My MA Experience at the University of York
I first heard of the University of York from Deborah Deliyannis, the lovely professor who had mentored me at Indiana University. She knew of York for two main reasons: first because she had excavated at Sutton Hoo under the supervision of Martin Carver, one of the grand scholars of the early Middle Ages, and second, because the school offered one of the top interdisciplinary programs combining medieval studies and archaeology. I enrolled in the Master of Arts in Medieval Archaeology in the autumn of 2009
The Masters’ programs at York takes one calendar year to complete as a full-time student. There is coursework for an autumn and spring term, and during the summer term you write your dissertation. During the autumn and spring terms, you take two main courses which run for the duration of the term, and two ‘mini-courses’ which each take half of the term. One of the main courses is dictated by your program choice, and the other three slots per term are your choice from a suggested list. Most of the full-term courses were the required courses from other programs, such as Field Archaeology, Medieval Studies, or Historical Buildings. Students could choose to follow the same track in each term or choose different tracks for autumn and spring. I chose to take the Field Archaeology courses along with my required courses for Medieval Archaeology. Each full-term course had two main assignments: a mid-term paper which was graded (marked) but did not actually affect your final mark, and a final paper which did determine your final mark for the course. The mini-courses were marked on a pass-or-fail system. Each full-term course was worth 80 points and each mini-course was worth 5 points. Students also presented a lecture at the end of the spring term which outlined their dissertation topic and discussed any research already completed, or the research plan. This was attended by other students in the department, faculty, and the faculty invited to be on the review panels which would mark dissertations. These invitees were usually from other universities. My exterior panelist was Dawn Hadley of the University of Sheffield who would also be reviewing my dissertation. The dissertation panel was also composed of the student’s dissertation advisor and one additional member of York faculty. For me, that was Søren Sindbæk and Steve Ashby, respectively. The other ‘in-house” Viking expert, Julian Richards, was on sabbatical during my time at York. Martin Carver, with his early medieval focus, had graduated to emeritus status and was a rare visitor to King’s Manor. The program was complete when you submitted your dissertation in September.
As with any academic program, there were positive and negative aspects to my experience. I enjoyed the program, the department, and the faculty. I most definitely did not enjoy the university administration or housing. I’ve described some of these positives and negatives below.
Location & Cultural environment: The Department of Archaeology and the Centre for Medieval Studies are located off of the main campus in King’s Manor, a complex in downtown York. King’s Manor has its roots in the 12th century as part of St. Mary’s Abbey, and then passed into royal hands during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in the 16th century. It has since served several functions including a school for the blind, and now is owned by the university. This wonderful warren backs up to the Museum Gardens which houses the Yorkshire Museum, with which York faculty have a very positive relationship. King’s Manor is across the street from Bootham Bar, one of the city’s medieval gates. The towers of York Minster rise out of the city, just a two-minutes’ walk from the front door of the Manor. In addition to the historic classroom buildings, the city offers numerous medieval churches, 15th century houses, the Yorkshire Archaeological Trust, Jorvik Viking Centre, and a Disney Store. Additionally, the city is one of 5 Areas of Archaeological Importance in England, and thus all archaeological activity is painstakingly recorded and is very much a public affair. The city hosts a Viking Week, a Roman festival, a world market, a St. Nicholas Faire, and horse racing; and these events are on top of a huge range of restaurants, pubs, cafes, a daily market, and shops in an easily walkable city. (www.visityork.org/)
Faculty: I really enjoyed working with faculty in the department and at the Centre for Medieval Studies. Dr. Aleksandra McClain, the director of my particular Master’s program, was a warm and enthusiastic person among other great teachers such as Steve Roskams, Tania Dickinson, Mark Edmonds, Steve Ashby, and Cath Neal. Apart from the course work, which was usually a comfortable discussion-based style of teaching, there were great opportunities for day trips and field work with the professors and lecturers. Drs. McClain and Ashby did several great day trips to various abbeys, churches, castles, and towns in Yorkshire including Pontefract Castle, Wharram Percy, and Selby Abbey.
Steve Roskams and Cath Neal were running a field archaeology field school at the edge of the Heslington East Campus property, and this provided ample opportunities to get involved in some actual digging without having to travel far. Cath was also supervising the post-excavation analysis of this material and had numerous lab days for students which included soil screening, cleaning and sorting finds, and data entry. As a student who wanted to get involved with the archaeology part of the degree, these elements were very exciting to me.
Accreditation: I am sure that York is accredited since it consistently ranks as a top university in the UK, but I have had one hell of a time getting my degree recognized in the U.S. I attempted to email the office of International Relations at the university (www.york.ac.yk/about/international-relations/) about this problem when I was applying for jobs, and they had no idea what I was talking about. The U.S. federal government and many of the municipal governments in the U.S. want foreign degrees to be certified either by the U.S. Department of Education, or by one of their recognized foreign education consulting firms who will certify your foreign education FOR A PRICE. I would think that the University of York, who prides itself on an international student population, would know if it carried accreditation in other countries. I have figured out the solution to this problem, but I wish the university would at least gain some awareness of it.
Time of program: This item is related to the accreditation item described above. I have received speculative feedback about the timing of the Masters’ programs and their one-year duration. I was very glad about the relatively short time, since I took out hefty loans to attend York. The same agencies which raise questions over York’s accreditation status also raise questions about the legitimacy of a one-year postgraduate program. My opinion is that the one-year plan is completely valid and allows students to “get to the point” in a focused and more efficient manner.
Housing & Accommodation: I had an immense struggle with the university housing system. The university continually assured me through its literature that its housing was cheaper and better-placed than anything to be found on the rental market (wrong). The housing application had a box to enter a top price limit which I thought they would respect (wrong again). I hoped that they would place students in housing closest to where their department was located; in my case, close to King’s Manor rather than on the main campus over 2 miles away (wrong). I was placed in a studio flat on the university’s brand-new Heslington East campus.
Apart from being even father from King’s Manor and the city centre compared to the main campus, the complex had serious start-up problems and was way over the maximum budget which I had submitted. I accepted, thinking that this was the only option I had. I tried to change about half-way through the program, and finally managed to move into a slightly cheaper room. This change was approved only after 5 weeks of nagging the housing department, repeated e-mails from my department faculty contacts, and threatening to leave the school. For me, this was the most negative aspect of my interaction with university administrative offices.
If you are considering a postgraduate program for medieval studies or archaeology, York consistently ranks high in the UK and internationally for these and other degree programs. There is no better atmosphere to study medieval history, and the UK is chock-full of historical societies, building preservation groups, and public and private collections. A Master’s will be enjoyable and require a relatively short time commitment if you are properly prepared.
On a final note, consider carefully your motivation for choosing a postgraduate degree in medieval studies, especially if it requires a move abroad. Of the 12 Master’s students in my cohort, several have continued on to study for a Ph.D., several are getting second Master’s degrees, several (like myself) are searching for jobs in unrelated fields, and ONE is working as a curator of a mid-size historical society museum in New Jersey, United States. As of 2012, the MA in Medieval Archaeology had 25 full-time students and the job market has yet to provide places to the 12 from my year. I do not for a minute regret my decision to attend the University of York, but consider carefully your post-graduation plans.
This review was originally published on Medievalists.net on May 13, 2013.