How I beat the second year blues

I’m not sure why, but I thought I would never suffer from the second year PhD blues. Despite it taking me about two years of work (including part of my MRes) to get decent results, I remained positive. Last November, I started to get particularly exciting results and it laid out a clear path to the end of my doctorate.

But a few months ago, my reactions stopped working. Endless repeat reactions and tweaks were unsuccessful; I wanted to quit. The second year blues had found me and hit me hard.

In the last few weeks I’ve managed to get everything back on track. In fact the failed reactions might have shed some light on why the reaction works so well in the first place.

For anyone else in a similar position, I think it’s most important to stay motivated. I adopted a strategy of working on my main project and easier side projects on alternate days.

I think this has several benefits. By breaking up the disappointing results with easier work, I feel happier. Dealing with negative results for weeks on end was too much for me to handle.

I maintain momentum with side projects—something I struggled with before. I see side projects as backup publications, in case my main project goes down the drain. The time I spend not thinking about the main project helps me approach it with a fresh perspective too.

I find it helpful to tell people, like my supervisor and friends, whether I’m having a “main project day” or “side project day”. This stops me taking a risk of two consecutive days on the same project.

I recommend this strategy to any struggling students. There’s no point in slogging along, miserable. At least until I submit my thesis, it’s how I will work.

No funding, no placement

Today the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published Elitist Britain?, a report on social mobility in the UK. The conclusions aren’t surprising. Numerous outlets have covered it (e.g. BBC, Guardian).

Careers in the media, politics and law are often singled out as being tough to crack unless you’re from a privileged background. What about science? A search for “science” in the report returns zero hits. It’s interesting that it’s not mentioned.

Every summer, departments at Imperial host students on the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme, my department included. I’m sure other universities run similar things. There are bursaries for living costs but competition is tough. In roughly five years I’ve yet to come across a recipient. So really they are unpaid internships, no different to those that are criticised in industries like the press or fashion. Only the offspring of the rich can afford to work for free, especially in London.

In 2009 I applied for a college bursary but I was unsuccessful. I thought it was game over, as I worked full time every holiday to pay off debts that accumulated during term time (when I only worked part time). But the principal investigator generously paid me to do the project anyway, for which I’m still very grateful. I think this is quite rare.

If I had not completed the placement would I have been accepted onto my fully-funded PhD programme? I don’t know. Is it fair that only the wealthiest students can afford to undertake placements and gain valuable research experience? No. If I were a PI, I would not employ unpaid students in my lab, even though I’d be losing out on free labour. Considering the gulf between the richest and poorest and lack of social mobility in the UK, I think a policy of “no funding, no placement” is well overdue.

Chem Coach Carnival

Here’s my very late contribution to See Arr Oh’s Chem Coach Carnival. The hashtag is #ChemCoach on Twitter.

Your current job.

I’m a PhD student at the Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London. I make metal nanoparticles of various shapes and sizes using flow reactors. Other researchers want them for use in organic electronic devices.

What you do in a standard “work day.”

Upon arriving at uni I immediately go for a shower because I cycle rather than take the tube. Riding my bike keeps me sane. Next thing: coffee.

After that I sit down and plan my day, most of which is spent in the lab. For my own research that involves analysing data, planning/doing reactions, ordering supplies/equipment, programming, building home-made equipment, doing electron microscopy, writing…

My work is very varied and I like it like that. I’m in a small group so everyone has to muck in and learn how to do lots of different things. Nothing is simply delegated to someone else. I think my work probably borders on chemical engineering/process chemistry.

I spent most of Friday running some preliminary tests on a new flow reactor. I also took delivery of a new optical microscope, then helped get rid of an old server rack because we’ve recently got a new optics table and need to make some space. After clearing up the mess I made in the lab I helped out our undergrad student with some MATLAB code.

I also spend one afternoon a week demonstrating for third year undergraduate physical chemistry labs. Teaching is fun, but sometimes very frustrating.

What kind of schooling/training/experience helped you get there?

I went to a comprehensive state school and sixth form before to Imperial for my undergraduate chemistry degree, where I’m now doing my PhD.

During my undergrad I did a summer placement with another group at Imperial, very generously funded by the supervisor. That confirmed for me that I wanted to do a PhD. I strongly recommend that students interested in a PhD do a summer placement.

I’ve also had a lot of non-chemistry part time jobs, mostly in bookshops. I’d like to think that’s given me a good try-anything, get-on-with-it attitude.

