SySTEMatically helping you through your degree at Exeter
Elinor Jones, Print Science Editor, provides some useful hints and tips to those studying STEM degrees at uni.
Often, when I say I do a STEM degree, I’m met with expressions of horror, facing grimaces or concern for my wellbeing, as if I’ll never see the light of day outside the lab. Compared to our humanities friends, who are demanded to write essay after essay, reading book after book, science, technology, engineering and maths students are frequently left unsure as to what they’ll be doing, with the fear of the unknown impending for many. Here, I intend to impart some general advice about studying STEM at Exeter, whilst (hopefully) not scaring you off the subject area for life!
1. You’re going to have more contact hours than a lot of your friends
Firstly, something quite key to understand from the get-go, as a science undergraduate you likely will be timetabled for potentially double the number of hours your friends and flatmates studying other degree types are. This includes lectures, practicals, extra “in context” seminars, or workshops. Admittedly, although I strongly recommend against this, most lectures are not compulsory and for a lot of students they are recorded – this is quite handy after Quid’s In Thursdays at Unit 1.
On the other hand, attending all your lectures in STEM subjects is pretty important, not least for informing you of what the hell you need to do in the lab later that day, or that you have impromptu in-class test coming up. Also, as most practical sessions require you to sign in and often form the basis of your coursework and exams, it would be counterintuitive for you to not turn up (unless you have a genuine reason like illness).
2. You’re probably going to have to do group work at some point
You might have thought that group projects were a thing of the past and that now you’re at university you are flying solo. Well, whilst most work is handed in individually, it is fairly common (very common in my medical sciences degree) for students to be asked to work together on tasks, such as lab work (perhaps with a set of questions to answer), or on designing a website. Not only this, but you’re likely to have a lab partner – trust me they can save you on many occasions – and it is easier for both of you if you try and get on.
It’s hard to get more than a low 2:1 at degree level without reading around the subject
Whilst scientists are usually labelled as antisocial, we are forced to work together in such scenarios. Best to share the workload, play to each other’s strengths and agree to disagree sometimes.
3. Reading is your friend
“Reading?” I hear you say. “But I do science?!” Whilst this might be a foreign concept for many STEM students, and I can confirm that for many of my contemporaries this was their response. Reading something other than your trusted A level textbook is vital to secure the top grades. Whilst you might have got away with doing minimal outside reading to get that A in biology, it’s hard to get more than a low 2:1 at degree level without reading around the subject for coursework and seminars. Whether you get a more specific book from the library, or read a paper by your lecturer, this can help further your grades and your understanding. It’s something I haven’t done enough of so far, and I vow to improve over the next year.
4. Your tutors and lecturers are there to help you
Whilst you may have the odd professor who is seemingly disinterested in undergraduates, most (as it goes with the job) care about students doing well and enjoying their time at Exeter, meaning help is there if you ask for it. The key thing is asking for it, however, and making time in your ever-busy schedule to sit down and talk things through.
Whether you were disappointed with a grade on an essay or lab report, or you want to double check a complex equation, asking for help is a sure-fire way of gaining extra points going forward, as you’re unlikely to make the same mistake twice. Not only this, it also allows you to gain confidence talking to academics, especially those who could offer you jobs or internships in the future.
5. Take every opportunity you can (within reason)
That might sound a given but, unless you’re lucky enough to have a job lined up after graduation, knowing where to turn once you’ve completed your studies is a concern of many students, particularly in STEM, where graduates possess a unique set of qualities. Both inside university and out, there are many societies, events and internships that can help with working out your place in the world.
Many graduates decide that they want to move away from STEM, others decide further study excites them. For me, my goals in life have changed due to many opportunities I’ve had at university, both positive and negative, such as internships, voluntary roles and society committees, giving me greater confidence to apply for PhDs and research jobs. There are so many fantastic things out there, and whilst getting a good degree, making friends and enjoying university life are important, not wasting the contacts and facilities you have is key.
6. Have fun!
I hate sounding so cliché but having fun and relaxing really do help you get better grades in the long run and mean you don’t live in the library 24/7. Whilst you complete all work on time and work hard, doing things you enjoy (especially if they aren’t related to your degree) can mean you have a fresh perspective on your studies. It doesn’t matter what this is, whether it’s sport, music, or something completely different. After all, STEM degrees are hard, albeit immensely rewarding, but everyone, every now and again, needs to look after themselves and doing something they love!