20 Oct 2015
I remember on my 3rd day of fresher year, going to the library to pick up books we will be using for the next 4 years. They were massive, heavy and lots. I received around 10 books that were on average 800 pages long. It was so heavy to move them in and out of the room at the start and end of vacation… Fortunately our studies were not based on going all through these books but using these books as reference.
For my first ever tutorial homework I received 10 questions to solve using the books we received. My tutor said it will take us about 8 hours. It took me 16 hours. There were hints to use which book for reference but no specific page. During high school, I thought I was quite good at using the appendix to efficiently find the info I needed; but definitely not with these text books. This is also when I realized that some of the fellow biochemists were really switched on. Some of the questions were topics I have never done before but I was basically required to read on that topic, learn it myself and come up with the answer myself. So I wondered what the tutorials were for if we could answer all the questions ourselves. But yeah there were definitely questions that I didn’t fully understand.
We had to hand this sheet the day before our scheduled tutorial by “pidging”. Every student and tutors affiliated to a college has his/her own pigeon box. A very narrow box big enough just for a pile of paper to fit into.
[Picture of pigeon]
Every tutor has his office in college. My tutor’s was a really nice one, spacious with a kitchen. So actually I was pretty happy with how we could drink tea while having tutorial (all made by the tutor!) There were 4 of us in Oriel biochemistry first year and we were paired into 2 groups for 1:2 tutorial.
I have to say the first tutorial made me feel academically happy and experience probably the highest concentration level I’ve ever reached. I was blown out of my mind with the explanations my tutor gave that my hand hurted while trying to note everything down. The first tutorial was like our tutor teaching us about the topics we prepared but later on became more like us presenting topics we studied on our own and our tutor asking us challenging questions to lead to a discussion as Oxbridge tutorials are supposed to be. Therefore, it was essential to do the pre-reading and homework to be able to do such discussion. If for any reason, the homework couldn’t be done, at least the readings had to be done. We had 2-3 tutorials a week for our first year but from 2nd year onwards, 1 a week.
We also went to lectures. In fact, pretty 2 hours every morning. For the whole 4 years, the lecture slot was either 9am-11am or 11am-1pm. The lectures were more like the classes at high school but at a larger room with larger number of people and also with not many people asking questions probably because there are too many people around (at the end of lectures, people queued to ask professor questions individually!) These lectures were not compulsory though. I heard from other university friends that professor called out names to check students attended. But in fact, there was a guy who’s attended 2 lectures for the whole year but still got a first at the end of the first year exams. But that’s because all the lecture notes are available online so what we need to know for exams can be found out. So in fact, a lot of studies that a typical Oxford student does are the tutorial work and not the lectures.
Subject departments are all situated around the same place in the northern part of Oxford city center. Most students who live in the southern part of oxford go through this very pretty road called South Parks Road. I used to indulge in the thought that I’m really at Oxford university whenever passing this lane. Every morning 8:50 and 10:50, there would be a lot of people walking, running and cycling here.
[picture of park lane]
The typical recommended life of an Oxford student is study from 9am till 5pm and then do whatever else outside studying you want to do. This is just like being a fully employed person’s lifestyle. I felt a lot of my British friends were really good at this and I really wish I could stick to this life too. Even if my friends and I went out the night before and came back together, it was always my friend who was already in the college library earlier than me. And yeah, because each college has its own library and dining hall (some college ones are huge and some are small like mine), until around 4pm it is not uncommon to see students wearing pajamas.
[Picture of Oriel Library]
Experiments & Labs
I have to say I was very lucky to meet my lab partner who was super talented with lab experiments. Basically, you can go home as soon as you finish your given experiments with max 8 hours because TAs need to go home too. I would like to proudly say that I (actually my lab partner and I) were always one of the first to go back. Usually lab hours involve lunch time. On lucky lab days when the tasks aren’t too much, our aims were to go home before lunch time and I have to say this feeling was too good.
Lab partners are often college friends so we decide the pair amongst us. Unlike our pair, the other pair was the last pair to leave the room (not one of the lasts, but the last) such that they were quite famous amongst the TAs. It was just because they were very chilled, slow going, making jokes during experiments and always chit chatting before starting the experiment. In our second year, we decided to switch our pairing and I became one of the last person to come out:(
In Oxford, we have a very unique examination system. We have examinations at the end of each year (For Biochemists, Materials sciences, human sciences, PPE and others, no exams in the second year). Also the final graduation grade is only based on 2nd, 3rd and 4th year. This means for 3 year courses with no 2nd year exam, the whole graduation grade is based in 2 weeks of your 3 year university life.
So first year examination has no effect on the graduation grade but I still went for a first in the first year because you can win the scholar title and win the scholar’s gown.
We wear this sub fusc very often especially for formal dinners and there are two types: the commoner and scholar. The scholar one looks pretty nice and is warmer in winter too. So there will be moments when you come across a friend who looks like he never studies and always goes out to play but turns up in the scholar’s gown when going to formal.
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So since there is only one examination in the whole year, there are very large amounts of work that need to be covered and memorized. I would say for my 3rd year for which exam was based on 2 years of work, everyone did the work to be able to understand the course contents but the actual determining factor for your exam grades was about being able to memorize the vast syllabus, retain them and write out in the exam.
At the end of the 3rd year, biochemists had 6 papers to sit Monday to Saturday each 3 hours long. Yeah, it is a very tight schedule indeed compared to other subjects. In fact from 2013 onwards starting from my year, the schedule was changed to Saturday to Saturday with an exam free day on the in-between Wednesday due to requests from years above. So I guess I was quite a lucky year. It really is a big challenge; everyone gets much stressed and is not uncommon to see a few rusticate to take the exams next year just a week before the exam.
