by SSA Cavendish
It’s a hot day in July as Shafina waits outside the Cavendish student shop to meet Emma, who has now graduated, to discuss her past three years of studying at University. The background noise from students, and the casual passers by is strangely relaxing amidst the summer heat. After greetings, congratulations and a brief catching up, Shafina begins with her questions.
Shafina: What does it feel like to achieve a First?
Emma: Oh…that’s quite a hard question actually. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. I feel completely indifferent about it in a way. I think if I got a 2:1 I would have felt the same, it’s more just the fact that I’ve graduated rather than the grade I’ve got. My aim when I came to Uni wasn’t necessarily to get a First.
Shafina: I like that approach you have, its very modest and humble.
Emma: Well…I haven’t always gotten straight A’s, for example at College grades weren’t great. I guess at University I found my little niche and surprised myself in a way.
Shafina: What was the drive or passion that moved you to work hard?
Emma: Enjoyment of the subject, there wasn’t a set goal of what I wanted to do as a career. It was just studying something that I enjoyed. Learning new things in a University setting was good for me because you’re controlling your own learning and what you put into your study is what you get out of it. I just found I enjoyed it and so this gave me the motivation to work hard. It’s important to pick something that you will enjoy and you’re not just doing it because for instance, you think the degree will make you look good on paper. Whatever you enjoy and wish to do, you should just do it.
Shafina: I’ve known from experience that if you pick something you don’t have that passion for it can be difficult for you to work hard in it. The next question would be, how important was managing your time?
Emma: erm I think time management is important but it wasn’t so crucial to me, because that’s how I am. I’m just organised. I think it is important as you have so many deadlines, and maybe on top of that other personal things to be doing as well. You need to be aware of when things are due, how much work you’ve got to put in to complete it and if you have left yourself enough time.You don’t have to be super organised just conscious of your work load. I don’t draw up a timetable of when I’ll complete work, just at the end or during the week I write down a list of what I need to do, so I know what’s there and can work from that. I find it frees up your mind to write it down rather than having to try and remember everything.
Shafina: I remember during laboratory work for our research project everything you had was in order. When we were going to the lab I would see that you had researched beforehand what you would need. You would have equipment and material listed. From that, how crucial is it to be organised?
Emma: You need to think ahead and not turn up to your research sessions completely unaware. Plan out what you’ll need, perhaps the night before. It is important to be well prepared. Similar to how you need a pen and paper for a lecture, you need to note down what you are going to need for laboratory work. Also I find it helps to think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I guess for me it was a bit different for the research project because I had some experience where other students may not have had that opportunity, but some simple background reading to help understanding can go a long way and is how I got by during my first lab experience.
You don’t have to be super-organised. Some people can be really messy but know where everything is and what they have to do. So as long as you know what you’re doing, how long you need to do it and when to do it by you should be fine.
Shafina: Kind of reminds me…what’s that phrase…erm a geniuses table is a messy table?
Emma: yeah…may be a mess but they know where everything is!!!
Shafina: When you spoke of experience did you mean the summer bursaries?
Shafina: Are they available in Science or are there other ones out there.
Emma: I think they are available but they might work differently based on the subject. Some are internships but this one was called a studentship, it was laboratory research based.
Shafina: How important was the role of lecturers and tutors during your study?
Emma: They delivered lectures and knowledge on their area of study, almost motivating students to want to pursue research in that area. However, I wouldn’t really go to them for help with assignments. I found what you need is laid out in the proformas, on blackboard and other documents you just have to read it carefully. If I was stuck on something I would try to figure it out then ask friends. Normally I would try and figure the answer out myself, it might take a while but you can nearly always find it. I think it’s important to read the sheets, instructions and emails properly. Chances are the answers are going to be there. University study is supposed to be independent, so if I couldn’t find an answer I would just go with what I thought most appropriate.
Shafina: How damaging would you say procrastinating is to your degree?
