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University of Oxford: St. Edmund Hall Graduate Access Summer School

As some of those reading this may already know, both Lucy and I are working on research projects this summer within the Earth Science department at the University of Birmingham (read more about Lucy’s here). As a result, we were both invited to the St. Edmund Hall Graduate Access Summer School at the University of Oxford. To be quite honest with you, we both signed up in a quick spur of excitement at having seen the words “University of Oxford,” and then spent the next few days overthinking ourselves into a state of absolute dread about it. I wish I could explain why I had felt so much apprehension about spending just a few hours there, but I’m not entirely sure myself, looking back. I think it was a rough combination of Oxford’s reputation and its stereotypes, coupled with a bit of imposter syndrome on both of our parts!

The event was hosted by St. Edmund Hall, which is pretty much right in the centre of Oxford. The idea of the summer school was to introduce undergraduate students completing summer research projects in a range of STEM areas to postgraduate study at the University of Oxford. It was set up and run by a group of amazing PhD students from a range of departments across the university; they were all so friendly and willing to answer our questions and share their personal experiences of postgraduate study and the paths they took to get there.

When we arrived, we were directed to one of the college’s libraries to join a tour that was underway. While the stained glass and old book smell of the library was impressive, the following detour to the college cripts quickly made everyone forget about the library! And yes, they were really cripts, because who’s student halls doesn’t have cripts?

After a tour of a second library (two libraries, of course!), we settled down for the talks. Topics covered included; how the collegiate system works, what postgraduate study at Oxford is like, why we might want to (or not what to) do a PhD, and how funding works. I had really struggled to find clear information online about how funding is organised and secured for postgraduate degrees, so it was really valuable to finally get it all laid out clearly and in terms I could properly understand!

I think these talks started to settle both of our nerves. My personal favourite thing about the day was the emphasis speakers put on how you can get into postgraduate study from “non-traditional backgrounds.” One speaker did a comparison of his academic CV (containing all his degrees), and his “real CV” (with all the part time jobs he’d worked alongside his studies). This was so important because Oxbridge do actively advise against holding jobs during semesters, for undergraduate students at least, but for many it is a necessary part of getting yourself through a degree. To have someone think about the fact that information about part time work might be relevant for some people in the room, and sharing that it is possible, was reassuring.

A brief coffee break was followed by a session about how to get the most out of our summer research projects and other things that we could do to make ourselves more appealing as potential PhD candidates. There were about fifty students in attendance and each of us in turn had to stand up and sell our projects in sixty second flash talks. Lucy and I had been preparing for this all day; we had panicked about it on the train and recited them to one another time and time again. Honestly, I broke out in an anxious sweat every time anyone even mentioned these flash talks! But in the end there was nothing to worry about; listening to everyone’s research from across all areas of STEM was amazing; there were students doing work with black holes and cancer research and other areas of science that were completely over my head! We were two of only three Earth Sciences students there, and the only two to talk about palaeontology, but both of our talks went well (we think!).

We followed the flash talks with mock PhD interviews. Again we were nervous going in, but our minds were put at ease when it started. It was partly an interview, but partly an informal discussion about what a real PhD interview might be like; what to do and what not to do. We were asked generalised questions that could be used in any postgraduate interview and it was incredibly valuable to get immediate feedback on our answers and learn what interviewers might be looking for.

Free dinner was also a pretty good part of the day - would we even be university students if we didn’t talk about the free dinner (and the trip to the pub afterwards!). We left Oxford feeling so overwhelmingly glad that we went, despite all of the mortal dread we’d held beforehand! The day had put a lot of our stereotypes to rest, and in doing so opened up the world of Oxbridge to us both in a way it had never felt like it had been before. Events like these are so important for both prospective undergraduates and postgraduates, not just for the students who attend them, but also for the universities who host them: if a university wants the best and the brightest, why should it only be looking at only the wealthiest fraction of schools in the country?

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