There is the joke I used to say with my junior biochemists that I relied on red bulls to stay up revising for exams so much, 6 in one night, such that I didn’t want to bother opening the cans one by one and I opened them up all into a litre bottle and drank the red bull from a litre bottle. A friend of mine told me this at the end of his finals; he was a classicist and classicists take 11 papers in 2 weeks, definitely the tightest exam schedule there is. Moreover, classics and law take their 2nd and 1st year exams in the middle of the school year not at the end. Therefore, obviously studying for exams when everyone isn’t adds more difficulty. During celebration of end of exams, his professor told them that they’ve just gone through probability the hardest academic period they will face in their life.
Not a joke, but a friend of mine had her mom come over for a week before the finals to keep her company because she was so stressed. Of course, she was always studying and couldn’t chat with her mom much and therefore her mum was watching tv next to her but obviously the mental support is what kept her going and this shows how stressful finals can be.
Oxford examinations are very traditional in that I would say for tourists visiting Oxford in summer, Oxford exam takers is a must-watch. Did you know that Oxford students have to be dressed in full sub fusc to take exams? This includes white bow tie, the cape and even the graduation hat! If you are not, you cannot enter the examination room! In fact, the graduation hat is something that we don’t wear but just carry around. So this is what it looks like in the Great Examination Hall (this is what we call the exam center).
But be relieved! You can undress yourself while taking the exam as it can get hot. I actually take all the cape, jacket, tie and even roll up the sleeve to be in the most comfortable state to write during the exam. But the funny thing is at the end of the exam, you must also be fully dressed to be able to go out! On my 3rd year 5th exam date, I actually tried to see if I could get away getting out without my bow tie but then was stopped by one of the exam hall stuff who was very persistent on not letting me go out until I put on the bow tie.
Additionally, we have the carnation tradition where on the first day of the exam period, you wear white carnation as a symbol of good luck, red carnation on the last day and pink one in between. So without my will, I got to ‘nurture’ some flowers in my room These carnations are often provided by your friends or college subject seniors who pigeon these to you one or two days before. These carnations make it the atmosphere a little bit livelier from a mass of whole black outfitters.
I have to admit we celebrate the end of finals really well such that almost everyone comes out of the exam hall happy regardless of how they feel the exams went. For those who’ve finished their finals paper, they come out from a different gate to everyone else, to a little alleyway where their friends are waiting to ‘trash’ them. Yes, literally trash them with liquids, foams whatever they could get hold of.
It’s a very happy atmosphere in this small alleyway behind the Great Examination Hall, almost like day time partying, happiness for exam takers for finishing their exams and start the summer holiday and happiness for their friends for the fun of attacking and ruining their outlooks. The trashing can get very serious with really dirty things being used so the university regulates the stuff they can bring in to the alleyway which includes white foaming, confetti, party bombs and etc. Before, it was possible to bring flour and egg but not anymore to keep the street clean. But some are unlucky (or lucky?) to be taken to a smaller corner street without many people and more appropriately trashed, typically, champagning.
This is a picture of my engineering friend made to stand in front of a wall and be champagned. When opening the cap, I think the cap actually hit his face which was an extra bonus for him! But the best one I’ve seen is a group of friends running with a paint bucket and trashing this guy with liquid caramel (definitely didn’t imagine there to be liquid caramel in the paint bucket!)
For a few very happy exam finishers, there is also the option to jump into the river to celebrate finals.
Finally we also have collections that some people may think is strange rather than unique. Collections are mini examinations taken at the beginning of each semester. So if the 2nd semester begins in the 2nd week of January. Students will actually need to come back on Wednesday of the previous week to sit collections typically on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I guess this is necessary given Oxford vacations in total counts as more than half a year (summer one alone is 3 and half months), students need to continue to work towards the end of vacations. Also, if you rusticate and take a year or two out, usually you would have to get above 60% in this collection to be able to come back to Oxford.
My college, Oriel, was right across the Radcliffe Camera, the cylindrical building which is one of the most famous buildings of Oxford. A lot of people asked me what this was for. It actually a library; it’s one of the grandest libraries, very spacious inside. Unfortunately, we aren’t allowed to take photos inside so I won’t post them here. There are two and half floors up and two floors below. The desks students get to use are massive. As a university student, I relied much on laptop and it’s perfect to have power socket per table.
The Bodleian library next to Radcliffe Camera is supposedly the 2nd biggest library in Europe. I actually only went there once because the desks are relatively small but hey an interesting fact here! There is a tunnel that connects between the 2nd basement floor of Radcliffe Camera and Bodleian.
College subject annual dinner
Every year there’s also college subject dinners, e.g. Oriel Biochemistry dinner attended by fellow Oriel College biochemists including both students and tutors. This one is very special in that we can gather as one college subject family and get to meet our tutors as almost like friends. The procedure is usually,
1) Champagne reception
2) 4-5 course meal
4) Bar (optional)
For my first annual dinner, it was a 5 course meal. I wondered what a 5 course meal would be like and actually between the two main dishes, there’s a sorbet apparently to make us forget the taste of the previous main meal before the next main meal.
I didn’t quite get to the stage of being drunk along with my tutor but my fellow biochemistry friends did. Oriel biochemistry head tutor was Dr Max Crispin, but we just called him Max instead of Dr Crispin and also other tutors by their first name. I found this really hard to get used to at the beginning. Max took the selfie and I quite admire him beyond as my tutor in that he has started his own R&D company in cancer field.
I remember an unusual breakfast that was quite joyful and funny because of this drunken Theology student who apparently had his Theology/ Philosophy college annual dinner and kept drinking till morning.
This pretty much sums up my academic life at Oxford and hope sharing it with you all was helpful.