Study What You Love … Outside of the Lab!

Click the link to be taken to my blog post on the University of Nottingham’s Study What You Love blog.

Study What You Love is a great campaign by the university to encourage students to take degrees which really interest you, rather than taking something you don’t like in the hope of better career prospects. As the website says, it’s about seeing your course as a series of opportunities, not assignments, and gaining transferable skills which will be useful to you when you graduate.

Chemistry and related subjects are regarded as very strong and employable degrees, but with the high workload and difficult to understand concepts, it really helps to find it enjoyable and inspiring. I’ve loved chemistry since I was 16, and it meant I could engage with my lecture and lab material so much more fully than some of my peers, and in doing so I achieved good exam results and a 1st class degree. However, I often saw those who took chemistry because they didn’t know what else to take, or because it was regarded as the ‘better degree’ of the subjects they studied at A-level. They didn’t enjoy their work, and often got lower grades as a result.

My blog post highlights what I love about my PhD outside of the lab, to give people interested in studying a PhD an idea of what else they could take part in outside of their research. A PhD doesn’t have to just be hours slaving in the lab, and other opportunities can make your experience more enjoyable, and boost your CV.

If you want to learn more about the Study What You Love campaign, you can find the website here.

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Thinking of Postgraduate Study?

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Following on from my guide to applying for a PhD, I have found a nifty little guide to postgraduate study by Prospects.co.uk, which gives a general overview of postgraduate study, and advertises a few open days you might find appealing.

This blog tends to aim some of its posts towards those who are studying towards a PhD, or those who have already begun a career in chemical research, but this is for you readers who have an interest in chemistry, and may be studying it or something similar at the degree level, and are wondering what to do next.

Postgraduate study can be a confusing and daunting option for some students, and it’s important that you know all the facts so that you can make an informed decision. I don’t necessarily mean PhDs specifically – there is a whole host of postgraduate options a chemistry graduate could take, whether you’re continuing to study science or want to use your skills in another field, such as law or medicine.

I only graduated 2 years ago, and I’m fully aware of how scary your final year at university can be. Suddenly, what you’ve been involved with for 3 or 4 years is coming to an end, and you have big decisions to make about your career and your future.

Postgraduate study can seem appealing because it puts off getting a job and making some decisions for a little bit longer, but this shouldn’t be your reason for carrying on at university. Don’t continue studying because you’ve been rejected from your current job applications and you’re scared you’ll be left with nothing at the end of your degree. Don’t panic. A lot of final year students feel they need to have their graduate job sorted midway through the year, but you really don’t – a lot of people don’t get jobs until around the time they graduate, so try to remain calm, keep at it, and you will get something eventually. If you’re continually turned away from jobs, try talking to your university’s career advice service – they might be able to help you improve your CV and sell yourself at interviews that little bit better.

If you know you want to keep studying because you have a passion for your subject, or you know you need to for your dream career, make sure you use the time you have finding out as much as you can about your options, and don’t make any decisions too quickly. You’re about to commit to something for one to four years, so it’s definitely worth making that extra effort to get yourself on the course that will benefit you the most.

The Prospects magazine linked above is a great start on your route to further education. I suggest you take a look, and see where it takes you!

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A Quick Easy Guide to Applying for a PhD

Are you thinking of doing a PhD? Now is the time to be applying! Choosing to continue your studies in chemistry is a big decision in itself, but once you’ve made your mind up to delve further into research here a whole other set of decisions to be made. As a second year PhD student myself, I’ve gone through the application process, and seen many of my colleagues make a few mistakes along the way that may have been avoided if they’d have had someone to guide them through a little bit more. Here, I hope to give you a quick guide to the process, and hopefully steer you towards the right PhD for you.

1. Chemistry

One of the most important decisions you really need to think about is what area of chemistry you want to study. You’ll be working in this area for at least 3 years and, although it is possible to move into other areas of research afterwards, it will be easier to progress through an academic career if you apply for positions afterwards in a field you already have expertise in. Don’t feel that you have to continue what you did in your Masters – it may be the easiest option, as you already know the chemistry fairly well, but if it doesn’t really interest you, you might tire of it during the next few years. Remember, you’re going to have to do extensive literature reading, presentations, reports and finally a whole thesis on this work, so if you find it boring you’re really going to struggle. Think about what lectures and labs you’ve really enjoyed through your undergraduate years, and what you feel you could talk about with real enthusiasm.

