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Surviving first year chemical physics

If you’re considering a Chemical Physics degree, belonging to different Schools can be a bit disorienting for some students.

Chemical Physics as a Degree

I’m by no means an expert in Chemical Physics, I’m only a first year student, but there’s a few things I wish I’d understood before I started in September 2012.Here’s my 5 best pieces of advice to help new students starting out, and why I wouldn’t change a thing.

1. Which School do I Actually Belong?

One of the best (or worst) things about studying Chemical Physics is that you’re studying two sciences (apparently chemical physicists are just indecisive.) And yes, I’m aware that everyone studies electives, but the difference for us is that we won’t be stopping in third year. You need to be good at both, unlike my biologist friend (yes I’ve made friends with biologists- they are a bit weird but actually quite nice) who took Italian. At the end of this semester, if he only knows enough Italian to pass it isn’t going to hurt his career in biology.

This dual-scienceness (I’m aware I probably made that word up) is great, but sometimes you can feel as if you’re in a kind of limbo, and that you don’t really belong to either science.

You’re technically part of the School of Chemistry, or at least that’s what is says on paper (in the prospectus). So in the introductory events during Freshers’ Week and even on the Applicant Days beforehand, you’re treated as being a chemist student.

This means that when you show up on day 1 you’re pretty much comfortable as a chemist, but still a bit new to being a physicist (that’s in regard to being a student of both subjects of course – not a reflection on your ability in each area).

Chemical Physics – Two Schools – Two Sets of Friends

You’ll be in the physics maths class, so when your classmates in chemistry go off to their maths class, it can feel a bit like you’re only a chemist part-time. In case any of my friends read this article, no person makes me feel this way. It’s just a consequence of being stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between two subjects. Studying Chemical Physics sometimes feels like having two part-time jobs instead of one full-time, and that you’re splitting yourself between two subjects/schools and two groups of friends.

Tip #1

Just go with it. This feeling of being pulled in both directions is only really from your own point of view. Both Schools and groups of friends don’t think you’re only a half chemist/physicist. They may occasionally tease but that’s because there is an ongoing (friendly) battle between sciences with regards to which is the superior science. The argument isn’t serious but if all else fails just pick on biology!

2. Socialise Equally in Each Group

Belonging to two Schools is actually great but it can have its downsides. Firstly, since Chemical Physics is technically in the School of Chemistry, during Freshers’ Week you’ll naturally make most of your friends there. But my timetable works out that I spend 75% of my time in Physics! Had I realised this early enough, I would have attended more of the events in Physics. Saying that, I’ve made great friends in Physics too, but it was a lot harder and I only know a small group.  Of course I’m happy to spend my time with either group (I don’t have a favourite science and to be honest not all physicists fall into the stereotype in shows like Big Bang Theory), but at first it meant it was harder to settle in since I knew a lot less people.

Tip #2

Try to settle into both classes/Schools equally. You may not get invites to all of the Intro Lectures but go to events in both Chemistry and Physics Societies. They’re open for freshers as much as experienced chemists/physicists and I made some of my best friends at these events.

3. Organic Chemistry – Stay Strong and Don’t Cry!

Okay, as you probably know when you study chemistry you can (almost) draw a line down the middle and call one half Chemical Physics (a.k.a. the best subject in the entire universe and all possible parallel universes) and the other half – ‘the chemistry which must not be named’ –or if you insist on naming it, Organic Chemistry. This is not technically accurate as chemistry is categorised into Organic, Inorganic and Physical but in the eyes of Chemical Physicists like you and me, the two categories I first went for work well. My best advice to you is to go in with an open mind. You’ll probably not learn to love it in the same way you love Chemical Physics, but we won’t disown you if you develop a liking for it. Honest!

Organic chemistry is not that complicated if you give it your best shot, and the labs really are great fun. I’ll admit the thinking processes behind organic chemistry don’t always make me happy, but if you try your best and accept all the help given to you it’s honestly not that bad.

And you’ll get a decent amount of help as well. It’s almost like they expect the chemical physicists not to understand it. For example, when you’re assigned to your chemistry tutorial groups you’re kept with the chemical physicists as far as possible.

An organic chemistry postdoc researcher or member of academic staff is assigned as your tutor (this is different to your personal tutor – if you don’t know about personal tutors you will soon).

The postdoc/staff member will be really patient and doesn’t judge you if you don’t get it first time. Maybe my group was just lucky but it’s not likely as I’ve had encounters with a number of tutors now, and they don’t let just anyone teach us.

Tip #3

If you give organic chemistry your best shot you will probably not hate it as much as you think. I’m not asking you to love it, but not hating it will make the whole process a lot less painful.

4. Stick Together

You don’t have to live in each others’ pockets, but do stick with the other chemical physicists on your course. There will only be about 12-15 of you in a year group, so you end up making good friends with all of them. This is useful even if it’s just so you can all walk into labs half an hour late as a group, which makes it a lot less embarrassing! In our defense, we do actually have permission to do this because of the difficulty in our timetables.

It’s also great when it comes to studying together. For example, the maths and physics homework can be quite challenging, so it’s not uncommon for us all to sit together and cry over it – which is much more enjoyable than crying over it on your own.

Tip #4

Stick together. They are the only ones that can totally relate to any problems you have with your journey through the wonderful world of chemical physics.

5. Don’t be Scared to Change Degree Programme

In the few months since starting, a good number of us have dropped out of Chemical Physics into either straight Chemistry or Physics. Don’t be scared to do this if you feel its best. Only you will know. Sometimes it just takes people a bit longer to realise which science they prefer and studying at university level exposes you to concepts you didn’t weren’t aware of when you first leave school.

Tip #5

Follow your heart (cheesy I know but what are you going to do about it). If you change your mind its okay and you certainly won’t be on your own in doing so. No one will judge you for it and your personal tutor (the member of staff in charge of helping you through your degree) will give you all the help you need.

That doesn’t mean drop out as soon as one subject gets a bit difficult, because chances are it’s an area of the subject you won’t be specialising in anyway. Even if it is, it’s not necessarily a big enough deal to drop out right away. If you start to feel out of your depth then do seek advice from your personal tutor before making a big decision like that.

All in all…

Chemical Physics rocks! (or is that geology? – bad joke sorry!) I hope I haven’t scared you off the degree. It really is a good Programme and I’m having the time of my life studying it at uni. Whatever you do make sure you love it. Good Luck!

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