Before I started my third year of university, I heard from two former students who had just finished the same course. They had two completely different opinions about the final year; “it’s really easy if you keep on top of stuff” and “it was horrible, I was so stressed, and it was really hard.”
I was determined not to be the latter and I wasn’t particularly, apart from that one time our lecturer told us we should have been laying our assignment out differently eight hours before deadline, when I was at work all that night too. Great. I survived relatively unscathed and came out with a first class honours, so I can share a thing or two about keeping on top of things in your third year. I’m not saying it was a walk in the park but my third year was easier and a lot less stressful than it was for some students on my course.
This post is almost a year in the making because I started it at the beginning of my third year as a “quit dicking about” note to myself. I’ve split it into two sections; a “general” and “project / dissertation” section since not all courses involve final year projects.
General third year survival tips
You’re a third year university student; you tell yourself every semester that you’re going to be more prepared. In fact, you’ve been saying it since you were in year 4. Well, third year is the time you actually do it and stop lying to yourself about it.
Whether you prefer paper planners or online ones, take some time each week or every day (whatever works for you), to review what you need to do this week, when things are due, what classes are on, and what you can start on now. If you like printouts take a peek at these three polka dot timetables.
I know that sometimes it’s actually quite daunting to look at what you’ve got to do, especially if you know you have a lot to do, but it’s better to know what mountain you’ve got to climb this week, right? It also means you can avoid saying horrifying things like, “we’ve got an assignment due next week?”
Assume that at least one person in group work is going to do nothing
Again, you’re a third year; the idea that there is one person in your group who you didn’t know was even on the course and / or isn’t going to do any work is nothing new. Assume that at least one person is bone idle and is more than happy to coast through their degree based on other people’s work and plan that in to your timeline.
Ideally, you and the rest of your group want to plan to be finished at least a week before the deadline in case you have to re-write something that’s been copied and pasted from Wikipedia, or if you need to pick up their slack. It’s ok, you can slate them in the peer review later; though we all know they will still get the same grade as you…I’m not bitter, honest.
Break it down
Something I found really useful was breaking down my assignments into smaller tasks. That way, I could trick myself into starting and finishing assignments early because I would think, “ok, I have a couple of hours, I can start doing some research on this specific thing,” rather than “ok, I have a couple of hours and need to start this assignment.” Being able to tick little tasks off was quite motivating because it looked like I was making progress faster and I think it definitely kept me on target, instead of feeling overwhelmed.
I found some of the printouts on The Organised Student really helpful for breaking assignments down, and making sure I was hitting all of the assessment criteria. Take some time to look at your assignment brief and write down exactly what you need to do to finish it and get the grade you’re after, and remember to be specific.
Don’t just say, “do research,” be specific, so for my dissertation one of my tasks looked like “research how long decomposition fluids affect soil.” It seems like more work but believe me when I tell you that the extra time planning will make things easier for you and might even help boost your grades.
Give yourself some time off
At the start of third year, our course leader told us to prepare “not to sleep or do anything fun during second semester.” That sounded pretty dull to me; I like sleep and doing things I like. No dissertation is going to get in the way of that!
We have all spent hours and hours working on something, only to find that it’s a load of rubbish when you come back to it with a clear head. Or, you end up feeling mentally exhausted and say things like, “I don’t even care what grade I get, I’m just glad to have handed it in,” and you know in your heart that you haven’t given 100%.
Studying all day long without breaks is not beneficial to you or your grades; take breaks, unwind, recharge, and go back to studying refreshed and focused.
Find your place / yes, you can study in bed
I really struggle to get much done sat at a desk; I find it too uncomfortable. My little study fort is on the sofa, so I can sit back comfortably, and when I’m there I can get loads done. If you stick me at a desk, I’ve probably got 30 minutes in me before I’m uncomfortable and trying to find an excuse to get up, like a three year old that doesn’t want to stay in bed.
Study wherever you feel the most comfortable and productive. And if that means studying in bed, do it.
By now you should know what you can bribe yourself to get work done with. Whatever it is, do it. What works well for me is doing an hour of work for an hour of doing something I want to do. That way I know I can get work done ahead of time (because it’s pretty hard to leave it to the last minute doing it that way) without feeling really stressed or mentally drained by it.
Just make sure you keep yourself in check though. Set a timer on your phone and don’t let one hour of playing games turn into two days of obsessively playing LEGO Jurassic Park…I speak from experience.
