach.
Cardiff is a more distinctive city with an interesting history and communities of people from different parts of the world. London has that too, but it’s more tangible in a city like Cardiff. I love that people in Wales are proud of the Welsh language, and the local government seeks to preserve it. When I was a volunteer here, my organization did projects in Welsh, and I took a language course.
Tips for Those Looking To Study in the UK
Plan. Time and money may seem like insurmountable obstacles on the path to studying abroad. However, nothing is impossible if you develop a thorough action plan and budget in advance.
Choose a program whose description makes your heart sink. If you read the profile of the program and feel like you want to start right away, that is going to be the right choice. Studying is never easy, so intrinsic motivation and interest would be of great help.
Think about where you’d like to go, career-wise. I'm not a big fan of the where-do-you-see-yourself-in-five-years sort of questions, but it makes sense to think about how the new knowledge can drive your professional growth. Imagine that you've completed the program. What position will be an opportunity to apply the skills you've gained?
Find people who completed the same or similar program. Talk to them. This is relevant for any student, but especially for rare, emerging, and hybrid majors.
Remember that nothing is in vain. Don’t feel bad if you can't immediately apply what you’ve learned in your job. Experience and knowledge gained abroad through hard work are the building blocks that will always be a part of you. Good luck!