An Oxford Chemist's Week
Not sure quite what to expect when starting Oxford? Well, if you're a Chemist, we've got you covered with Tang's blog post about a week in the life of an Oxford Chemist...
Oxford weeks technically begin on a Sunday, but I still feel that mine begin on a Monday. As a chemist, we have two lectures every morning – unlike other universities, Oxford do not record their lectures, so I try to go to all of them, but not everyone does, whether they are comfortable with the topic already or simply can’t make it out of bed!
My tutorials normally occur on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which are arranged by the tutors at Merton, but at other colleges the students are responsible for arranging tutorial times.
There are two lab days a week, which are officially from 11-5, although sometimes they finish earlier. Typically it is one practical per day, although those that are longer are spread over both days of the week. Half the cohort have their lab days on Monday and Tuesday, and the other half on Thursday and Friday. Whilst technically half the year are in the labs at the same time, you spend most of your time with your lab group. This tends to be a group of three or four colleges, which is further split in half, i.e. half your college will be in one group and the other half another. As a result you meet lots of different chemists, and particularly develop friendships with those in your lab groups. I wouldn’t worry about being split; everyone’s lovely and you’ll still see your other college chemists around the lab anyway.
As first years, we work in pairs, which I’ve found quite reassuring; initially you are assigned a lab partner, typically from another college. I’ve found all my lab partners to be lovely people and our lab group in general is a good laugh. You definitely get to know the other chemists, with the mishaps and successes of labs ensuring that there’s always plenty to talk about.
This year we are the first to use the new Chemistry Teaching Laboratory - according to upper years the equipment and facilities really are improved, with plenty of glassware for everyone, and the opportunity to practise analytical techniques much more frequently (for some practicals more than 20 spectra are produced!).
Like school, we are usually given a method to follow in our practical manuals, although there is always a Junior Demonstrator or staff member present to answer any questions. My advice would be to ask even if you think it is stupid – they’re happy to help and it’s completely fine if you’re unsure! They might also give you handy advice that is useful for the write-up (a.k.a. post-labs).
So, labs also includes pre-labs and post-labs; a multiple choice quiz on the practical (the answers are found from reading the practical manual) and the write up afterwards. We also write our own hazard forms, known as COSHH forms, so that we are aware of the hazards related to the chemicals we are using. Even if they are a bit boring, I guess better safe than sorry!
The practicals are a good way of developing our independence and general lab skills, and the applications are useful, and sometimes pretty cool. They do take up a fair amount of time, but it’s also a bonding experience, which probably contributes to why chemists are often such a close group compared to some subjects.
Side note: Labs also includes computer labs, where you’re taught to use software to build molecules and measure their properties. We also get to try some programming in second year!
Anyway, this has been quite a long read! Labs can be a bit of mixed bag, but you also learn a variety of skills too, both scientific and just generally (time organisation, Excel, etc).
And if you want some more insight, follow @oxford_chemistry on Instagram!