The Educated Chemist: Sourcing the course
How do you decide which course is right for you? Yfke Hager helps you narrow down the options
BSc or MChem/MSci?
Bachelors degrees (BSc) typically take three years, while masters degrees (MChem or MSci) take four years and usually involve an independent research project. If you're unsure which to choose, don't worry: most universities allow transfers between BSc and MChem/MSci courses, usually up to the end of your second year.
Single or combined/joint honours?
Combined honours degrees - which teach chemistry alongside a complementary subject - can vary in the proportion of chemistry taught, so check course details carefully. It's also a myth that single honours chemistry degrees only teach you chemistry. 'Most universities offer opportunities to study other subjects as optional modules,' says Jeremy Hinks, undergraduate admissions and MChem placement tutor for the school of chemistry at the University of Southampton. Bear in mind that single honours degrees offer greater flexibility, as combined honours degrees can have less scope for optional modules, and may also be less likely to offer industrial placements.
Ultimately, the choice between a single or combined honours degree is one of intellectual preference. 'Choosing a combined honours degree should be based on a strong commitment to the second subject. If it will help you thrive intellectually, then it's the right choice for you,' Hinks says. Jonathan McMaster, admissions tutor for the school of chemistry at the
University of Nottingham, agrees. 'Both single and combined honours degrees will produce proficient chemists with crucial transferable skills,' he says, 'so the key consideration is whether you are enthusiastic about both chemistry and the complementary subject.'
Compile a shortlist of chemistry departments
- Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) website provides course details
- Apply for a UCAS card to receive information on higher education
- Visit the Research Assessment Exercise website to identify 5 and 5* rated departments
- University websites and prospectuses provide general course information, while departmental homepages have more detail
- Unistats offers information on entry requirements, job prospects, student satisfaction levels (results of the National Student Survey) and teaching quality
Visit the universities on your shortlist
Choosing a course is only part of the challenge; the university also has to be right for you. 'Don't forget that you'll live and study there for several years,' says McMaster. 'I would strongly encourage students to visit universities to see the laboratories and other facilities, and discuss the courses in more detail with the people who will be teaching them.' Consider attending university open days, higher education fairs, and the RSC's 'Meet the Universities' event.
Look for 'added value'
'Any chemistry department worth its salt should provide the opportunity to study abroad or do an industrial placement in the UK or overseas,' says Terence Kee, undergraduate admissions tutor for the school of chemistry at the University of Leeds. The transferable skills gained during such ventures are valuable to potential employers, he adds. Also look for opportunities to pursue independent research. 'As well as analysing undergraduate schools, students should consider postgraduate schools,' Hinks says.
'Depth and breadth in research in the postgraduate school correlates with the variety of opportunities available to students in the practical research and elective modules during their senior undergraduate years.'
Look for flexibility
'Find out if you have the opportunity to tailor your course,' McMaster suggests. 'Many courses will allow you to make decisions at the appropriate time,' Kee adds; for example, selecting a specialisation after your first or second year.
'Don't be shy - pick up the phone or send an email to an admissions tutor if you have any questions,' says McMaster. 'We're here to help.'
Finally, 'don't make any rash decisions,' Kee advises. 'Do your research, visit all the options you are seriously considering, then pick the one that appeals to you most.'
Key questions to ask
- How much flexibility does the course offer? Can you take optional modules, or even switch to another degree if desired?
- What are the opportunities for specialisation in senior years?
- How is the practical component of the course organised? How many hours per week will you spend at the bench, and how much opportunity is there for independent research?
- How will the course be assessed?
- Are there opportunities to study abroad or participate in industrial placements?
- What additional benefits can you expect - are transferable skills/subjects outside chemistry taught?
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