How does chemistry inform your work?

It doesn’t so much inform my work as form the core of it. It’s no good if I build the finest flow reactor in the world but my reaction doesn’t work.

I love running reactions, especially anything with a nice colour change. It’s so exciting when it works (and totally makes up for all the times it doesn’t). This Abstruse Goose comic sums up my feelings perfectly.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career.

Not funny, but I’m fairly sure I’m the only person to have ever modified an Argos mini oven to make silver nanoparticles.

Noise annoys (or why you should keep it down in the office)

Back in January the New York Times published a piece by Susan Cain titled “The Rise of the New Groupthink” in anticipation of her new book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. I remember reading it at the time and thinking “that’s me! I’m not alone!”. I haven’t read her book yet, but, from the reviews I’ve read and her NYT piece, I believe the gist of her argument is that extroverts have taken over the world, much to the detriment of introverts. In addition, extroversion and introversion have lost their meaning as descriptions of personality and become laden with the value judgements “good” and “bad” respectively.

“The new groupthink” is my worst nightmare. For as long as I can remember, from primary school to university, I have despised being needlessly coerced into group work when I would have much preferred to work alone. Research has shown that you are more creative with privacy and in solitude. Simply, I’d rather work autonomously, alone. I work in a group now—two post-docs, another PhD student and a couple of exchange students—but we work on independently on our own closely-linked projects, whilst sharing ideas, helping and asking each other for advice. When I need to make a major decision, or am unsure which option to take, I speak to my supervisor. I’m really happy with this arrangement; I value my freedom and independence.

Whilst I have a lot academic freedom, I feel trapped in my office. Another story published this weekend, also in the NYT, covered the growing disquiet and discontent with the ubiquitous open plan office.

Aside from saving money on rent, the rationale behind the open plan office was to increase communication, collaboration and innovation. In a university, especially one like mine in the middle of a major city, space is at premium so everyone gets crammed in an open office.

However research mentioned in the article shows that workers in open plan offices suffer because they have little privacy and lots of noise. Speech noise is especially bad because it is directly understood by the brain and disrupts one’s focus from the task at hand. Introverts are affected more than extroverts. Extroverts—the noisemakers—don’t care. They simply can’t comprehend introversion.

Before I started my PhD I was excited about getting my own desk. There is nowhere quiet to work on campus. Wherever you go, there will be someone making a racket, even in “silent areas”. The library is packed and full of people talking and the computer rooms in my department are often louder than the cafe next door. So I thought my desk would be a chance to get some quiet.

Unfortunately my desk is no better. It’s right by the office kitchen area, where, for at least three hours a day, people from the surrounding offices drop by for breaks and lunch and make a lot of noise in the process. Furthermore, I’m near the entrance walkway, so everyone can see what I’m doing and often can’t help but comment on it.

One person in the NYT story said that “headphones are the new wall”. I wish! I can only work to music for so many hours a day before my brain turns to mush (I can program but generally not read to music) and my in-ear passive headphones don’t drown out background noise without being uncomfortably loud. I’ve even tried listening to white, pink and brown noise, but it doesn’t work.

Up until recently, I was writing a review and so spent most of my day at my desk. I found it rather stressful and impossible to concentrate. Fortunately, I’m back in the lab a lot (drone of the fume hoods or 6music on the radio—equally good), but it’s still a pain trying to work at my desk.

I’ve no idea what to do about the situation. Asking people to be quiet will give me a reputation for being grumpy. Moving to another office would be rubbish, as I’d be away from my group and labs. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to put up with it. Reading the aforementioned articles has made me realise I’m not alone in hating my open plan office and that introversion is perfectly normal. But it has also reinforced my view that I should be able to work in peace and others should be a bit more considerate.

First conference: any advice?

On Monday I’m going to my first conference! It’s titled Continuous Flow Technology in Industry (more detailed information here if you’re interested). I’m not presenting anything, just attending.

I came across it on a Royal Society of Chemistry mailing list and thought it’d be good as it’s quite closely related to my group’s work (four of us are going). It’s relatively small in size (no parallel sessions) so I thought it’d be a reasonable choice of first conference. I hope to pick up some ideas that will help solve a few particular problems in my own work.

I’ve been wondering whether there’s anything I should do in preparation. I’ve consulted my trusty guide The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research but, aside from networking (which I’m fairly happy about), it doesn’t have that much to say on the topic unless you’re presenting.

