Returning to University | Top Tips

What’s it like returning to university for the STP?

The STP is a blended program of academic study towards an MSc Clinical Sciences and hands on work, designed to teach you the theory behind your job and how to do it at the same time, as well as developing you into a well rounded clinical scientist. 

One of my favourite things about the STP is the huge range of backgrounds people have. With regards to university some STPs will come from undergraduate study, others will come from PhDs and some will come after being away from formal education for a long time. As individuals, some come with families, others with long term health problems, others move cross country to study on the STP, but what everyone brings is their unique experience and knowledge.  This creates quite a mix of people with different skills, commitments and fears about undertaking postgraduate study at university. 

I studied my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees whilst working, so the idea of the STP being blended was exciting. If you’re coming from full time work, getting back into the swing of studying might seem like a daunting task but the idea of full time work can be a really scary prospect for people who’ve come straight from academia. These tips are some things I did and others I wish I’d thought about before returning to uni for the STP.

Rediscover your learning style 

Returning after time away or even just learning as an adult might be something you’ve not done for a long time. Knowing how you learn will help to guide what steps you need to take to make sure your time at university is well spent and you come out of it with the information you need to complete assignments and exams.

Some of us are visual learners, some listeners, some learn by reading, writing or doing (kinesthetic). In reality, we’re all probably a mix and your style will depend on lots of things. Your style might have changed from when you first attended university or were at school, so don’t worry if the things that worked before don’t now, you’ll find your new style. 

Before you head to university for the first time, have a think about the way or ways you enjoy learning the most. If you find sitting in lectures and listening is the way you learn, fab! Some universities might record lectures so you can listen to them later. I’ve found this can be a bit hit and miss, so if this is important to you, you might want to find a way to record them yourself. Some people like to have slides printed out to write on and your university’s library can be a good place to print things. If you prefer electronic slides, you might research tools to let you comment and draw on slides during lectures and think about what laptop or tablet you might take with you to lectures. For all the people who learn by doing, you’ll get a chance to practice what you learn by group work and presentations at uni, carrying out your job in the workplace and from completing your competencies. 

I think at the end of this, being prepared is a good idea. I went to my first year of university full of excitement and enthusiasm, but little idea on what would work best for me in terms of note taking during lectures and it would have been helpful to have had more notes when it came to my assignments and exams. 

Assignments 

Finding what style/s suits you best and getting into the practice of good note taking will help you ensure you’ve got enough information for revision and assignment writing. When it comes to writing assignments, it might help you to think about what sort of writer you are as well. 

Creme and Lea (1997) identified four types of writers. You might think of yourself as one type or as a combination:

  • The diver writer: The diver leaps straight in and starts the writing process early on, in order to find out what they want to say. The diver starts anywhere to see what emerges, before working towards a plan.
  • The patchwork writer: The writer works on sections (perhaps using headings) quite early in the process, and combines with linking ideas and words later.
  • The grand plan writer: This person reads and makes notes, and leaves writing a plan or beginning writing until they have an almost complete picture of the essay ready in their head
  • The architect writer: The architect has a sense of the structure (perhaps before the content) and could produce a complex plan or spider diagram early in the process

Sometimes starting an assignment when you’ve not written one for years (or even just months!) can be really challenging and seem like a huge task.  Start with a plan of your assessment structure. I find the marking scheme for an assignment and use that to help structure my writing. This also helps to split a seemingly huge assignment into manageable chunks. Even just typing out some bullet point ideas can be the start of an assignment and can make it a lot less of a daunting task.  

Your assignments are going to need some literature searching as well. When I get an assignment to write, I tend to do this part second. Reading others opinions and research on a topic can help you to form your arguments, pick a relevant and current topic and update your plan. You might find yourself in a rabbit hole of literature though so be careful! 

Now you’ve got your plan and your arguments, it’s time to think critically. Don’t be afraid to call out poor or incomplete research. Examine their methods, do their conclusions match their results? What inconsistencies can you find? Are their claims supported by evidence?

Finally, check your deadlines. For me,  I like to start things way in advance but others find the pressure of a looming deadline can make them more productive. Whichever you are, submitting assignments past deadline dates without prior approval from your university usually results in a percentage of your marks being knocked off so it’s good to be mindful. 

Exam preparation

Your first stop on the express journey to passing your exams might be to make another plan! Revision can seem like another daunting task, but procrastinating until you don’t have enough time to comfortably prepare will not help your nerves (and may potentially harm your grades).  Create a revision plan that works for you and is achievable based on your learning style, timeline and other commitments. Spreading your revision into short bursts instead of extended periods of work might be more achievable and definitely kinder.  Thinking about the parts of the exam you’re least confident in can help you focus your time as well.   

