Last week the university had two open days, which you can read about on Jo’s blog, and having helped out at quite a few of these a lot of the same questions tend to come up. I thought it might be useful to post a few of them here with a student’s perspective, along with a typical week for a student studying natural sciences (that comes up a lot too!).
I haven’t studied physics, biology, maths and chemistry at A-level, am I going to struggle?
In my year a lot of people had different science A-levels, and I think only one person was doing all three of the main sciences and maths before coming to university. As every core module of the degree is designed to be interdisciplinary, I found this essentially allowed me to focus more on the physical aspects of a given problem in my first year, as I could pick up the chemistry and biology more quickly. Applying new concepts to an overarching project also meant I would find myself doing physics, but through the lens of biology. A nice example of this is in the biophysics module, where you learn a lot of fluid dynamics in the context of the cardiovascular system and cellular respiration, in order to identify the different limitations of human speed. In a lot of cases it stops feeling like a new discipline, but rather things you already know looked at in a different way. Whats more, the large amount of group work means you’re often joining the dots between disciplines together from different starting points, and I found it’s a great way to pick things up.
Having said that, maths A-level though not required is pretty helpful, as although the course revises A-level maths in the first year it moves quite fast, and you’re increasingly pushed to be more quantitative in most other areas as you progress.
Do you have lectures?
Not in the traditional sense. With the course being research-based, you learn content through carrying out independent research, which you then bring to workshops where you work through problems in groups and with a facilitator, and through ‘expert sessions’. The latter are essentially analogous to lectures with an expert in the field coming to talk about a specific topic, but with each year being limited to around 20 students this becomes much more interactive. Basically this changes the one-size fits all lecture to something tailored to the students in the room. The easiest way to put it might be a flipped classroom approach, where you do the initial reading independently, with contact time then focused on applying what you’ve learnt and taking it further, rather than just taking it in. This kind of approach still seems fairly novel in natural sciences degrees, though it’s much more common in medicine, and increasingly in physics.
This does mean that you have to come prepared to every workshop, sometimes with the amount of reading reaching hundreds of pages, which can be quite demanding! It’s a very rewarding experience, however, and the contact time you get with researchers and teaching staff in such small groups makes everything more engaging.
Can you go on to do research or is the degree too broad?
This was always one of my reservations before doing a natural sciences degree, which is one of the main reasons I applied to Leicester. Unlike the other natural sciences courses I looked at, all the core modules are compulsory. This allows the modules to be designed to lead on from each other, meaning although you won’t cover all the material in a single discipline course, the topics you do cover will be to the same depth. As the course is research-based, it also means you can really push yourself, and there are many opportunities to do so in things like advanced study modules and extension tasks. This approach further means you’re learning many of the skills required for scientific research from day one! So yes, there are students that have gone on to do PhDs, with more being offered the chance.
A typical week
So if you’re in your first or second year, weeks generally go like this:
Every Monday there will be a computer or skills workshop, with the former consisting of learning programming languages and software packages such as R, Maple, Python, HTML and so on, and the latter being presentation skills, report writing, developing a CV and all those sorts of things. The afternoon and following morning are then mostly filled with prereading for the workshop on problems for the current core module, expert sessions on the core module, and a maths session, that all take place the next day. On Wednesday all three years have a 4 hour lab session, with Thursday then following a similar structure to Tuesday. Finally, Fridays consist of the elective modules you’ve selected and tutorials. You’ve then got the weekend to do that week’s core module problem set, a maths problem set, a lab write up, and any elective module work for Monday morning, and then it all starts over again! Throughout that time, you’re also slowly working on the deliverable(s) due in at the end of the module, which usually involves a lot of group work, and can take the form of an essay, presentation, podcast, interview etc.
So hopefully that’s been somewhat helpful to anyone interested in the degree. Obviously there’s much more information on the department’s website, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to have a student’s perspective!