I’ve looked up all the speakers to have a quick look at what they do, but the majority of them are from industry so they don’t have a web page summarising their work like most academics. I’ve got myself some Imperial-branded business cards.

I’m unsure whether to take my laptop. I’m leaning towards no, as I think it’s a bit rude to sit typing away (and it won’t do my hands any good either). I could always read a couple of papers if a particular speaker is really that bad.

Does anyone have any advice? Please let me know in the comments.

Burnout

Long time, no blog. The run up to Christmas was rather hectic because of my research proposal and literature review. This in itself wasn’t a problem—I enjoy reading and writing—but it was that my RSI stopped me from using my computer.

Throughout most of my undergraduate degree I remember having mild discomfort in my arms from typing, mostly because I had a job on Saturdays which meant I had spend the whole of Sunday writing lab reports. It was fairly bad while I was writing up my undergraduate project and then over the summer with temporary work that involved a lot of typing. Unfortunately my literature review caused it to evolve into a chronic and excruciatingly painful condition.

Thankfully I’m now on the mend. I spoke to Occupational Health and I’ve now got a new chair that works properly. Through a GP I’ve got physiotherapy every week, which seems crazy as you normally associate it with sports injuries or something you have after a major operation—not typing! I’ve also got a Kinesis Advantage keyboard. Ugly and expensive, but so comfortable to type on.

Reading that I was at risk of permanent disability made me realise I need to start taking care of myself.[^RSIbook] In the past, I worked and worked and worked. Lab reports had to be finished, lectures had to be revised and money had to be earned. I ignored my body to the point where I ended up in A&E in 2010 with suspected appendicitis (turned out it was probably a stomach ulcer).

With hindsight it was unsustainable. I’m under much less pressure now, perhaps because I’m driven by a desire to work on something I really enjoy rather than a pressure to manage a huge workload set by the department. But I can see how it could happen again.

To prevent it, I’ve issued myself with a rather plain prescription of exercise, less booze and a healthier diet. It seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget that work isn’t the be all end all and neglect your well-being. As my supervisor pointed out, you’re no good to anyone if you’re so knackered you can’t work.

[^RSIbook]: From Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User’s Guide by Emil Pascarelli and Deborah Quilter. I highly recommend it. Also check out Matt Might’s article on handling repetitive strain injury.

The start of a real education? Differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study

A friend who is considering a PhD at Imperial recently asked me what I thought were the key differences between being an undergraduate and a PhD student. We had a good chat over a cup of tea about it and I thought I’d share my thoughts here as I’m sure other people considering a PhD are wondering the same thing. I’m only seven weeks in but this is what I reckon so far.

You no longer learn for the sake of doing well in exams

I feel that I’m now under much less pressure to assimilate information. As an undergraduate, my sole aim was to cram everything I needed to know into my head for the exam. Post-exam, I forgot nearly everything.

I feel that I rarely ever appreciated the subtleties of a reaction mechanism or generally knew why something was the case (unless I was especially enthusiastic about the topic). Since it probably wouldn’t get me any extra marks, there wasn’t any point spending the time learning details.

Furthermore, as an undergraduate I never had the opportunity to explore anything in depth because the sheer volume of information I needed to know was already overwhelming. Now I can read the literature and listen to lectures or presentations without thinking “what do I need to know for the exam?”. It’s quite liberating. Reading literature is a now a pleasure.

Work is now endless

As an undergraduate everything you need to do is a discrete, self-contained project with a specific start and end. You get given most of the information you need and usually you can find answers in the literature. Once you’ve done everything you need to do, you forget about it and move on to the next lab report or problem sheet…

As a postgraduate this isn’t the case. You’re meant to be finding out new things that no one else knows or has done before. There isn’t a definitive start and end; you don’t know what you’ll find or how long it’ll take. ‘Answers’ don’t exist yet.

I love that I’m doing things that no one else has tried before, but it’s also slightly scary and a little overwhelming. You have to decide what is the best problem to tackle. I don’t really know how long things should take, so sometimes I worry I’m not making progress fast enough, but I think I’ll get used to this eventually.

No one will tell you how to do your PhD

My supervisor gave me a couple of papers and basically said “make these nanoparticles”. If you don’t know what to do, you have to sort it out as no one else knows. If someone else does know, then your work might not be that original.

