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Durham University


Isabelle Johnson

Why did you choose to study Chemistry at Durham University?

I had heard and read about Durham’s longstanding reputation as a world-class institution and, having visited the university during an Open Day and taken a tour of the Chemistry department, it really did become evident to me why Durham had such a fantastic status. I was simply blown away by the quality of the teaching and by the undergraduate laboratories, as well as by the diversity of the syllabus. The campus itself is also so lovely – as a result, I very quickly decided I that I could definitely see myself settling down to read my degree here.

I think also that, during your A-Level years, it really is hard to decide definitively what to study at university. The Natural Sciences program at Durham meant that, if I wanted to, I could diversify my degree and study some modules from different disciplines of Science – this was definitely a comfort and another significant reason why I knew I wanted to study at Durham.


What are your memories of the first few weeks as a newly arrived undergraduate student in Durham?

Before arriving at Durham, I had already spoken to a few people who were on the same course as me through ‘UCAS yougo’. So, whilst feeling completely out of my comfort zones, I at least knew a few friendly faces and had people to stumble through the Science Site with when we couldn’t find our lecture rooms! I remember feeling like university was completely how I had imagined it – I felt independent and like I was totally in charge of my own life for the first time. I didn’t feel alone or helpless at all, though - when everybody is in the same boat as you and is thrown into the deep end during the first few weeks of Fresher year, you all tend to stick together and I felt like I was part of a real community of students.

What is student life at Durham University like?

I have always said to friends at other universities that life as a student at Durham is unique, and completely different to anywhere else. I put this down mainly to the collegiate system, which makes the student community very tight-knit: the people you meet in college become like family for the rest of your time at university and, whenever you meet someone else from your college, an instant loyalty exists. Also, as the city center is really quite small and the student population so large, you really do find yourself living in a university ‘bubble’ – as a result a lot of events are held for us students around the campus!

However, it really is important to learn how to juggle academic commitments with everything else that occurs outside of studying - whilst ‘playing hard’ you also need to work hard and a real academic vibe exists here. The new Bill Bryson library is great for studying in though, and several hours of my week are spent here catching up on my lecture notes and reading around my subject.


What do you enjoy most about studying and living here?

For me, the collegiate system has been a fantastic part of my experience at Durham. The sense of community is overwhelming and you really do meet your friends for life in college - there is also great integration between international and British students and I have been fortunate enough to travel abroad on several occasions to visit international friends that I have made. The support system is great, too: college tutors and student reps are always around the corner and if you ever need help, there is always somebody on standby to help you manage. Aside from all this, there are also numerous college formals to look forward to during term-time, often with different themes – these are definitely social highlights of the year.

What is the student community and students' social life at Durham like?

Before coming to Durham, someone described the university to me as “like Oxbridge but with a pulse”, which I think sums up the student community quite well..! Despite all of the hard work that a degree requires, Durham really does cater for the social sides of its students and there is a whole range of societies to join – there is definitely something for everyone and I have found that it is also really easy to set up your own society if you want to share your hobbies with other people.

A number of clubs, bars and restaurants are also dotted around Durham, and everywhere is in walking distance from the university. Being a student city, club events are always being promoted too and I personally love Durham nightlife: it is always lively and you are almost certain to meet somebody else that you know in a club. However, if Durham doesn’t take your fancy then Newcastle is only 20 minutes away on the train and guaranteed to be a fun night out.

What was your biggest challenge and your greatest success in your time at Durham so far?

I like to think that my greatest success so far at Durham was the writing of my dissertation. This was the first instance whereby I could comprehensively research an area of Chemistry that greatly interested me, and which I could tailor to suit my own interests. Having had great success with my dissertation I am now undertaking a fourth-year project in the same area of science. I think completion of my dissertation was also the first moment where I could actually picture myself pursuing a career in the sciences, and it was inspiring to feel like I might have actually found my ‘niche’ in the field of Chemistry.

Admittedly I think my biggest challenge was getting used to working in a laboratory, after finishing a Chemistry A-Level that did not develop practical skills anywhere near the caliber that you learn at university. I remember reading that I was going to perform a ‘vacuum filtration’ in my first laboratory rotation and I was absolutely terrified – looking back now though I realize that I had no reason to be so nervous, labs have always been a great laugh and since fresher year I have done countless vacuum filtrations!

What are your career plans and goals for the future?

Even though I am currently undertaking the final year of my degree, I still have no clue what I will do after I graduate! However I know that so many people on my course are in the same boat as me, and that the university Careers Service will be so useful in helping me to explore graduate opportunities further along the line. Given the support that I know I have from the university, I do not feel the need to rush into a career path for the sake of making a decision – for now, though, I feel inspired to continue down the scientific route, and see where it will take me in years to come.

How will a Durham Chemistry degree help you achieve these goals?

The skills and lessons that you learn at university are transferrable to so many domains of professional life and I am confident that, whatever career path I follow, my skill set from studying Chemistry at Durham will be of huge advantage and application.

A Chemistry degree covers much more than practical laboratory work: problem solving, communication and the ability to work as part of a team also lie at the center of this subject. A Durham degree is also internationally recognized and I know that a qualification from such a respected university will be a great stepping stone in securing the future success that I have my mind set on.

Is there any advice you'd give to other students thinking about doing Chemistry at Durham?

I attended a very small state Sixth Form in the suburbs of Nottingham and upon first coming to university I was blown completely out of my comfort zones by the fact that everybody at Durham is very bright indeed: I could no longer stand out academically from a crowd! The advice that I would give to someone applying to study Chemistry at Durham therefore is that when you get here, remember that it doesn’t matter who did better at what A-Levels or where you came from, because everybody starts fresh with a blank page and nobody has an advantage over anyone else.