Published: March 21, 2018
Change can be both scary and exciting at the same time. Moving from home to go to university may seem daunting... It was no different for me.
It’s not exactly a secret that undertaking a degree in any STEM subject can be challenging, especially if like me, you’ve been out of education for a long time prior to starting your first year.
However daunting it may seem, cultivating some good practices in your first year will put you in good stead for keeping your head above the water in your second year – you may even start to thrive!
Attendance is obviously key to your success. There’s a strong correlation between those who turn up to lectures and exam success rate. Generally, the content of lectures is reflective of the exam content. How are you going to get your head around difficult concepts purely from reading lecture slides from sessions you didn’t attend? The reality is they probably aren’t going to make much sense without being complemented by taught sessions.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to attend lab practicals. These are the key to developing your practical laboratory, health and safety skills. I’m fully aware that not everyone is confident in a lab, but I promise you as time goes on, and your knowledge increases, so will your confidence in your own lab skills. I personally prefer to gather and analyse data, but I still like to muck in around the lab just to enhance my learning.
Read anything and everything!
In your first year, it is perfectly acceptable to use tertiary materials to get a grounding in a subject such as microbiology or physiology. As you progress, you are expected to rely less on textbooks and use more up-to-date academic research published in peer-reviewed journals. This in itself is a task, as peer-reviewed articles and journals, I’m afraid, are something you are just going to have to learn to love.
I can assure you that after reading your first 15 journal articles on the same subject you can pretty much skim the introduction as they say the same thing. To save time, look at the article title and assess whether it fits with the subject of your interest. Then look at the findings. If the findings fit, go back and examine the methods section and results section to find what you want.
At that point, if the article interests you, read it thoroughly and then read it again, making notes to summarise the study and pick out the relevant key aspects – it’s the quickest, least painstaking way. Research papers can be quite traumatising if you don’t know how to approach them, and there is no escaping them in the second or third year as they take up a large proportion of your study time.
Exams are what they are. A necessary evil to test how much attention you’ve paid during the academic year. Some of us are better at exams, some are better at writing, like me. That’s not to say you can’t achieve a good mark if you give yourself enough time to prepare. Timing is critical with exams. There is a lot of information you need to absorb, so the key is, start revising early – if you follow points 1 and 2 of this blog, revising won’t be so difficult. It’s about cultivating good practices to ensure your survival.
Don’t leave revision until a week before your exams when you have to learn two or three modules worth of content – you might end up having to resit, and believe me, the last thing you want to do is carry modules over into your second year or spend the summer resitting exams.
Make time for yourself
Making time for yourself is an absolute essential. We all love science, or we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. However, it is so important to gain a proper work/life balance for the sake of your mental health.
Yes, that’s right I said it. Mental Health. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health – in fact, they all impact on each other.
Take time for yourself to enjoy your life, go out, enjoy things, see friends and family. More importantly, speak to your peers and lecturers if you think work is getting you down – we’re only human and it does happen.
Guess what – you won’t be judged for it! The University of Sunderland has excellent support when it comes to dealing with the wellbeing of its students, speaking from personal experience.
I think I’ve covered most of the ground relevant to surviving a STEM course so I’m going to leave you now with a bit of encouragement, in the form of a cheesy quote.
“If you allow your passion to become your purpose, it will lead you straight to your profession”… Or something like that?