I think this is the biggest change from being an undergraduate and I know a couple of people who seem to struggle with this. They aren’t used to being so independent and I think they really want their supervisors to give them specific instructions rather than guidance and a general prod in a particular direction.

Miscellaneous perks

You get a desk so you no longer have to work in undergraduate work areas and access to a kettle, microwave and fridge means you can avoid overpriced, depressing campus food. You get access to the senior common room (insanely cheap cooked breakfast) and PG bar where you can drink too much and embarrass yourself in front of your supervisor and other staff. Not that I’m speaking from experience.

Managing your research budget means you can buy things like a new Mac Mini and a enormous display! I’ve also been helping in a undergraduate quantum mechanics workshop and will hopefully start demonstrating in physical chemistry labs soon—extra money and valuable teaching experience. Soon I’ll get to go abroad to conferences and I’ve looked after a visitor from my previous supervisor’s group at ETH Zürich already.

Do I recommend it?

Definitely. I’m under no illusion that my PhD is going to be easy. I’ve been working hard the last few weeks and I think it’ll get tougher over the next few years. Undoubtedly I could earn more in a ‘proper’ job, but I really enjoy it so it’s all worthwhile

If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.

Update (27 November 2011): Inspired by David Smith’s tweet I changed the title from “Undergraduate/postgraduate differences” to “The start of a real education? Differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study.”

Book Review: The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research

On Monday I start my PhD! I’m very excited. It has been great to relax over the summer but I’m keen to get back and make a start. It’s the first summer since I left secondary school that I haven’t been working full time in a bookshop (although last year I did a UROP placement at Imperial rather than sell books, so that’s not really work). Admittedly I have ended up a little bit further into my overdraft than I had hoped but I think I deserve a break after working so hard last year. It’s not really a problem anyway because of my PhD stipend. It still hasn’t sunk in that I’ll be paid actual money to do science!

I’ve taken advantage of my temporary freedom to read lots of books and reduce the size of my “to read” pile (you can see what I’ve been reading on my Goodreads profile). Earlier this summer Erika Cule blogged about a book called The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg. To be honest, I’ve always raised an eyebrow at educational guides like this and held a rather derisive view of self-help books in general; I hated maintaining the self-help section at work. However Erika’s post intrigued me and the Amazon reviews were good so I put my presumptions aside and ordered it. I’ve just finished it and I thought I’d write a short review. I haven’t written a book review in years but I’ll do my best!

Overall I thought it was great. It’s a light-hearted read and written in an informal, friendly tone. The blurb pitches the book as a guide to a the “whole PhD process” and I think—as far as I can tell anyway, considering I haven’t actually started yet—it achieves that. In the introduction the authors recommend you read the whole thing through once and then consult the appropriate chapters when needed.

Petre and Rugg write that the process of a PhD is a lot like making a fine cabinet. You, the apprentice, have to learn lots of skills and demonstrate them in your grand masterpiece—your dissertation—to prove that you are worthy to become a master cabinet maker. The whole cabinet is then inspected thoroughly by experts in a viva and they decide if you pass or fail.

The book is split up into chapters describing particular aspects of a PhD. Some are quite general, such as advice for supervisor-advisee relationships and becoming an independent researcher, whereas others a lot more specific, for example what you should do at a conference.

I particularly liked the chapters on the different types of academic paper and designing research, which will be very helpful when I write my research proposal and/or plan in the next few months. Writing and presentations are covered too. Petre and Rugg regularly point out the opportunities in things that seem to be an inconvenience or waste of time and say that one should to take care when considering fighting “The System” because it’s peculiar ways might just be peculiar for a good reason.

The chapter on reading was good too. You can get away with relatively little reading as an undergraduate but not as a postgraduate. I think I read a lot more papers than a typical undergraduate as I prefer to learn by reading rather than listening in lectures, so I think I’ll be fine with the hour a day they recommend. A couple of tips I liked were to maintain an annotated core bibliography of around a 100 papers and to make sure you read papers that are not just specific to your area but also more general to your discipline.

Academia seems a lot like a mysterious “clan” with the PhD being a prolonged admissions procedure. The chapters on reputations and habits point out potential pitfalls—the rules of the playground, if you like. Where the real science happens, beyond the walls of teaching labs and undergraduate computer rooms, has always seemed rather mysterious. After reading Petre and Rugg’s book I feel a little more enlightened and aware of the social aspects of scientific enterprise. I feel better prepared now than prior to reading the book. Overall I would highly recommend The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research to anyone about to embark on a PhD (or anyone has already started). After reading it through just once I feel quite confident that this will be an indispensable reference for many years.

