Monday, 22 October 2012

Chem Coach Carnival: UK Undergraduate

I figured a lot of the contributions to See Arr Oh's Chem Coach Carnival would be about the higher end, amazing jobs you can get through chemistry. Most (all?) of these people would have started their careers as undergraduate chemists, and as I'm a current undergraduate (UK-based), I figured I'd start there, and ask the question:

How do you get onto a chemistry degree program?

If you're currently a high school student (GCSE's)...then firstly well done on having some idea what you want to do with your life! There's not much to worry about right now, but when choosing A-levels, if a teacher tells you "take the subjects you enjoy"-pay absolutely no attention at all. (Note: This is actually decent advice if you have no idea at all, but no good if you've made your mind up) If you know you want to do chemistry, but happen to enjoy History, French and English too, then whatever you do: don't take this combination! Most, if not all, chemistry departments in the UK require at least AS-level Maths, and another science besides Chemistry at A2 (ideally Biology or Physics, preferably both). If you want to study Chemistry, you really must start your A-levels studying Chemistry, Maths, Biology/Physics, and then you can probably get away with a free choice on the last one. 

Besides that, work hard, and don't neglect GCSE English, you'll be in a world of pain if you don't get a C.

If you're currently studying for AS-levels...assuming you've followed the advice above, you're all set to apply to Chemistry at university.* My first advice is that it's never too early to go to open days. Some uni's have open days in June/July, and then again in September. The earlier ones can often be quieter, and it gets your mind thinking about university. Uni's often monitor attendances at open days, so showing an early interest is only going to be a point in your favour. If you can think of a question to ask, ask it, but don't worry about being too shy - most people are. I've given a few open day department tours, and the amount of people who say nothing is crazy high, so don't worry about it.

If you can get any chemistry-related work experience, jump at the opportunity, however mundane it looks; chances are like gold dust, so it'll help your uni application stand out. Other than that, reading around your subject is very important, especially when it comes to interviews (more on those delights below). Seriously, at least read Bad Science at a minimum [If anyone can suggest any others, I'll post a list at the bottom of the page]. Work on your personal statement over the summer, they can be hell to write, and the sooner you get your UCAS application submitted, the better. A lot of uni's offer places on a first-come-first-served basis (assuming you're good enough)

So you've applied....firstly-well done! It’ll be a while before you hear anything, so relax and keep reading.

Aargh - interview! Ok, so I've instantly displayed the wrong emotions, interviews are nothing to be worried about, relax! The academic involved isn't (usually) trying to catch you out; they want to let you show what you know. If you mentioned any extra reading in your personal statement, re-read it before the interview. It's also worth reading a bit ahead in your textbook if you can. Most chemistry syllabus' cover the same material, but in a different order, so don't be too surprised if an academic asks something you haven't learnt yet, they simply don't know you haven't done it. If you can answer, have a go, but it might be worth starting with "So we haven't covered this in class yet but...", to give yourself a margin for error.
Whatever you do, don't try and BS an academic! To my error, I tried this one - learn from my mistake! In my personal statement, I mentioned the toxin Ricin, and the assassination of Georgi Markov. My interviewer asked me how Ricin worked. I couldn't quite remember, but I went for it, and said something that was part-truth, part-guess and part utter tosh. He simply smiled at me and moved on. At the end of the interview, he had a hunt through his bookshelves and dug out a copy of a paper, asking me to read it before my next interview. I sat there in the waiting room, reading a paper written by the interviewer himself, on the precise manner of ricin bioactivity. Needless to say, I didn't get an offer.

Other than that, good luck with getting on the next step to your dream job in chemistry!

Other Books: The Poisoner's Handbook; Copies of New Scientist, Scientific American...;

*If you're looking at this, don't panic if you haven't got the right subject choices, and it's too late to change. Take a look at foundation year courses, or see if your sixth form/college will let you stay on another year so you can take the right subjects. 

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