This could be a good time to create a local or remote study group with others in your specialism or Trust. Studying together can make you more accountable, makes it easier to  find gaps in what you know, reinforces the essential stuff and you can compare revision notes. Explaining a topic to someone else can reinforce your learning and highlight areas you might need to improve your understanding and sharing and explaining topics with your peers can strengthen everyone’s understanding. 

Your university will hopefully provide you with past papers from previous years. This will get you familiar with the layout of the exam, the structure and style of the questions and can give you an idea of how you’ll need to split your time. It’s good to get clued up about what your university does and doesn’t allow during exams. Can you bring food and water into the exam? Do you need to bring any identification with you? Which calculators are allowed? Find out what the layout of the room is going to be like and plan how you’ll get there.  All this information can reduce pre exam anxiety.

Creating a space to study 

So now you’re back home from uni, with some assignments and an exam to prepare for. It’s a fine time to create a space to study and figure out how to fit your academic work into your service work! As well as re-discovering your learning style, it’s good to know when you work best. Are you a morning lark or a night owl? How can you work this to your advantage for studying? What other commitments do you have that you need to fit around your study? Develop a study routine that works for you. 

Having separate time to study is a really important one for me. On the STP you are in control of  splitting your time between service work and study and making sure you can dedicate enough time to both. Time for another plan?! You should aim to be flexible and ready to reprioritise your university work to fit in with service demands if needed.

This is a hot topic on the STP but hopefully your Trust will allow you to take study days. This might be in or outside of your Trust and will be a day dedicated to getting assignments done, revising and anything else linked to your academic study. If you can have these regularly and protected times to study, make sure you take them. 

If you can, make your study space a place you look forward to being in. Enjoy adorable stationary? Buy some cute highlighters! Work best when you’re listening to music? Curate yourself a study playlist. When it becomes safe to do so again, a change of scenery like working in a local library, your Trusts library or a local university can be a nice break from studying at home. I’ve explored some really interesting buildings in search of a good place to study. Tip: Some universities will let you study in their libraries if you have a valid student card from another UK university. Reception is normally a good place to start. 

Where to find support

Sometimes we can be terrible at asking for help but struggling on your own isn’t something you need to do whilst you’re on the STP and is honestly something that’s expected in such a high pressure environment like the NHS. There are four main groups of people who’ve supported me during uni on the STP.

  • Your peers 

Your fellow STPs will be one of the main supports for your academic study. Going for the Monday quiz at the Student Union in Manchester quickly became one of my favourite parts of a week at university (as well as picking suitably ridiculous biology based quiz names). Because people on the STP come from such a wide range of backgrounds, there’s normally someone who can help you and equally, your unique background and skills will be useful to your peers as well. If you’re struggling with something, there’s a chance one of your peers has struggled with it as well. They can also recommend different tools or websites which have helped them. 

When you’re all back at work free tools such as Google hangouts can be a good way to talk to your peers and discuss. Creating a WhatsApp group can be a really good way to keep in touch, plan study sessions, ask questions about things you might be struggling with or air your worries in a safe space with like minded people.

  • Your training officer

At work you might find that a lot of the people in your department have completed the STP as well. Some modules have changed a lot in the time since the STP started but there’s lots that remain quite similar. Your training officer will be useful for discussing topics for assignments which are relevant to your specialism and they should also support you having separated time off from your service work to complete your studies. 

  • Your academic supervisor and tutors 

Building a good relationship with your tutors and academic supervisor is important, especially looking to your masters project in second and third year. They are there for you to ask questions and to give you additional guidance whenever you need it, either whilst you’re on campus or via email when you’ve returned to your workplace. The earlier you ask the better, but it’s also never too late to ask for help. Remember, they are the specialists.  

Your tutor or course administrator should also be your first point of contact if you need to request mitigating circumstances for your assignments or exams, as well as for support with any additional needs or concerns you might have. 

  • Your university 

I was worried about the amount of presentations I’d have to do whilst at university (they’re never as bad as you imagine them to be). The University of Manchester (UoM) offers a wide range of in person and online courses on a range of topics. These cover everything from  giving presentations, writing assignments, referencing, thinking critically, revising for exams and looking after your mental well being. Head to My Learning Essentials if you study at UoM and ask your course administrator if you attend another university. Whichever university you attend they will have academic as well as pastoral support and there’s counselling available if you ever need it.

If you want to brush up on specific topics before heading to uni, free online resources such as OpenLearn (provided by The Open University) have courses in basic and complex science. 

One of the most important aspects of the STP is being able to juggle your job, your competencies and your university study. My last tip though is to be kind to yourself and that you are not alone. There will be times when you’ll struggle and where others will look to you for support as well, but there’s a lot of good people around you to help. Many of them have been through or are going through this as well, reach out to them and don’t suffer on your own. 

Oh and the best silver lining for returning to university? NUS discount is brilliant. 

Author: Erin

I am a first year trainee clinical bioinformatician (genomics) at the Viapath lab at Guy's and St Thomas's NHS Foundation Trust in London.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s