Searching For Yet Another Home

It’s that time of year again — looking for somewhere to live, traipsing around south west London stopping in every letting agent to give my well-rehearsed spiel of requirements. I’ve been dreading the search for quite some time. Reading Money Saving Expert’s advice to tenants is most definitely bad for my health; I leave my computer a wreck, paranoid that every landlord and letting agent is out to rip me off.

This will be fifth “home” in as many years. My halls were in Hammersmith, which was quite good as there were lots of bars and pubs and good night bus routes. Most of Imperial’s halls were in South Kensington, which I think is rubbish as you there’s nothing you can afford or would want to do — Boujis is not my idea of a good night out. Halls went downhill in the summer term when a noisy exchange student and about ten of his friends moved in next door and cockroaches infested our flat. It didn’t help that he never used a plate when eating.

In my second year I lived with a couple of friends in a nice three bed terraced house with a garden in Putney. Well, not Putney, more like Roehampton, and the commute was the entire 430 bus route. My room was tiny but I liked living there until new neighbours moved in and installed an incinerator in their garden. This filled our house with smoke every day.

Third year was the worst. My friends and I agreed to find a house with an additional friend and his girlfriend. We struggled to find a five bed house so settled on a four bed in North Kensington with the lounge as the fifth bedroom. I wasn’t happy about it and in hindsight it was a very bad decision. The house was filthy and full of miscellaneous rubbish from previous tenants, but seemed nice at the time because all the other places we viewed were so awful. The couple’s relationship was rocky. A big argument with them resulted in the house becoming a terrible place to live.

I found someone to take my room for the last month of the tenancy and moved into a one bed flat in West Kensington/Brompton with my girlfriend for my final year. It was a great decision to move in together. It was a 30 minute walk to Imperial, spacious and nice inside, but like all the other places it had its problems. It was on a very noisy road where drunks and wannabe gangsters loitered. Attached to the outside of our bedroom wall was a air conditioning unit for the shop downstairs that ran all night long. You couldn’t open any windows because of the noise. The neighbours also played bangra late into the night, every night. When the music stopped, we could hear mice squeaking and scurrying around in the bedroom walls and under the kitchen cupboards. We moved out at the end of the year and have spent the summer at our parents’ houses, which has been good but difficult at times.

So now we’re looking for another flat in Wandsworth. Since it isn’t in central London it’s a lot cheaper and for the first time ever letting agents are telling us that we have a good budget and should be able to find somewhere nice! We were even asked what kind of flat we wanted — Victorian conversion, purpose-built… As long as it’s bricks and mortar I don’t really care! Unfortunately the market moves very quickly and properties are on the market, viewed and let in the same day, so I’m phoning agents everyday to try and make viewings. I hope that we won’t have to move again for at least a couple of years.

My PhD stipend will mean that, for the first time in the last four years, I’ll be in a relatively good financial position. I’ve always worked part time to support myself and at times money worries caused me a lot of stress. Rent is still eye-wateringly expensive and I wonder how anyone on an average income can afford to live in London, especially with rising living costs.

In the past year there has been a lot of controversy over the government’s decision to increase the cap on tuition fees to £9000 a year. If I was going to university this September I would be a lot more worried about living costs rather than the £9000 tuition fees. Finding reasonably priced accommodation in London is really difficult — my maintenance loan only just covered my rent. It deeply concerns me that Imperial keeps building luxury halls that cost around £220 per week! This is blatantly to encourage wealthy international students, who pay higher fees than home students, to come to Imperial. Thankfully, the new union president, Scott Heath, has made it one of his priorities to keep accommodation costs down but I’m sceptical as to how much any sabbatical can achieve in a year. He was interviewed in a recent Guardian article about student debt and my position and experiences were very similar. I hope something will be done to help students like myself who aren’t from poor enough families to receive significant bursaries but not wealthy enough to be supported by their parents.

Update (25th August 2011): We got a flat! We had to make a few compromises, but it’s really nicely decorated. Pleased and relieved it has been sorted relatively quickly.