I think it would be incredibly difficult to get through the final year of your course without any help. If someone offers to cook dinner while you’re furiously typing away, say yes. If a friend offers to read something over, let them because they might spot something glaringly obvious that you’ve missed, and sometimes a new perspective can involve new suggestions. If your university offers tutorials or workshops on how to revise efficiently, how to write scientifically, or how to write up your dissertation, go to them.
Feeling a touch unmotivated? Get competitive with your friends. My friend, Sophie, and I had a little dessert-based competition for each of our exams; whoever got the highest grade got dessert brought for them by the other. That is honestly what kept me revising over the Christmas break and even when I was on holiday in Iceland. It also got me off Youtube or pulled me out of Pinterest rabbit holes and got me back on task so many times. Friendly competition works.
Do not give up
We had a period of about six weeks between handing our dissertation in and our final exams. During that period, a lot of people’s enthusiasm went MIA. Somehow, it seemed hard to keep motivated knowing we were almost at the finish line; I think the dissertation took a lot more out of us than we expected.
If you’re sitting there, wondering whether to revise or do something else, revise. You might honestly feel like you can’t be bothered or you’re so tired of university work right now, but don’t give up now. Once you’re finished, you will soon forget about feeling lethargic and will be proud of yourself. And if you do give up, you might have to resit exams or entire modules, and that’s just dragging things out further.
Do not give up and end up wishing you had tried harder when you see your results, it’s not worth it.
How to survive your third year project / dissertation
See your project / dissertation supervisor regularly
My project supervisor once joked that he quite looked forward to my daily emails and only sounded mildly sarcastic about it. If you want to get a good mark on your project / dissertation (whatever your university calls it) you best get to know your supervisor.
I met with my supervisor at least once a week and it was a really good way for me to keep myself on track. I knew that if he’d been too busy to get back to my emails, he could answer any questions I had in our meetings. It was a good way for me to learn more because we discussed things, fell down little rabbit holes, problem solved, and he pointed me in the right direction a lot. It also meant I couldn’t be lazy with my project because I’d want to get things done before our next meeting.
I have heard some horror stories from people on my course who had supervisors that weren’t that useful at all or who were impossible to book meetings with. I hit the jackpot and had a great supervisor. I did go through the list of projects and rule out lecturers I thought / knew would be hard to work with, so do that if you can.
As a forensic science student, contemporaneous notes were drilled into us from day one. Though, I’ll admit I didn’t really do it until I learned the hard way during write-ups in my second year when I had no idea what my random comments in my lab book meant. Never in my life have I wished so hard that time travel was real than when I was reading those notes.
Get a notebook you can use to write down all your thoughts, questions, results, notes from meetings, or anything to do with your project. Planning what you need to ask and find out, and writing a detailed answer about why will be really helpful when you come to writing up.
Start writing up from day one
Throughout the whole of my project, I had a working document that I regularly updated with my experimental, references I’d found, ideas for the discussion, and my introduction underwent many transformations as my understanding of my project improved.
If you start writing up right at the beginning, it will make your life a lot easier. I’m not saying you need to finish your introduction or literature review in the first week, but if you write down why you’re doing it, your hypothesis, and how you’re going to do it, that’s some groundwork laid already.
Tell your family, friends & anyone who will listen about it
I found that my family and friends (and even some of the customers at work) were really interested in what my project was about, and they would regularly ask me how it was going. Discussing and explaining my project to non-scientists was really helpful for me because they raised questions that I hadn’t thought of, and it meant I really got to know the topic well to be able to explain it to them. If you’re a fellow science student, you know that you can sometimes blag explaining something if you can hide behind scientific words but you really need to understand the topic if you’re explaining it to someone who doesn’t know much about it.
An additional bonus was that they kept me motivated because they wanted to know how it was going, and I felt bad when I had to say things weren’t going great or I’d not made much progress.
Get to know the lab techs / whoever is helping you
My project was based in a lab that was understaffed meaning the lab technicians were often a lot busier than they wanted to be. That said, they would always go out of their way to help students as much as they could. Obviously, they were not going to do work for you, but they would show you how to use machinery, help you find things, take you to restricted areas, get equipment if it was already in use.
For me, the lab technicians were godsends and not once did they make me feel stupid about asking what I thought was a stupid question, such as “how do I calibrate a pH meter?”. They were busy and stressed, I was busy and stressed, and it was good to talk and joke about that, and get to know them a little bit. Plus, we all know that people will go further out of their way to help people who are nice to them / they like.