Emma: I think it depends on why you’re doing it. For example, if I had gotten through quite a bit of work throughout the day and needed a break in the evening I would procrastinate for a bit. So as long as you’re aware that you’re doing it, and as long as you get everything done on time then it’s fine. It really depends on what extreme it is. For example, if you’re partying but then the next day you have an assignment you haven’t completed, that’s a bit different. There is procrastination and then there is not doing the work, they are two different things. Procrastination is fine, not doing you’re work isn’t, you should ask yourself why you are studying if you don’t want to do the work.
Shafina: So you live out in student accommodation and I guess there are so many things you have to do, maintaining the place, cooking meals. What advice would you give to students living out and trying to juggle everything?
Emma: I think it’s quite daunting at first but the first year is about getting into a rhythm. My first year wasn’t always great. I would call up my mum in the middle of the supermarket saying ‘I don’t know what to buy to eat.’ But after a while I started writing a list before I was going shopping and generally finding a routine. If something doesn’t work then try something else that does work. If you can cook meals that will save you time then that’s really useful for later when you might be quite busy. With my accommodation the bills were paid upfront so I didn’t have to worry about all that too much. But with that, as long as students know what needs to be paid and when, it should be easily managed, keep a list of them somewhere visible, like a wall calendar.
Shafina: You were saying about getting into a routine in the first year
Emma: It was almost a warm up for the next two years, a chance to adopt a style in which you mean to go on. Some people may see it as a year to mess around and get away with it, but I think it is a crucial time and how you use it makes a difference to the rest of your time at University, others may disagree.
Shafina: As in do the bare minimum?
Emma: Yes, because the first year is a bench mark for how much work you need to put in. How to use feedback and results to progress forward, knowing what is required from this. So I think it’s good to put in effort. At least you know whether things are working for you or if you need to do better for next year. If you only start taking things seriously in your second year it could be hard to change your approach quickly enough to limit the impact it may have overall if you find things are not working out.
Shafina: Throughout your three years to get that first, did you acquire an overall lifestyle change? For example, changing your diet, fitness
Emma: I exercised more at home. With diet, I do eat differently to at home. My mother will cook healthy and although I don’t eat un-healthy it’s not the same quality. As I’m a student living out the price and often quality of say a salad at home would be different to what I would get. You do have a little bit of a challenge, but I think it’s a good idea to have what you’re used to at home. If you’re not taking care of yourself then it will have an effect on your ability to do work, if you’re not eating properly you won’t function properly. It is important to follow a little bit of what you’re used to at home.
I also think you need to find an environment where you study well. There’s no point in sitting, trying to work, with your flat mates if you cannot concentrate and generate work to the best of your ability. I work best sitting in a quiet room, whilst others work best with some background noise. It’s best to find the place where you can do all your work.
Shafina: What advice would you give to students who want to achieve a first?
Emma: My goal when I came to University wasn’t to achieve a first, but to do as well as I could. I don’t think the overall goal should be to get a first, you should say okay I’m going to try my best and do as well as I can. It’s not all about aiming for the grade. Someone who achieves a 2:1, 2:2 or 3rd can go on to achieve great things. A degree will always be a significant personal achievement. The world is your oyster, it’s all about how you use your experiences in the next steps towards your goal. If you do something you enjoy, generally you will do well at it. Don’t beat yourself up about grades, go over the feedback you’re given and reflect on what you have learnt, using this to move forward.
Shafina: Now that you’ve graduated what are your plans next?
Emma: I will actually be staying at the University of Westminster and studying for my PhD. My research will be Molecular Virology based, working on emerging and zoonotic viruses, looking into their epidemiology and antigenicity. This is the area I gained some experience in through my studentship. I really enjoy the research area and undertaking the practical lab work, I’m definitely looking forward to my PhD studies. At the beginning of my degree I would not have thought it be possible that I am in the position I am, so I feel very fortunate.
Emma Bentley graduated from Biomedical Science with a first class honours. It’s safe to say we’re all proud of her achievement she’s a hard worker and an inspiration to us all. We hope she will go onto achieve great things perhaps we’ll see her on TED talking about a major breakthrough in her research field. We wish her all the best for her next steps in life.