Preparing for University Science

Back in March 2012 I presented my work at one of the Open Days at the University of Oxford’s Department of Computer Science. It’s one of those tasks that I really enjoy – it’s always really rewarding to speak with bright young students who are aiming for a career in science and who have a genuine interest in the research you’re presenting.

Some of the attendees have asked me for advice about applying to university: how best to prepare? Some of the following points might sound like stating the obvious, but if followed should lighten the burden of the decision and application process. And don’t forget: these are my own opinions from my experience of academia on both the application and selection sides of the university process. Speak to other people too, as they’ll no doubt have other pieces of advice (and different perspectives) which you might find useful.

Feel free to comment below if there are other things you’d like to see covered. This list is far from exhaustive: there were so many points crowding into my mind that I haven’t been able to set them all down in one go. I’ll try to post an extension to this at some point in the future, and maybe some advice for female science applicants and a discussion of Oxbridge interviews if people would find that useful. Let me know what you’d like to see discussed here!

1. Investigate course content thoroughly. Gaining a degree is becoming an expensive business with the rise of university fees. As a prospective applicant, you want to make sure that you choose the right course for you – remember, you’ll be studying this subject for at least 3, if not 4 years. It’s really important to check course content before you apply. For example, just because you’ve drawn up a list of 12 courses all with the title of ‘Computer Science’ doesn’t mean that they all take the same approach to the subject. Some CS courses will be more heavily mathematical in content and focus on the linear algebra and logic alongside the programming. Others may avoid this and stay very much to the practical coding side of things. One approach or other may appeal to you more, so make sure that you’re aware of these differences and choose a course that reflects your own interests.

2. University and school perspectives on a subject may differ. Really important one, this, and a remark which relates to my first point pretty closely. Of course, in many cases your GCSE and/or A-level courses might provide a reasonable taster for the kind of subject matter you’ll come across at university. In some cases though, the university version of the subject might turn out to be quite different. For example, as an undergraduate I read Mathematics. Now, I loved it (and still do!) but I’d definitely say that my university studies were far more abstract than anything I’d been presented with at school.  I thought this was magical: the first few weeks of my undergraduate education forced me to take a subject I thought I’d known and understood for the best part of 18 years, and proceeded to totally uproot my perspective on it. One of my first problem sheet questions asked me to prove a particular proposition, then commented that, “you are not allowed to use square roots to prove this, as their existence has yet to be proven in the course.” Somehow, I’d reached the age of 18 without being encouraged to truly question the validity of even the most basic mathematical constructs. My degree changed that and taught me new ways of thinking through problems. I loved this, but it might not be your cup of tea (and similarly, not all mathematics degrees would adopt this approach). So don’t assume that a subject stays the same at university: science is a magically vast world and there are all sorts of perspective a course can adopt and material it can cover. So research your choices thoroughly – it’s time well invested!

3. Choose something that interests you and which you genuinely love to study. No matter what you choose, there will always be days when you feel tired or dejected: if you know under all that that you actually love what you do, that can help bring you through any rough patches. If you end up being interviewed for university places, that enthusiasm will shine through even if you’re nervous, and it’s always an encouraging sign for your interviewer.

4. Be involved. There are so many ways in which you can indulge your passion for science and learn more about it, way beyond your school examination syllabus. Do your local science museums need volunteers? Or do they have any projects you could get involved in? Some cities have local science groups or organisations: for example, Science Oxford runs many interesting science projects for young people and indeed the wider community, and it’s not the only one of its kind. So find out what’s going on locally where you are!

5. Keep up with science communication. I think I was one of the first year groups to submit a UCAS form electronically: back then, eBay was just getting off the ground, most of us had a dial-up Internet connection if we had an Internet connection at all, and Facebook didn’t exist. If you’re applying to university nowadays, you’ve got access to all sorts of wonderful science resources on the Internet, along with opportunities to correspond directly with top scientists and science journalists. Make the most of this! Find out which are the most interesting science blogs and follow them. Join Twitter and keep up with the musings of prominent researchers in your field of interest. And don’t be scared to ask them questions if you want to – even if some may be too busy to regularly correspond, most will be delighted that you’re interested in pursuing a career in science and will be glad to point you in the right direction. The national press often prints reviews of popular science books too – you may find some of these appealing, so don’t be afraid to give them a try. And the New Scientist is always a good bet if you want accessible articles about recent science developments (you can also buy individual copies in the shops or receive a cut-price student subscription for a specified period). Internet-based “community science” projects are also becoming more common and are a great way to engage in up-to-the-minute science. Try reading Michael Nielsen’s book, “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science” to find out about projects such as Galaxy Zoo and similar collaborative endeavours.

6. Attend open days. All the pointers I’ve mentioned should prove useful, but in many cases people are your best source of information. University open days are great for this, as current students will usually be around to chat to. They’ll be able to share their own first-hand experiences of their subject, their course and the city they live in. Don’t be scared to ask them questions – that’s why they’re helping out on the open day!

Right – I think I’ll stop there for now for fear of this becoming an overly long piece of advice. I’ll be adding more once I get chance, so watch this space. But one final comment for now:

7. Never stop asking why. ‘Why’ is one of those wonderful questions that pushes scientific research on. If you never tire of wanting to know about the world around you, or how to think your way through a problem, then there’s a very good chance that science is the path for you. Good luck!