Second half of studies: Time to plan the future

In the first year of Cambridge one spends about first half of the year by getting use to the university, discovering all the opportunities, understanding the teaching and learning system, how to write scientific essays and how to write exams well.

One is also persuaded that the exams are to be taken seriously but not too seriously at that stage. Majority of people are scared rather more than less. They will be tested on material from the whole year, which is quite overwhelming, and evertyhing will happen in roughly a week. And the students who have experienced it already try to ensure the first years that it is not too harsh. Sometimes their efforts scare them even more. In the second year the world become a little different. One has much better idea about what all they can take part in, what to apply for and what is expected of them. However everything is also a little more serious and for real.

At a halfway formal dinner, which happens in the middle of the second year and for majority also of their studies, we were told that we were at the end of the beginning. A lecturer of developmental biology started including breaks into his lectures which he uses to remind us how important it is to have a summer internship and to consider is we want to study a PhD, eventually on which topic. For somebody from Czech environment it is really a weird feeling that they will apply for PhD in half an year, at the beginning of the third year. But it is reality. We can study for a masters degree, at the Natural Sciences we do not even need to apply for a separate course. However masters course usually takes only one year and it seems majority of students apply for PhD straight (especially biologists because the course offers only two masters options).

To be successful with the PhD application and to realise if PhD is something we actually want to do, it's often recommended to have a summer internship. Majority of students, at least in sciences, do some internship after their second year and people frequently discuss them. Although not everybody is planning a science internship. Some of my friends go for summer volunteering or to work in a bank. It makes sense if they are potentially interested in a similar type of job later. I believe that, if it's possible, we should aim to try what do we plan to study and do later. That was a reason why I way really excited about my high school research internship in the academy of sciences – because biology is so much different at school or at science camps from the real research. Summer internship usually takes between 4 and 10 weeks.

I have applied for quite a few internships and it is an amazing feeling to have my  summer finally sorted. I have got a place at a project which I wanted most – in the university team in the iGEM competition. It's organised in America and teams are composed of up to 10 undergraduate students. At Cambridge about a half of them are usually biologists and the second half are physicists, engineers and computer scientists. Together they design and conduce a project in synthetic biology. In short it is about modificating and combining biological systems and molecular parts to create something useful. This field is really exciting for me because it can use our primary research results for creating something generally useful for people, connected with, for example, biofuels, bioremediation or diagnosis of disease.

To come back to PhDs. Apart from an internship it is of course important to have good exam results. It is interesting that in Czech the grades are given (both at high schools and at universities) but they play much smaller role in determining student's future. Maybe it is because they are hardly comparable. Here the grades are really important, although they naturally still do not reflect all student's skills. Biology is graded mostly on the basis of scientific essays and some students struggle less, some more (being an international student essays are quite a challenge for me). It is also interesting that the grading is relative. For example roughly 25% of best students in a year get 1st. I am not sure if it is the best strategy of grading. But probably if the admissiong officers for PhDs or for work are prepared for it it can still give them valuable information about the person, although different from the normal grades.

Fo every exam there is only one date which can cause problems if one becomes ill for the exams, as happened to me last year. One just needs to go there if they are able to. Exams themselves are a perfect opposite of the very personal approach during the rest of the study, because they need to be well comparable, questions the same for everybody and the examiners also want to avoid all cheating and disadvantaging somebody, for example because of unpredictability of the exam.

Generally, at the very beginning of my studies already, I have realised an interesting phenomenon. It seems to me that in Czech there people have much less information about the opportunities and about how to use them well. The first of them was the study abroad – many students don't consider it seriously at all. However similarly I have a feeling that at the Czec university, where I also really wanted to study, it works the same. Which subjects to choose, how to be successful in the exams, how to get a bachelor project and a good supervisor, how to use some exchange opportunities and apply for them – many of these things are spread more in between the students and are not officially announced to everybody. I do not say it is ideal here but I think that they make sure much more that the students understand the university quickly, know what is expected and where to apply. As a result the good students are not disadvantaged by not knowing the complex system and the right people. I think that this is somehting we should improve a bit at home, and in Britain still. Of course it is harder when people who enjoy the benefits of this system are usually having the power to change it, especially in politics, often in many firms as well.


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