If you feel really unsure about what area you’d like to do, try talking to current lecturers and postgraduate students in your department. They’re a little bit more experienced than you, and might be able to paint a picture of what to expect from a certain topic. You might have gotten the wrong impression of some areas of chemistry, and having a quick chat with someone who works in it every singly day might help you decide. Also, speaking to your personal tutor could help you realise what you excel in already, and what they personally think would be best for you. Whatever you do, don’t rush this decision – it’s very important and needs careful consideration.

2. University

So, now you’ve decided roughly on what area of chemistry you’d like to work in, what next? This tip ties in very closely with the next one, but you need to think very carefully about what university you want to apply to. Although overall university rankings can be swayed easily and don’t always accurately represent the quality of a university, you can view tables judged only on the research quality, such as this one for UK universities, which is the most important area to consider when applying for a PhD. Obviously, this isn’t everything, but it is definitely worth thinking about. A university that is well regarded for its research quality will definitely help you move forward in your career.

Furthermore, as you did in your undergraduate studies, you will have other factors which matter when choosing where to study. Which city you’d like to live in, for example, can make a huge difference. I personally don’t like big cities, but some students thrive in a buzzing city atmosphere. Other points such as the the campus, facilities, support available and accommodation will no doubt come into play, and you have to think about them just as much as you did for your Masters degree.

If you can, try to take a look at the universities you’re considering in person. Some chemistry departments organise tours if you show your interest in studying there, so you can get a good feel for the place and if you’ll like the school.

A PhD is more than just working in the lab, so you might want to find out about what other training and educational activities you’ll have access to, in order to supplement your lab work and bulk out your CV. Furthermore, if you have particular hobbies or interests you’d like to continue at your new university, you might want to take a look on their Students Union website and see what they have to offer. You might even spot new societies or interest groups which you’d like to take up.

3. Supervisor

This is a very important thing to consider, and possibly not for the reason you are thinking. Of course, for some the biggest appeal for some would be to work for a highly successful professor, with high impact papers and a well-established research group which will help you gain recognition and springboard you into your career. If this is what is really important to you, by all means take this route, but be careful. Remember that supervisors such as these will be incredibly busy – they are often heads of school, have to travel a lot, have many commitments, not only in their teaching, and you might find it difficult to see them when you have issues. You might find yourself spending more time with a lab manager or post doc, so bare this in mind. For some, more independence is a good thing, as you get to organise your research  and make decisions about what to do next yourself. For others, you might feel lost and confused about what to do next, especially if your results aren’t quite what you expect. Before applying to anyone, try and think which would be you. If you think you’d appreciate more time and attention from your supervisor, an up and coming researcher with a reasonably new research group may be for you. They’re often hungry for results in order to gain their reputation, and so won’t become indifferent or complacent, like some professors.

If you’re trying to decide between a few supervisors always try to meet them in person. From my own experience and those of many PhD students I’ve met, a good relationship with your supervisor is critical to your mental well-being during your studies and, ultimately, the success of your research. I’ve seen students who severely dislike their supervisor, and it’s made every day a struggle for them, regardless of how well the research was going. You need to think you could easily spend the next few years working with them, and if your personalities clash, it really won’t be easy. I personally suffer from stress very easily, so I needed to know I would get on well with my supervisor, to help me relax and work at my best.

4. Personal Statement

Almost every university will ask you to write a personal statement to support your application, so you might want to start thinking about that. You don’t have to write a novel, just explain why you want to do a PhD and what you hope to use it for in the future. If you want to work in academia or industry, for example, explain why that’s your goal, and how a PhD will help you get there. The key is to be enthusiastic. You might also want to point out some of the modules you did in your undergraduate degree which might be relevant to the work you’d be doing, or go into some detail about lab projects you did which show off your practical skills. Make sure you mention any extra experience you have such as summer lab projects, time in industry, etc. Don’t panic or stress about writing your statement – just be honest, and let yourself shine through.

5. Make Sure It’s What You Want

My final, and most important, piece of advice is to make sure a PhD is what you really want to do. The drop-out rate for PhD students seems to be on the increase, as students realise they don’t have to stick with it if they really don’t want to. PhDs are hard work, and if you’re not sure if it’s for you, you might struggle with it. For example, a girl in my year had already decided 2 months into her PhD that she wanted to quit, and has now moved on to train as a teacher, which she loves. Don’t do a PhD just because it’s the easiest option. Yes, it means you don’t have to try and find a job, and you can just stay at your current university with some of the same friends, and not have to meet new people, but is it what you really want? Do you want to work in the lab every day, doing research that may or may not work? Can you handle the stress of reactions not working that chemically should work perfectly? Can you handle long days, possible weekend work (depending on who you work for) and having to take home with you, particularly towards the end? I’m not trying to put you off here, a lot of people enjoy their PhD, but I think a lot of applicants really need to consider if they’re up to it before they take the plunge.

