From a graduate to a fresher: a letter

By Gabriel Callaghan.

Photograph by Michael Crilly

You’ve certainly faced an inordinate amount of obstacles to get here; from a pandemic to exam debacles and mutant algorithms. But, you’re about to be heading up the Bailey to meet those wild freps who induct you into John’s (learn the words of Country Roads) and I thought that I would share some words with you, having spent the past 4 years studying and graduating from a Masters in Physics. This letter might be a bit different to all of the ‘freshers hype’, but I would rather give you something that prepares you for what is to be a very enjoyable 3 or 4 years.

You were one of the best academically in your school to get here. At Durham, you’re surrounded by people who were the best in their respective schools, so you may feel ‘imposter syndrome’ at some point, e.g how did you get in, are you good enough? It’s something that many people face here, and a lot of people feel that they have to prove something. However, I have never been asked about what grades I got at A-Level and I have never been asked about my degree grades. Marks are rarely discussed. Once you’re in, no one is bothered about grades. My advice is to take it easy. Yes, there are absolute geniuses at this place who seem to do well whilst not doing much work at all, but most of us are not geniuses. First year doesn’t count towards your final degree grade, I did far better in subsequent years than my fresher’s year. At school, you knew how the system worked. University is a different system and before you can make the system work for you, you have to learn how it works and mistakes along the way are part of that. 

It is hard work and it’s unlikely that you will understand absolutely everything first time. There will be people who seem to be doing well, and that nothing has ever gone wrong for them academically. However, we’ve all had a lab report, exam or essay go wrong in some way. There is a good video by a Durham youtuber, Jack Edwards discussing this. The average mark is around 60%, and at Durham, it’s rare to get above 80%. The first time you do an essay or mock exam, it’s probable that not everyone will be happy with the feedback because you don’t know the system.

The main difference between School and University is the level of autonomy that you’re given and it takes some getting used to. At School, teachers are always chasing you for homework or to see how you’re getting on with it. At University, no one is going to pressurise you to hand in work, there are deadlines and it’s your job to meet them. You’re given an assignment, but the content from lectures is rarely enough to do the work. You need to go to the library and find some books/research papers and study them; you’ll learn how to do that. During A-Levels, there were only a single set of textbooks to study. It’s your job to prioritise the materials you need to study at University. Lecturers may give a stupendously long reading list, but it’s simply not feasible to read everything on the list. 

At School, you had a firmly set timetable with set times for ‘self-study’, but at University, you need to set your own times to study. I remember that at School, there were class tests every week which focused your revision, but at University, there are few, if any, class tests. At University, you’re expected to spend 40 hours a week studying, but little of that will be in formal contact time. I would recommend setting aside time each week (around 10-20 hours) to recover some content which you have end of year exams in. It makes life far more difficult if you leave it all until summative season and you will have a worse understanding. 

Courses at university are more enjoyable than A-Levels. No one wants to study physics to learn how a ball rolls down a hill. You want to study physics for the ‘cool’ quantum stuff (no pun intended!) and you’ll find that physics at University is completely different to dull A-Levels. It’s the same for any subject, not only my degree in physics, but I use my degree as an analogy. There are concepts that you will ponder for a few weeks, but once you understand them, you will have a totally different view of the world. In my degree, some of the content is so counter-intuitive that you will no longer take anything at face value and will question everything. There are times that I have started a piece of work with one particular position, then by the end of the work after I have studied the research papers, the evidence leads me to a completely different conclusion.

Socially, there are more things to do at University than school, and some of the activities are different. You can learn languages (I learned Spanish), go skydiving or be part of the assassins society (I’m not allowed to tell you about that). You can even spend time volunteering to teach people Maths and Physics (along with various other volunteering opportunities). I’m not into all the drinking and nights out, but that was never a problem. You don’t have to drink alcohol if you don’t want to, plenty of people here don’t. You’ll find your own group of people that you’re happy with and respect your wishes. You’ll develop a bond with your acquaintances over time and loyalty grows after what you’ve done together. 

Unquestionably, my degree has been intellectually demanding and tiring at some points. I certainly don’t know everything about physics. But, I have the skills to research and study whatever I need to know. You will uncover parts of your subject that you didn’t know even existed. People graduating from my year in physics have gone on to do a range of jobs, from science to ecological management, operations research, intellectual property law and software development.

One thought

  1. This article is so true – as a History graduate from John’s last century, I’d endorse everything in here, especially the section about autonomy.


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