Faber est quisque fortunae suae
July 23, 2010 8:57 AM   Subscribe

I'm 43, married, a mother of one, a glorified secretary, primary wage-earner in our family, holder of a mortgage and primary caretaker for my aging mother. I live in New England. I have a dream, and my dream is to somehow, someday, study classics at Oxford. Is this an achievable dream?

I have a BA in literature from a respectable US State university. I spent two terms studying in Oxford (at what is now Oxford Brookes, not the Uni) at the end of my college career, back in the late '80's. While there, I met so many people who shared my interest in Ancient History (mainly students at Christ Church and Jesus College, some of whom I am still in touch with), and our pub-table conversations were the most intellectually exciting experiences of my life. I'm pretty fluent in Latin and am working on my Greek. Before my son was born I read academic papers in situations where most people would read light novels. I have a small savings account that my husband thinks of as our "England Trip" account and I think of as my "saving for Graduate Study at Oxford" account. I am (probably overly) confident I could be a great student if I could get the opportunity. But what's missing to me is how to get back on the path.

I have a few ideas about what steps I should take, but I'm asking you: What steps do I take to get there? Is there any way to get back on the path I abandoned twenty-some years ago? How should I structure my ten-year-plan to return to the academic life?
posted by anonymous to Education (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm only going to address one aspect of this which is how to get in. Yours is an unconventional situation and it demands an unconventional approach.

I managed to study English Lit & Lang at Oxford despite having absolutely no background in it. What happened was that I was on a full-on math track, got admitted to study math and then discovered I really wanted to do English. Everyone told me it was impossible since I'd hadn't done any real English since I was fifteen or so. However, I refused to take no for an answer.

Basically I went to the English profs and badgered them until they finally caved and said that if I wrote them an essay they'd consider me. I wrote it, and heard nothing for months until finally someone told me they'd seen the essay in one of the tutor's houses with 'he seems okay to me' written on it. And that was that.

So y need to choose a college based on two factors. 1) The profs 2) The relative competition. Choosing a less hoity toity college like Keble or St Hilda's or somewhere like that is probably going to be a much easier/more realistic path than, say, Magdalen. (I went to Keble, FWIW). But the clincher is going to be forging a relationship with the profs somehow. You can probably just write them a letter or call them up and ask if it would be possible to meet. If you have genuine passion for the subject, plus a burning reason why you want to study with them, that will go a long way.

I'm not going to address ability other than to say that there are a lot of very stupid people at Oxford.

Some colleges are very interested in unusual stories like yours. In some respects it may actually be easier for you to gain entrance. The key requirement to be successful at Oxford is to be a self-starter. In my experience there is absolutely no hand-holding. Zero.

Some of this info may be vastly out of date but Oxford does not change that quickly.
posted by unSane at 9:14 AM on July 23, 2010

Firstly: GOOD FOR YOU for having a legit dream and a curiosity about fulfilling it. There are some who think that that is corny/unrealistic/juvenile. I think it's AWESOME.

Since you have a kid (little kid? big kid?) and responsibility for your mom, pursuing the dream full-bore may not be an option for you right now. A "ten year plan" may be frustrating and unworkable. However, that does not mean you can't do little things to work towards Oxford (or a similar "learn-amazing-things-with-amazing-people" scenario).

Were I you, I'd focus on making myself as attractive as possible to graduate institutions. Take a few grad-level classes at the best school you can. Get involved with student organizations. Publish! Do research scut work. Do whatever you can, whenever you can, to make yourself look academically brilliant and intellectually engaged.

FWIW, I had a bolt-of-lightning in my late twenties which told me to go to medical school. I'm currently taking one hard science class at a time, volunteering at a hospice on the weekends and have a (very) part-time medically-oriented side job in the evenings. It is hard hard hard and slow slow slow - but knowing that I am working towards it (and that I WILL be able to accelerate the pace of the work someday soon) helps a LOT.
posted by julthumbscrew at 9:18 AM on July 23, 2010

Do you want to do an MA or a second BA?
posted by Orinda at 9:50 AM on July 23, 2010

I was a (fairly traditional-track) grad student at Oxford. If you have a medium-high baseline of ability, this is eminently achievable. Questions you should think about:

What is your goal? Do you want to switch tracks to an academic career, or do you just want to have the opportunity to study in that environment? From what you're saying in the question it seems like the latter.

A couple of general points: Don't restrict yourself to the colleges considered "for mature students." At the grad level, there's a giant mishmash of backgrounds and tracks that it's hard to speak of anyone being "traditional." I was at one of the more traditional, old school colleges (Oriel), and there was a fair representation of older students.

Figure out if you want a taught course or a research course, that is, an MSt[udies] or an MPhil. The MSt is a one year course, MPhil in Classics I think is two?

You will almost certainly receive 0 funding. I'm only aware of one University-wide scholarship Americans are eligible for, which is the Clarendon fund, and my understanding was that was crazy hard to get.

Specific points to classics: My understanding, as someone who occasionally hung out with the classicists, is that the classics curriculum more or less assumes you did your BA at either Oxford or Cambridge. Oxford is in many ways very parochial: It's not the best place, it's the only place. (Except for the Other Place.) This will not necessarily present problems with admission, as I know/knew plenty of doctoral level classicists who did their undergraduate study elsewhere, but I believe there will be specific things you will be expected to know from your undergrad career.