Also, bear in mind that you may have to keep working after your funding has ran out, to make sure your thesis is complete, so be prepared to spend the next few years saving for those months with no income. A lot of people think a PhD is the financially safer option, which it may seem at first, but months of writing up with no income isn’t ideal!

 

So, that’s it! A quick and easy guide to getting started on the PhD process. My goal wasn’t to scare you or put you off, but I think it really helps to be fully informed before making a big decision like this. Now, you know everything you need to start preparing for your postgraduate life, and I wish you all the luck in the world!

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From Nanoreactors to New Medicines – Chemistry Research at the University of Nottingham

This link will lead you to an article I recently wrote which has been published on the website of the University of Nottingham’s student magazine, Impact.

Here, I give a snapshot of some of the cutting edge and exciting research that is being carried out at our School of Chemistry. The magazine is primarily aimed at undergraduates at the University, who I think aren’t always aware of what important research is being carried out right here on our campus. This goes for other Schools as well, and Impact are hoping to feature more of Nottingham’s research on a regular basis.

Research isn’t always an obvious part of a university’s activities to undergraduates and the general public alike, but it is a vital aspect of every University, and high-quality research is a key driving force behind a University’s rankings, reputation and ability to gain funding.

The School of Chemistry here at Nottingham is undertaking excellent research in all areas of chemistry, and this article highlights just a few examples of this. I’m very proud of my department and, given a higher word limit, I could go on and on about our research.

I personally think it’s very important for students and staff at any university to be aware of what research is being done in their department. Often, if you just take a look, you find there’s something being worked on that you had no idea about, and that it’s something you’re actually really fascinated about once you look into it.

I won’t turn this post into an advert for our department,  but I do recommend that you take a look at my article if you’d like to get a flavour of what’s going on here. There’s some very high-quality research being done at Nottingham in all areas of chemistry, and you can find out more information on the School of Chemistry website. There’s bound to be something you’re interested in!

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Tidbit: A-Level Results Day – Science is on the up!

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It’s the day thousands of teenagers have been waiting for – A-level results day.

Two years of hard work and exam pressure have culminated in this moment, and for those lucky students who get the grades they need, it marks the acceptance into the university and the start of their future.

The rise in tuition fees to £9000 a year doesn’t seem to have put many people off, as UCAS reports that 385,910 students had been accepted into their top choice university as of midnight last night – up on 9% from last year.

The good news for us chemists is that the proportion of students doing A-levels in maths and science has risen, with Chemistry being up 5%, Physics 3% and Maths by just under 3%. It seems that students are seeing the value in science subjects, and hopefully this will lead to an influx of high-quality undergraduate students taking science degrees this year.

This trend can also be seen indirectly by the rise in entry requirements for degrees in chemistry. When I applied for my MSci in chemistry in 2007 (wow, has it been that long?), the requirements were in the ballpark of ABB-BBB. I personally know several students who were accepted on results day with lower grades than that. The fact is, although chemistry is a difficult and academically rigorous subject, it wasn’t as popular as many others, such as biology, psychology and history, and so lower entry requirements were used to lure in potential undergraduate students.

Nowadays, however, I can browse the websites of universities such as Nottingham, York, Leeds and Sheffield, and see requirements of AAA-AAB. This might seem trivial to the eye, but anyone who has gone through the stress of A-level exams must know how easy it is to slip below a grade boundary and miss your grade target by a matter of a few points. One can only assume that this reflects an increase in the popularity of our beloved chemistry, and so the bar is being raised higher and higher to ensure that only the top applicants make it through.

This can only be a good thing for the chemical sciences, as it means that our universities are being filled with higher quality students than ever before. With high-achievers being drawn into chemistry, we can expect academia and industry to attract a wave of intelligent and skilled chemists in the upcoming years. In a subject area that needs constant attention and thought to remain at the cutting edge, this is exactly what we want to see.

The raise in tuition fees has led to students looking for degrees which will offer them interest, excitement, good career prospects and value for money, and it’s great to see that these teenagers are choosing science.

As they say, children are our future, and the future of chemistry looks bright!

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