One thing you will learn pretty quickly when you arrive at Imperial is that everybody thinks their subject is the hardest. The chemists think that their insanely long lab hours make it the hardest degree, the mechanical engineers with their scary maths worksheets think they have it the worst, the medics getting up for placements at 6am everyday have a tough go of things and I have no idea what the electrical engineers do inside the EEE building all day but the ones I know like to complain a lot about their degrees. Everyone has a tough schedule, demanding courseworks and gruelling exams as well as other projects, commitments and compulsory extras (read about the Horizons courses – extracurricular humanties, language and business courses that are compulsory in some faculties – here!) to contend with. We all have it hard.
Because this is Imperial and Imperial is ridiculous in so many ways, biology tends to get trampled on as the ‘doss’ degree. Our timetables are more empty than some, we dissect flowers in labs and we get the occasional field trip. I can see why, from the outside, biology would come across as the easy degree and to be honest, when the behavioural ecology class get a trip to London Zoo to observe monkey behaviour for an afternoon, I tend to join that school of thought! However, biology is hard, it does have it’s challenges and here’s why you shouldn’t write it off as a doss!
1. We have to code even though most of us don’t know how! We use computer programming to perform statistical analyses on our lab data and although I can’t speak for everyone in my year, I know that I had never written code in my life before starting at Imperial. After a few workshops to get to grips with the basics of the program we use, we were sent off in to the scary world of R to fend for ourselves. A lot of people in my class are now very proficient with R and I’m honestly amazed and how well some have picked it up. It’s still a battle for me to get it to do what I want most of the time but considering where I was at the start of the year, I think I’m doing ok!
2. We have to do a lot of independent work! I know many students in other subjects who have regular tutorials with problem sheets to work through, so a lot of their study is directed by their lecturers. Whilst we do have tutorials in biology, we don’t have as many and there aren’t as many worksheets to do, so our study outside of lectures ends up being quite self-directed. We have to do a lot of reading around (for example we had a tutorial on mass extinctions with no worksheet, it was just turn up and discuss mass extinctions) and are expected to have done a signnificant amount of outside reading to get higher marks in assignments.
3. We have to do Horizons! Ok so biology isn’t the only department that make their students do Horizons courses (see the post I linked above to find out more) but it’s still worth mentioning! We spend two hours a week studying extracurricular courses for credit, meaning that we have to take exams and hand in courseworks for these courses that count towards our final degree classification. It’s not a massive proportion, but it takes up a lot of time and does require effort. I’m in a great French class so it doesn’t feel too much like hard work (It’s pretty much just two hours of banter with our very funny teacher with hard grammar, literature analysis and obscure French pop songs thrown in) but the courseworks I do for this class are sizeable and there are many of them!
4. We’re writing dissertations as I speak! It’s not a full size dissertation, it’s more like an EPQ (for the international people among you, the Extended Project Qualification is basically a 5000 word essay and 10 minute presentation about pretty much anything that is the equivalent of an A Level), but it does involve reading a ton of papers, meeting with a supervisor and developing skills and techniques that will help with real dissertations – such as refining your topic, finding reliable papers to read on your topic and structuring and writing a publication-worthy piece of literature. That’s a lot of work.
5. We dissect flowers for a purpose! The flower dissection that the first year biologists do is in order to construct a phylogeny (a diagram that shows the evolutionary relationships of a group of organisms) using bioinformatics principles – an important skill to have. Despite sounding like a completely ridiculous exercise, the flower dissection is important. We do many other kinds of practicals in addition that teach us essential lab skills. Until you have performed a three hour protein assay involving mostly pippetting things with a Gilson and you come out with your hand frozen into a crab claw because you’ve been holding the pippette for so long, please don’t talk to me about our labs being pointless! We do stuff like screen our own DNA for viruses and watch fluorescently stained worms under a special microscope. It’s all fascinating.
I hope that has convinced you that biology is a serious subject. If you find people giving you a hard time about it once you get here, look them in the eye and tell them that you know where to get E. coli from and aren’t afraid to sprinkle some on their cereal when they least expect… (The lab strains are harmless but, of course, they don’t have to know that!)