What Happened in Chem 5MX

At the end of my post ‘What Happened in Chem 3’ I made a series of observations/strong recommendations for my future self about what I would need to do to ensure I had a happy time in my final year at university and leave with a good grade. The Chem 3 post I made in late summer 2010: this post I am making in early summer 2011. I can imagine that you are wondering: did I learn from past experiences?

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I left Philadelphia slightly heartbroken following my Year In Industry: I’d put a lot of heart & soul into making that Year In Industry such a positive experience. Now I was walking away from it, I knew I couldn’t go back and find my little home-grown Philadelphia world the same as I’d left it.

Yet I was ready to leave. I’d decided in April of that year that a PhD in the USA was my ultimate goal. Of course to get a PhD you need a complete undergraduate degree. Thus I had to return to the University of Edinburgh and get on with the task in hand. There was minimal reluctance to get back into the academic study setting – I wanted to learn, I wanted to study, I wanted to be examined.

Naturally, if you’d read the guidelines I set out for myself at the start of my final year, you’d be slightly sceptical of my ability to obey them. The guidelines were pretty harsh. And of course No, it didn’t work as harmoniously as that in reality.

My extra-curricular life was as busy as ever, though I did spend a lot more weekends based in Edinburgh than in previous years. I didn’t manage to read up on lectures before they happened, but I did make more of an effort to ensure I absorbed the material and actually understood it. I didn’t complete all the tutorial questions in advance, either, but I did go back several months later and make sure they were completed as Exam-Time Revision.

The in-house Research Project that all students had to complete? Well, that had its ups and downs. Some days I felt dread as I approached the lab. Other days I was more than happy to come in as early as possible and just crank on with it. It was a bit of a down-size from the industrial settings, but you learn how to be conscientious of the space, and take it in turns to set up distillations/experiments.

With hindsight, I think I would have been happier if I had to do the Project over a longer time frame. The 5MXers were the people who had spent their 4th year in Industry: they were assumed to be adept in the lab therefore took an extra theoretical module and were told to spend a smaller proportion of their 5MX year in the lab. 13hrs of practical work a week (for ~ 13 weeks) isn’t all that much after a 45hr full-time Med Chem job. Over a longer time frame I’m sure I would have felt less rushed and panicky about acquiring enough data to fill a Report.

Most of my friends have amusing Project Nightmare stories: things all worked out for them in the end, though. “Research” rarely works, most people get disenchanted with their PhDs at some point. At least by having it tricky as an undergraduate I know what to expect further down the line, and how to combat it.

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The best news about Chem 5MX is that I achieved (in the words of my mother) “a positive exit trajectory”. Basically, that my exam results in my final year were higher than my results for 3rd & 4th year.

I guess I can attribute that mostly to the boost in academic motivation I received when I decided I wanted to go after a PhD. It also took me a while to figure out the methods of revision that got the best results out of me. Once term finished I retreated into the library and spent the best part of 6 weeks revising up the coursework. Not only did I understand the material a lot more at the starting point, but I found a good method of drilling and imprinting the chemistry theory to ensure that formulae, equations and conditions stuck in my head. Better use of the Past Papers kept me on the right track. Despite the long run-up I didn’t burn out, though by the 5th and final exam my stress had lost its sharpness.

Despite my 3rd and 4th year grades being within the B-grade average, my 5th year average was 70%. It gave me a strong 2.1 degree and some nice little details for future CVs or references. I’m simply glad that I learned from previous years. And that I can look back on Chem 5MX as being tough…but rewarding.

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