Learning to juggle: The reality of studying at Imperial College London

So I’m currently at home for the weekend. It’s a huge relief.

Uni is intense. Not exactly unexpected – Medicine, Imperial – it was always going to be. It’s not just the workload (which has skyrocketed in the past couple of weeks). It’s all of it.

At the beginning of the year, a lot of students in older years told me that out of work, sleep and a social life, I could only choose two. At first I ignored this, convinced I’d be perfectly able to manage all of them. Recently I’ve come to realise that they were right – if I want time for all three I’ll have to learn to juggle (metaphorically).

BTW – there’s actually turns out to be a lot more than three things to juggle.

1/ Work – okay, this is the obvious one. The reason I’m here is to become a doctor (and hopefully enjoy the process!) Until about halfway through this term, the workload has, on the whole, been okay – leaving time for sleep and a social life. But now it’s all happening at once. On Friday (at about 3am) I submitted a write-up for a practical on Blood Pressure; a fairly important write-up, counting towards my 4th year BSc. We had ten days to complete it, and little idea about what we were actually meant to do (it involved statistics. Cue PANIC!!!) Luckily someone emailed the lecturer who set the task, and the extremely helpful reply ended up being circulated around the entire year group. It’s a relief to have it submitted – however badly I’ve done, I can forget about it for now … and instead concentrate on the PBL assignment due in five days, the Epidemiology/Society and Health exam in nine days (that I’ve not started revising for yet), and the 2000 word Society and Health essay due in twelve days (that I’ve not started writing yet). Eep. At least I can relax over Easter … oh wait, no I can’t, I’ll be busy revising for the exam on the first day back.

2/ Social life – so the medics’ motto is ‘Work hard, play harder.’ ICSM is (in)famous for it (and the envy of the rest of Imperial!) Medic events tend to be a bit crazy and very alcoholic. Freshers’ Fortnight especially so; despite assurances that there is no pressure to drink if you don’t want to, there is pressure. So many people asked me why I don’t drink – by the end of Freshers’ it was pretty much public knowledge that I’m on antidepressants. And I felt pressure to be having fun, which isn’t always easy when everyone else is hammered while you’re stone-cold sober. I definitely ended up doing more than my fair share of getting drunk freshers back to halls during the first couple of weeks. Our newly elected ICSMSU Social Secretary, Tom, has been talking about introducing a few more Medic events that aren’t entirely based on drinking; while I know that this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or pint of Snakebite), I really hope this actually happens.

Not drinking isn’t synonymous with not having fun – I’ve had some great nights out, and even better nights in. Good friends, Netflix and chocolate/cake/ice-cream/popcorn is always a good option. And halls can get crazy at times (especially the 3rd floor in Willy J, where we are far above the Wardens (and their rules!)). Living with 20-something other students (and that’s just one of five floors) means there is always something going on or someone to chat to.

3/ Sleep – eight hours a night is a thing of the past.

The solution: Caffeine. And lots of it.

4/ Keeping Healthy – so everyone’s heard of Freshers’ Flu. I was ill for the WHOLE OF FIRST TERM. Obviously at the beginning of term you’re mixing with lots of new people and their germs. But also you no longer have your mum cooking you healthy food, you frequently drink more alcohol than you should have in a week in the space of an evening (if you’re that way inclined), and you don’t get much sleep.

But it’s not just your physical health that you need to consider.

Okay, everyone who knows me knows what’s coming next. I have mental health difficulties, and I’m not afraid to talk about them. I am into Mental Health Awareness in a big way.

1 in 4 adults suffer from at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year and 1 in 6 experiences this at any given time.1 In 2010, 6.7% of students identified themselves as having mental health difficulties,2 and many more struggle without recognising the symptoms. Mental illness is higher amongst those at the top universities. It’s also more common among medical students and doctors than the general population.

The transition to University is a big thing. New people, new place. Trying to be an adult (I still haven’t got to grips with this.) The pressure to go out and make friends and be the life and soul of the party.

And then there’s the pressure. Imperial is one of the top Universities in the world. Getting in is a big achievement, and then there’s the pressure from yourself and everyone else to keep being a high achiever. There’s the stress of deadlines and exams.