To conclude, your third year requires you to actually start being organised and keeping yourself in check; but it’s also about being kind to yourself to prevent being so stressed you want to rip your own hair out, stick your fingers in your eyes, and hide under your bed. You’ve come this far, you’ll survive your third year, graduate, and feel proud of yourself, and you should do.
If you’re heading into your third year, I wanna know what you’re studying! Feel free to share any tips & ask questions in the comments.
Last Friday, I got the news I’d been impatiently refreshing my emails for; I have finished my forensic science degree with a first.
I’m not going to lie, I am pretty proud of myself. I started university about six years ago now and dropped out after a year and a half because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted. After three years out I realised I loved science and applied to go back pretty much exactly two years ago.
It was nerve-wracking taking a pay cut and starting a part-time job but that hasn’t been as hard as I feared. My part-time job introduced me to a group of people who feel like family to me now; I have made friends for life and I hate to think what my life would be like without them.
I have worked hard and I’ve had amazing support from Daz, my friends and family. University is not something you can do on your own, you need a little bit of help, whether it’s someone making dinner when you’re furiously typing away, asking a friend to quiz you for an exam, or trying to explain your ideas or thoughts to someone who doesn’t really know what you’re on about – a different perspective can so often pick up something obvious that you’ve missed. (I tell you, I could have cried when Daz pointed something really obvious out about my dissertation project that I had completely missed.)
By far, the dissertation was the biggest challenge but it taught me so much. That said, I had no idea how I’d done by the time I handed it in and was convinced that because it was a double module I’d sabotaged my shot at a first. You know what it’s like when you spend so long on something and you have no idea if it’s good or a load of rubbish anymore. I am over the moon with a first, and I had no intention of getting anything less than a first when I decided to go back.
Annoyingly, my university doesn’t do graduation until September (I have no idea why) so I won’t actually get to go to graduation. The idea of a graduation ceremony did make me feel pretty nervous but it also felt like a chance to celebrate hard work.
I guess the moral of this story is don’t let yourself hold yourself back; if you want something, go out there and get it. I think there might be a second moral which is; you don’t have to go to university right after 6th form or college, and it might not even be for you anyway – don’t listen to lecturers or teachers who tell you you have to or should go, it’s your life.
On Tuesday, I sat my final undergraduate exam (providing I haven’t miserably failed and have to resit, of course), which means I have completed my undergraduate degree.
I remember writing a post a couple of years back about me starting back at university and I can’t believe how fast those two years have gone. I’ve worked damn hard, racked up some government funded student debt (unlike my friend who’s managed to organise a student loan forgiveness scheme), and I have everything crossed for a first. I will be truly gutted if I get anything less than a first.
At the moment, I’m not really sure how I feel about it. I am relieved to be able to let my brain relax for a little while, for sure, but I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. I think part of that is because I am refusing to get excited until I see my dissertation results, and also because I can’t go to graduation. For some reason, my university does graduation in September which is of absolutely no use to anyone who is going on to further education elsewhere. I have no idea why, most other universities manage to hold graduation in July.
It feels almost surreal to look back on where I was two years ago; I was still working in marketing and had decided I needed to be out of it by the end of the year and wanted to go back to university. I was really nervous about applying to go back to university and was worried a university wouldn’t want to accept me because I’d dropped out after a year and a half. (Jokes, they just want your money ;).) I’m so glad that I took a deep breath and went for it because I love where I am right now.
This summer is shaping up to be a hectic one, but not before a much needed getaway for Daz and I. We’re both looking forward to escaping to campfires, cooking under the stars, falling in love with and dragging ourselves up mountains.
Last week, we got the news we’d be waiting on since the start of February; the University of Edinburgh made me an offer on the best masters course I’d found.
I cannot tell you how many times I have refreshed my emails over the past two months, or how many times I’ve logged into their applicant hub hoping to see an update. The stress and hassle of my current university who don’t seem to understand what an interim transcript is and my tutor and I having to make one because they’re so useless. The anxiety Daz and I have had, stressing about how close it was getting and all the things we need to do and we still don’t have a decision. It was all lifted. I could have cried; but I didn’t because I am not human.
Well, I say the stress was lifted. It was and it was quickly replaced with a load more stress and things that need sorting.
Daz and I spent a few days in Edinburgh towards the end of last year when they had a postgraduate open day and we both fell in love with the place. I love Scotland, I love Edinburgh and the university was everything I thought it would be and more. Some of the buildings look like they’re straight out of Hogwarts; which I guess they kinda are since J. K. Rowling was living in Edinburgh when she started writing the books.
