Some of us aren’t honours

TL;DR: My expectations of doing a year abroad as a fifth year masters student with the School of Chemistry.

The school of chemistry has recently adapted their degree layout. While most students at the University of Edinburgh go on their year abroad in their third year, or even fourth, we chemists depart for our fifth and final year of our masters.

I’ve noticed that most people assume we are also BSc students going away in our 3rd year for a jolly holiday and maybe attend a few lectures here and there.

Far from it.

Our final year is 40% of our degree, and rather than taking 12 10-credit courses, or six 20-credit courses, we take one 120-credit research course in a different university.

We will join a research team, create a literature review of our chosen topic, spend a lot of time in the lab, write a thesis, and present our research to oral-examiners in the school of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh on returning in May.

There are many advantages to this: going away in our fifth year means we aren’t out of practice with lecture-style university life like we would if we came back after fourth year. It also means that we aren’t out of practice with research and lab work when we enter jobs or PhDs. We aren’t returning to Edinburgh in our fifth year to find all our BSc friends have graduated and left us to struggle alone.

We will take our four years of studying into the real world of research. I’m certain that if I were to go on a research placement in my third or even fourth year, I definitely wouldn’t cope with the level of theory needed to understand my project. Things become so specialised and interdisciplinary that you need a firm understanding of many aspects of your project to understand even the first thing about what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Preparation is needed before we depart for our placement. We need an understanding of our supervisors research for starters- this is done by reading their publications and supporting references. I contacted my supervisor asking for reading recommendations and I am now midway through digesting a paper, bachelor thesis, supplementary reading, and have somehow fallen into a blackhole of online technical encyclopedias to understand just the basic fundamentals.

While away, there is the opportunity to immerse ourselves in new cultures, made easier by the close relationships we will hopefully build with our research teams.

There is a lot of pressure on us from both aspects of the year abroad. We are constantly told to ‘have an amazing time’, ‘you should do some travelling and exploring’, ‘you’ll get so used to speaking the new language’. While I am certain my adventure will be culturally and personally enriching, we also have the added stress of needing to succeed in our research and coursework, since this is our last large contribution to our overall degree. We will work long hours every weekday in the labs, and spend our evenings and weekends reading and writing lab reports. Learning a new language will be taxing enough, and practice is needed to become even mildly conversational. However, practice will be sparse as all science is spoken and written in English, and so while I will need Japanese for normal day to day activities, will I ever get chance to really engage in conversation purely to develop my understanding of the language?

The one thing I am particularly nervous about is finding a job or PhD for when I return. I expect being in a different continent will cause difficulties in meeting employers. After finding a job, I then have the worry of locating and viewing a flat in a different country.

I am part of the first ever year to try this new degree scheme. I have my expectations but, in reality, I have no idea how things will turn out post-graduation. I shall let you know how things turn out… wait for part two of my future speculation…

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