As a student, it is so important to be aware of mental health – your own and your friends. I could not have got this far without the support of some wonderful friends. And at IC, there is a lot of support available if you know where to look. ICSMSU Welfare Officer (Mama Welfare Jen – who has just been elected as ICU Deputy President (Welfare) for the 2015/2016 academic year – yay!); my senior and personal tutors; hall wardens; my medic mum – these are just some of the people who have looked out for me and supported me since coming to Imperial. It’s not easy juggling mental health problems with a degree, but with the right support in place, it is definitely possible.

5/ Exercising – this links into keeping healthy, and is important for good mental health as well as physical health. I do yoga and go running, and try to walk instead of using public transport (save money at the same time!) A lot of students join sports clubs, so get the ‘social life’ element at the same time.

To summarise: Endorphins ♥

6/ Taking time to relax! – this is vital. Read a good book, watch a film, have a long, hot bath, take a nap. Enjoy doing nothing in particular. When you have a-million-and-one things to do, this seems like a waste of time, but I promise that it’s not! That’s what I’m home for this weekend – a bit of TLC, away from the noisy, fast-paced London life. With my cat J (Stroking cats reduces stress. Fact.)

7/ Having a roof over your head – so this isn’t a particular concern in first year, as most first years live in halls. But after that most people move into private accommodation, which is what I’m planning to do, with my three best friends. So on top of all of the work at the moment, we need to start thinking about house-hunting too. And then there’s the whole business of dealing with landlords/estate agents, learning how to pay a bill, etc. etc. etc. I’m so excited about living with my best friends, but also slightly terrified about potentially having to be a grown-up.

The thing about halls is that it’s halfway between living at home and living independently. You do your own cooking and washing and don’t have a curfew to be home by; but when pretending to be a grown-up gets a bit tough, there are real grown-ups in the form of wardens/subwardens. At HWJ there are five; one of them will always be on duty from 6pm to 8am, and all weekend, and on weekdays they’re in the office for an hour in the evening – in an emergency, for any problems with accommodation, welfare, etc., or just if you fancy a chat. And Zsofi, one of HWJ’s subwardens, gives good hugs 🙂

8/ Managing money – sticking to a budget is hard! London is definitely not the cheapest place to live (far from it) and there’s so much to do that it’s easy to spend too much without realising. Also, food – it’s so easy to decide that cooking is too much effort and buy food at uni/go out to eat instead. I’m trying to buy food at uni less by taking pack lunches instead (except on Tuesdays when there’s a farmers’ market at SK campus!) Around SK and Chelsea there are loads of interesting (but not particularly cheap) places to eat – recently I’ve discovered Rosa’s Thai Café in Chelsea and Snog near SK station, which does AMAZING frozen yoghurt (nomnomnom!) Another aspect of budgeting that I hadn’t accounted for was unexpected costs, like prescription medication (£8.05 per item) and laundry (£2 for a wash, £1 to tumble dry.)


So, how am I trying to (metaphorically) juggle?

-Getting work done sooner rather than later. Although, like all other students ever, there have been times where I’ve been up most of the night before an assignments due.

-Trying anything once. And if I have fun, great. If I don’t, then I’ve tried it and I don’t have to do it again. At Imperial there’s such a mix of people – it’s not hard to find people with similar interests.

-So eight hours sleep is an impossibility. But trying to get an early night every once in a while.

-Cooking healthy food! And making multiple portions so that there are leftovers when there’s no time to cook.

-Getting exercise every so often.

-Being aware of my mental health – and asking for help when I need it.

-Making plans with friend so that a/ there’s stuff to look forward to and motivate me to keep going when work/life gets tough; and b/ to make the most of living in London.

-Not being too extravagant, but also not stressing too much about money.

-Buying lots of clothes (?!) so I don’t have to pay to do laundry so often.

-Going home once in a while for TLC, cuddles with my cat, peace and quiet, and fresh air (which does not exist in London.)

-Recognising when everything’s getting too much, and having some ‘Me Time’ every so often


Despite some of the more difficult parts of being at uni, I love Imperial. There are definitely more goods than bads. I don’t think anyone’s really ready for uni (Imperial or anywhere else) when they come – some people are just better at pretending to juggle than others. But in the end of the day, we’re all in this together, and ICSM is one big family that I’m proud and extremely happy to be a part of.

Blog again soon (Day 1 of ‘a week in the life of an IC med student’ coming tomorrow!)

Em xx



1. The Office for National Statistics Psychiatry morbidity report, 2001

2. Equality Challenge Unit

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