The course is my dream course. Friends and family kept asking me if I’d applied anywhere else and I kept saying “no, because no where else does a course that is anywhere like this one. I have to get in because everything else seems pointless in comparison.” It was, of course, the most expensive course I could have applied for but the way I see it is that it would have been a waste of money doing a cheaper course because it wouldn’t get me where I want to be. The optional modules are all so exciting and I CAN DO A MODULE ON FORESTS! I cannot tell you how excited I am for that. I love forests.
Having lived in my hometown all my life, I’ve visited places and yearned to experience what it would be like to live somewhere else. Especially somewhere so fancy-looking, I mean Edinburgh has a huge castle on a hill (Ed Sheeran?) that is always in the corner of your eyes. What I also like about Edinburgh is that it isn’t so busy that it overwhelms me and stresses me out; though I’m told it will be completely different when the Fringe Festival is on.
I’m looking forward to living somewhere new but I am very comfortable where I am, as is Daz. The thing I am most nervous about is leaving my current job and finding a new one. I love the people I work with, it’s like a family. I am worried that wherever I end up working in Scotland (Hard Rock Cafe, I’m coming for you…goals) won’t feel quite the same.
Of course I will also miss my family and friends. There are plenty of ways for us to keep in touch though, and none of them appear remotely unhappy about the prospect of visiting us in Edinburgh.
It’s a really exciting next chapter that seems full of a lot of unknowns at the moment but I’m sure things will become clearer over the next few months. We’re also both seriously excited about getting to explore Scotland on our days off because it is all kinds of beautiful.
It sure is a weight off.
Any third year / former university student will know how good it feels to say “I handed my dissertation in.” To paraphrase about 80% of young adult books released a few years back, “when I handed it in, I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding in.” (Why did anyone thing that was a good phrase, seriously?!)
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the challenge; I reveled in it. I actually looked forward to writing my dissertation because if there is one thing I enjoy doing, it’s research and then writing 10,000 words about it. And also analysing where I messed up because I am always analysing where I messed up. Heck, I have had 24 years practice at consistently analysing everything I do, so I figured writing a dissertation would be pretty fun. And it was. I truly enjoyed it. I’m hoping all my hard work paid off because I honestly did my best. If there was something else I should have done I do not know what it was, so here’s hoping.
Even then, there were times I seriously felt it would be better to pay someone to write my essay instead of staying up at nights doing all the hard work myself. This was particularly true on days when I could not address my dissertation because of college and personal obligations. In fact, I did research a few professional services, which eventually helped couple of my classmates finish their papers on time. Thankfully, I did not need outside help.
Also, if anyone wants to know anything about nitrogen and pH of gravesoil, I am a walking-talking bank of knowledge about that stuff. I want to see it come up as a question on Pointless.
Writing my dissertation has taken up the majority of my time since the end of January really so it is nice to relieve the pressure a little and not feel guilty about having a day off and doing nothing. Hopefully, I will get that duvet day I was longing for a few weeks ago, but I doubt it will happen before May.
It’s not like I have nothing to do; I’ve got a couple of presentations to do, an exam to revise for, emails to check 300 times a day hoping a university has made a decision about my masters, and just be.
This week has been pretty relaxed so far. I have done a bit of university work but there’s not rush so I’m not putting pressure on myself and that’s pretty much how I want to rest of the semester to go. I’ve done a bit of reading too (hallelujah!); I’m currently reading Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide and the Secret to Saving the World by Kevin Bales; it is pretty horrifying and eye-opening, and I will definitely be doing a review or roundup of horrible facts I have learned as a result of reading it.
How has life been for you recently?
Hello, from the final semester of my undergraduate degree! Oh, that feels pretty good to say / type.
Exam season is over, and I feel very unnerved because I felt my exams went well. I did actually start revising early / when I should have / not three days before like last year, and I went into the exams feeling fairly confident. I am concerned that I finished an exam that was three hours long in just over and hour, but what’s done is done.
Why is it that whenever we feel we’ve done something well, we feel so unsure of ourselves? Like we’ve done something horrendously wrong, and slipped into an alternate universe where we actually know nothing and our brain tricks us? Thanks, brain.
For some reason, my university have given us this week off lectures. Maybe it’s to give people time to recover from exam stress? So I’m enjoying a week of not having a huge amount to do. I am going to do some project work though, prepare for semester two, write my personal statement and apply for some masters courses, marathon some more Game of Thrones with Daz, and read. Oh, to be able to read without feeling guilty about it! I cannot wait.
What have you been up to lately?