Good luck!
posted by PMdixon at 10:15 AM on July 23, 2010

I know nothing about Oxford, or the classics, really, and I'm not sure if you're wanting to do a PhD or just have the opportunity to study the classics. But I did want to make sure you knew that there are colleges/universities here that focus pretty much entirely on the classics, and may have the same intellectual atmosphere you're looking for. St John's is the one that comes immediately to mind, although I'm pretty sure there are others as well.
posted by lunasol at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2010

lunasol, Classics in this context specifically means the study of Ancient Greece and Rome, not "the classics" in the sense of the "great books" courses of schools like St. John's. They are not the same thing.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:35 AM on July 23, 2010

Can't speak to getting into Oxford. I know several people who did second BAs in classics at Oxford and Cambridge straight out of US undergrad. They didn't seem to have too much trouble getting accepted; they all had pretty heavy Greek/Latin programs in undergrad though, as far as I know.

In the meantime, are you anywhere near Harvard? You can take Greek through the extension school. You can probably even take advanced Latin. Anyone I've known who's taught Greek and Latin at Extension has been really good, and a lot of those people have been to Oxford or Cambridge and would probably be happy to fill you in over a beer. The same might work at other New England colleges and universities.

Good luck!
posted by BibiRose at 10:44 AM on July 23, 2010

To clarify my "one university-wide scholarship" comment: I meant one scholarship run by the University (that Americans are eligible for). There are, of course, other sources, but they tend to be small and obscure and crazy competitive.
posted by PMdixon at 11:02 AM on July 23, 2010

unSane: Grad applications at Oxford changed about five years ago, so now you apply to a department separately from applying to a college. Once you've made it into a department, then you're guaranteed to be accepted to a college (you give them a ranked list of your favourites). So college choice will not affect your chance of getting in (although it will certainly affect your experience). Good luck!
posted by iamscott at 11:24 AM on July 23, 2010

I did my undergraduate degree in History and Classics at Oxford, and was accepted to do an MPhil in Classics (but didn't go).

I presume you've had a look at the Oxford Classics Website? The graduate programme is divided into 2 streams: Lang & Lit, and Ancient History; both offer two masters' degrees - the MSt and the MPhil. When I was applying, what I was told was that in Ancient History, people normally do an MPhil as preparation for a DPhil (Phd). In Lang & Lit, apparently the normal path is MSt -> DPhil. The MSt is one-year and taught, the MPhil is 2 years, and more research-oriented.

It sounds like you would be applying for the Lang & Lit degree, but if you're considering Ancient History: I was accepted to the Ancient History MPhil with no Greek and pretty shaky Latin. Of course, I would have had to really get up to speed on both quickly once the programme started.

As others have mentioned, funding is going to be an issue. At Oxford, there are university scholarships and bursaries as well college scholarships and bursaries. At the university level, you would be looking at the Clarendon and the Rhodes, both of which are very competitive. Therefore, when you consider what colleges to apply to, I would recommend you look closely at which colleges will (or could) offer you the most money. For me, Balliol and Lincoln offered the most potential money - if you fill out the details on page, you can see which colleges have money you could apply for. There may also be some scholarships available in America for students going abroad not listed on the Oxford site.

Please feel free to ask if you have more specific questions, either here or through MeMail. I hope you go for it - Oxford is a fantastic experience!

posted by iona at 3:54 PM on July 23, 2010

This is a serious dream, eminently achievable if you're willing to be flexible about where and when and how. You've found a calling, and from the sound of it you would make a fantastic student and scholar. Reading classics scholarship for fun? Now there's dedication.

I have a good friend, originally trained as a doctor, who re-entered academia at 54. She originally thought she would quit her medical practice and go back to school to do an MA in history. Now she's in her 6th year of the PhD program and finishing her dissertation.

What made this possible for her? She had enough in savings to stop working, and another earner in the family. Her two children were grown, in college or already working. And finally, she was and is tremendously passionate about her subject.

It seems like the first two conditions-- income and family-- are the major obstacles to pursuing your Oxford dream, at least until your child is grown. As long as you're the primary wage earner and supporting your child and your mother, it would be difficult to arrange things so that you could go abroad to be a full-time student. Where would your family go? Would they come with you? How would you support them? As others have noted, Oxford gives pretty pitiful financial support.

So the first thing I would encourage you to do is to consider possibilities other than Oxford. I know most of the advice in this thread is geared towards helping you go to Oxford, but there are plenty of other strong classics programs out there, many probably quite close to where you are in New England. You're dreaming about Oxford because you had a thrilling intellectual experience there long ago, and now it just seems natural that to return to the study of the classics would also mean returning to Oxford. But consider: would you be able to recreate those magical pub experiences there now? Don't let your nostalgia obscure what is really true and exciting and completely doable here: formal, guided study of the thing that fascinates you.

I would recommend searching for nearby MA programs in Classics. You could take classes part-time, if the schedules work out right. If you find work at the university (as an administrative assistant, or doing work similar to what you're doing now), you could even get free tuition. You could continue to live at home, but you'd have a foot in an intellectual community with whom you could talk about classics. After taking some classes, you might consider pursuing the full PhD, and perhaps an academic career. Yes it can be done.

Good luck to you! I think you're at the start of a fantastic journey.
posted by ms.codex at 8:24 PM on July 23, 2010

I just noticed you're anonymous - if you want to ask me anything, you can shoot me an email at ask.about.ox@gmail.com if you can't/don't want to get a mod to post any follow-up questions.

(Sorry about the botched tag in my last post)
posted by iona at 10:55 AM on July 24, 2010

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