“I’ll just memorise it for the exam”

Back in May, I read a blog post by Nick Morris titled Do students need to know facts or do they just need to know how to interpret them? in which he wrote that if students don’t need to know the facts, but instead only understand them, then there needs to be a major change in teaching and subsequent assessment at university. I intended to write a response but never really got round to it. A recent post by The Curious Wavefunction, On Chemistry’s Multiple Cultures, got me thinking about it all again.

At the time of Nick’s post I had just finished my last ever set of written exams, but morale was not exactly high as our research project reports were due in couple of weeks and then we had viva voce exams (covering years 1-3 of our degree…). It occurred to me that throughout the whole of my degree I have had to endlessly memorise facts in order to be successful in exams. Why?

Some memorisation is necessary because every scientist needs to know the foundations of their discipline. Memorisation should be restricted to the foundations. All chemists, for example, need to know all of the functional groups. However memorising facts, in my experience, isn’t confined to the foundations. I’ve been expected to memorise trivial details of advanced courses that are forgotten as soon as the exam is over. For example, in one course I was required to memorise the half-lives, precursors and corresponding nuclear reactions of radioactive isotopes used in positron emission topography and write them down when proposing synthetic routes to molecules. Yes, the half-life is important, but why are marks wasted on these details when they could be provided in the exam. The marks should be used to assess understanding, not the ability to memorise numbers.

Another course wholly consisted of memorising reactions in the presence and absence of ultrasound or microwaves, and then writing them down in the exam. Third and fourth years, who have mastered the foundations, should study advanced material by looking at the patterns and trends. They should be thinking, understanding and reasoning, not memorising.

In my final year I spent the majority of my time working on my research project. Memorisation was of no use to me then—what good is the ability to memorise when “the facts” are not yet known? I’ve seen friends who ace exams because they can memorise derivations and reaction conditions fail miserably in the lab because they can’t work out what to do when things don’t go quite as the textbooks would suggest. One friend used to memorise whole derivations for exams, even though he didn’t understand them. Far too much emphasis is placed on an undergraduate’s ability to memorise rather than think, considering the former is, in my limited experience, of little use in research and to employers.

I think there are three reasons why some courses require the memorisation of an extraordinary amount of information.

Firstly, I think a minority of lecturers simply don’t realise how much they are asking their students to learn. They are the experts in their field who have spent years working on a specific area and know it inside out. Without realising, they expect their students to know the same facts they do. I think the majority of “bad” lecturers fall in to this category.

Secondly, it makes assessment straightforward. It’s easy to assess a student if you ask them to write down a reaction or fill in the product of a given set of reagents and conditions. When students complain about or do badly on an exam question, examiners can say, and have said, in exam feedback that “it was in the notes”.

Thirdly, I think an even smaller minority of lecturers are bitter and don’t want to change things because they had to memorise everything and so should we. Once a lecturer asked us how we would improve our course and commented that there are some members of staff who, if they had their own way, would have the course exactly the same as it was 30 years ago. This is not good; we do not live in the 1980s.

I want to emphasise that the vast majority of my lectures have been good, and a few have been truly awesome, but I think assessment methods need to change. Students need to be assessed on what they understand and how they think rather than what they have memorised for the exam. “I’ll just memorise it for the exam” was a phrase heard far too often in my department.

One final year lecture course, “Green Solvents”, was outstanding and is definitely up there in my top five courses of all time. I feel like I learnt more in those eight lectures than any other course throughout my whole degree. Before each lecture we were given one or two fairly lengthy reviews to read, which we then discussed in the following lecture. Not only did we learn about green solvents, we learnt about science as a process and how to read papers more critically. Even if I were to never look at green solvents ever again, the course was still worthwhile. For assessment, rather than a traditional written exam, we had to write an essay assessing a paper of our choice that claimed to have “greened” an industrial process. It was much more enjoyable and stimulating than the brain-numbing and soul-destroying revision for all the other exams I took. We need more courses like this that require thinking rather than regurgitation.

The Curious Wavefunction’s post On Chemistry’s Multiple Cultures made me think that the segregation between chemists starts as undergraduate. I didn’t take many organic courses because I’m rubbish at learning all the reaction conditions, reagents and solvents which score you a lot of marks in the exam. Friends who struggle with equations and maths hate physical chemistry. They’ll then go on to be an “x” chemist who hates “y” and won’t have anything to do with it. Surely this is bad for chemistry as a whole? Perhaps if assessment methods changed so that they tested understanding rather than trivial details, students wouldn’t specialise so early and neglect whole swathes of their discipline.