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.[^1]

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.”

[^1]: I don’t recommend this to current undergraduates: it will come back to haunt you in final year vivas.

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.[^req] 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[^NK] 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 to say the least and they were, to put it bluntly, idiots. They were awful to live with—never paying rent and bills on time, never cleaning up after themselves—and a big argument with them resulted in the house becoming a terrible place to live. I believe they moved into a flat together the following year then split up midway through the tenancy. I’m not surprised.

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.

*[PCM]: per calendar month

[^req]: “We’re looking for a one bed flat—no studios—for £1000 PCM, furnished, a bit of space, just nice, not grotty. No mice. … Yes, that is our maximum budget.”

[^NK]: North Kensington is nothing like South Kensington — more the complete opposite. West Kensington is alright. East Kensington doesn’t exist.