The Odd Mirth of Failing My Masters Degree

I have just actively failed in quite a profound way. By some peculiar blend of my upbringing, genetics and life experiences, I have always been very academic. I was an early reader in school, I owned my KS2 SATS, I have always been a straight A student and I got into Cambridge from a Doncaster comp, enjoyed my studies immensely, and graduated with a solid 2.1

This afternoon, I have had my first proper taste of academic failure, and it feels oddly liberating.

When I studied my PGCE, I did so at Masters level in 2011-12. I built on my credits by completing two more chunks of Masters study in 2013-14. This year was my last chance, after postponing last year, to complete my Masters by doing a 20,000 thesis. I have had some great conversations, and enjoyed selecting my topic. After flirting with the idea of a study on teacher favouritism, I ended up selecting my topic of ‘Parents Evenings’ as sites of social practice and the deployment cultural capital.

I spent my summer planning it and met with a great professor on the topic. I have launched into Twitter chats about it, and connected with researchers from the field. I got my books out of the library and have filled a notebook with quotations and thoughts from books and journals. I have even started to gather some of my data.

But I am looking at where I am, here in late April, and what I need to achieve, and the short time I have left to do it, and I am hit by the cold realisation that I simply cannot get it done to the standard I would be happy with. I have barely enough time just with my regular job at school. Something’s gotta give. That something is my Masters, which I have invested thousands of pounds in.

Though I am a prisoner of circumstances, it is very much my decision to pull out of this process; I am the architect of my own failure, you could say. I have actively decided to fail this one.

If I didn’t choose to actively fail it, there are two possible outcomes. I might passively fail it – I might soldier on through only to have my efforts usurped by my time constraints later on. I might end up handing something in that is dreck, and have it frowned upon and criticised and failed.

Or I might be able to somehow hold it together, by cutting out loads of other stuff I do, and pass with a Masters Degree to be proud of.

In this midst of my mental maelstrom, I had a quite powerful realisation: I wasn’t succeeding for the right reasons.

I do well academically when I am on autopilot; I read all the time, I write all the time, and I think a lot. In some ways, academic success becomes a habit, in the addictive sense of the word. I focus my attention on the gradings more than the knowledge and understanding that this grade is meant to reflect. When I was in KS3, I pined after my GCSE study. When I did my GCSEs, I was always thinking of Sixth Form and University. I was always thinking of the next thing, and I continue to be afflicted with this.

When I think of what I would gain from completing the thesis, I am left thinking that actually, all I would gain would be some more letters next to my name, and the kudos of saying I have a Masters. I chose the course because I wanted to engage more with the sociology of education, and I did that. I enjoyed the scholarship, though could never commit to it wholeheartedly as my school work always took precedence over academic work.

Objectively, what has happened is that I have crashed out of an expensive course, with nothing coherent to show for it. But I feel as though I am emerging from a cocoon.

Over the last few months, I am coming to recognise that the things that have traditionally motivated me are things that I rely upon so heavily, but they aren’t making me happy. Not properly happy, anyway. When somebody is academically successful, especially when coming from an environment where that makes you stand out, it is hard for this success not to be the ‘master status’. It is hard for academic reputation not to be the thing by which you define yourself, and your place in the world.

I feel that I could carry on as I am going, gathering a range of abbreviated suffixes for myself,  and for as long as I remain busy and productive, I would be able to placate myself just nicely with this endeavour. But what I am doing is not ‘ultimately’ making me happy.

Actively failing my Masters like this has helped me to recognise what is important to me. I am a passionate person- I know we all say it on CVs but I really am – and I like that my work swallows me up and gives me a purpose. What I care about, what I want to do and what I want to be is clouded behind many ‘daily grind’ tasks that don’t stir my soul, many responsibilities that sit uneasily with me, and many arbitrary, necessary but pointless tasks.

These things are the dirty ice on my window, and I feel as though I have just showered myself  with a bucket of tepid antifreeze. As the ice turns to mush and slides down the pane, I am starting to get a clearer perspective, and it is allowing to become more comfortable and confident in the drivers seat. Perhaps up until this point, I have been in control of the wheel in much the same that Maggie is in control in the Simpsons opening credits.


When I was in school, a teacher told me – warning me – that being successful is not the same as consistently not failing, but that it can be hard to determine between the two. She told me about someone she knew who surfed through life on the waves of their own aptitude, scooping up armfuls of qualifications and merits, taking on any academic challenge that came his way. Then, at one point, he needed to learn to drive, he found it very difficult and the blunt reality of his failure to learn to drive hit him like an iron bar to the chin. He spiralled into depression.

What we sometimes need to be very clear about is what we are working for. What is actually motivating us to do what we do? What do we want to achieve? Is what we are currently doing leading us there? If it isn’t, what is holding us back?

Often it is the habits that come most naturally to us.

So as my bank account withers towards zero, as my pointless Masters payments trickle out, I can console myself with the fact that this incompleted life task is the Calpol of my self-actualisation. Sometimes a spoonful of failure is the best medicine.


4 thoughts on “The Odd Mirth of Failing My Masters Degree

  1. I loved the openness and the vulnerability of this post. It is very rare that people make failure public and reflect on it with such honesty.

    “Years from now you will find that all the things you held dear were all trivial to the core. All of those silly little things you cared about meant nothing.
    And the naive quest for perfection was a giant waste of time.
    I wish you well on the pursuit of being.”

  2. This is hugely heartening to me. I’ve just applied for a deferral on my final thesis for my masters, as I simply cannot manage it with my teaching and middle leadership workload. You’ve made me feel a great deal better about the prospect of failure. Thank you.

  3. Another interesting post which made me thoughtful, Jonny. Have you “failed your Masters”, or have you just not completed the final step to receive the certification/qualification? Is it the same thing?

    Does the fact that you haven’t taken this final step and produced the dissertation within the time frame stipulated negate the power of the learning, reading, debates and thought which was stimulated along the way?

    Just wondering.

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