Skills Hub

Student perspectives - Jess

Jess Higgins

Third year Chemistry



My name is Jess Higgins. I'm in my third year now and I am studying a 4 year degree MChem in Chemistry.

Why did you choose to study at Sussex?

I chose to study at Sussex because when I came onto the campus I felt really at home here. I'd heard a lot about the department of Chemistry and I knew that they were really good.

What do you enjoy most about studying Chemistry at Sussex?

The thing I like best about studying Chemistry is that you actually get to make things. It is not just theoretical. It is great to know the theory behind things, to know why things work, but when you actually get to put loads of stuff together and come out with a purple powder or a bright orange crystal, it is brilliant and you know you have made something. Then you can go back and find out what it is.

What is a typical week like studying on your course?

I generally have between 13 - 24 hours of actual contact time a week, so it is quite a bit of time in lectures or labs. There is usually 4-8 hours in a lab depending on what course you are doing and what you've got to do. There are lots of lectures each day and generally I have a lab report and a problem set to hand in in a week. So I'll spend a good amount of time in the library or at home reading or studying but most of time will be spent with lectures and in University itself.

How do you manage your time at university?

In terms of time management it is a case of working hard and playing hard especially as a Chemist I think. You do have a lot of reports to hand in and you do have work that's due in, you have deadlines probably every week, it's not just an end of term essay, like a lot of other subjects are. So for me I learnt quite quickly that leaving everything till the last minute really isn't the right way to go. Not only do you find that you can't go out and do things that you want to do but you also find that you struggle towards the end, so taking your time, knowing what's due in and when it's due in, and making sure that you do a little bit each day and get towards the deadline is the best way to manage your time.
When you go into the lab for the first time it's really vital that you make sure you're organised and that you know what you're doing. You go in with a lab script and it's got instructions about things that you need to do. Sometimes you'll not be sure what they are and you'll have to ask for help as you go along but if you know what you're doing in each half an hour step and you've read through all the instructions well, then you can manage your time and get to your end product in the right time.

What is it like working in a lab at university?

Labs are a huge part of Chemistry here at Sussex and, me personally, when I first stepped into a lab I was so scared. I had broken things at A level constantly and I just thought it is going to be a nightmare but to be honest, when you come in here and you get you own locker and you get your glassware and your place, you quickly adapt. You learn a lot of new skills in a very short space of time. I'm in my third year now and I know my way around the lab and I'm really confident here but it is the biggest learning step I think.

What is it like writing lab reports for Chemistry?

Writing a lab report is something you need to do every time you finish an experiment and it's got to be quite precise. Everyone has their own way of how they want you to set it out but generally you need to make sure you include lots of details. If you see something that has changed colour make sure you put it in. Most of mine include a short introduction saying what I am actually doing, with a bit of theory behind it; good detail in your method so say, ‘This aldehyde was put into a round bottom flask'. It always needs to be in the third person, you can't say, ‘I did this' or ‘I did that'. Then you've got to go into your results and that is the bit when you really can go into detail. So if you've got spectrum to assign, make sure you go and assign every peak. Make sure you go into detail about any questions that get in there as that is where all the marks come from. Often things with Chemistry are related to stuff that you haven't learnt on the course you are writing your lab report for. So if you've got any other knowledge from another course that you can put in, then that is always good.

Discussion is also a great place to go. You can go and look at other books and references and write more about what you have done in the lab especially if you found it interesting it is always good to go and find out more about what you have done, but generally you'll have at least one lab report, and maybe two, a week. As long as you make sure that in the lab you keep a record of what you have done, amounts you have put in a flask, you'll be fine. Just keep everything detailed and accurate.

What resources are there at Sussex to help you with your reading and research?

In terms of finding other ways to study, going to the library and picking out books is a brilliant way to learn. You save money by not buying a text book but you also get really wide access to all kinds of new topics. We've got our new Chemistry library which has computers there for us to use and a lot of journals and specific Chemistry text books that you might not find anywhere else, but online there is a huge range of resources as well.

As a student here at Sussex you have access to all kinds of journals, so if you want to research an article from 20 years ago in the ‘Journal of Organic Chemistry', you just type it in and you can go and read original resources. So if you find a subject really fascinating, or if you're struggling with something, you can go and look it up on one of our online resources as well.

How do you make notes during lectures?

When you go into a lecture it is quite typical that you'll get a pack of notes from your lecturer, so they will teach either by chalking on the board while they follow the notes that they've given you or they will do slide shows. Often you will get a copy of all the slides that they use and the best thing for me is to make notes in the lecture as they go. It is not as hard as it seems to jot a few words down especially memorable things that they may say or add to the text. So jotting a few notes and maybe writing a resource to look up on your notes is really good but most notes are available from Study Direct which is the Sussex online learning resource, so if you missed a lecture because you were ill or you want to go over a lecture again, if you didn't get the notes or if you just want some more resources for it, if you go to the Study Direct site you will find all the slides and often links to other courses, as well, which is really helpful.

How does making notes help with your learning?

When you make notes the first time round, often it is bit rushed in lectures but if you take the time to go back through them again, even before you start revising for exams, and write out what you've written down and make sure you understand it, it really helps me, particularly for certain chemistry reactions where you need to know exactly where things go. If you've made a little mistake it is better to find out sooner, when you are copying out your notes again, rather than later, just before your exam when you find out you have learnt it wrong.

What have your exams been like?

For each of my courses, I have a coursework element to it which might consist of problem sets where I have to draw out some reactions or show that I know how to use a certain formula equation. Then I will usually have a lab report as well with my experiment and my product that I have to hand in but usually we have end of term exams which are technically counted as part of the coursework but are under test conditions. So you have 50 minutes and you basically have to answer questions that show that you understand the course. For me exams are a bit scary. I'm not the best person at exams but I have found that revising for them really helps consolidate my knowledge, so I really do draw on everything I have learnt from my course and I look back on all my coursework marks and know what I have got. Exams at the end of term are really helpful tools to test how much you know.
At the end of the year, in the summer term, you will have a formal summer exam, so that will test everything you have learnt from first term, second term, third term. In some ways doing your coursework exams at the end of term well really prepares you for your summer exams well.

How do you revise for exams?

A lot of the time things you learn in Chemistry you need to practise them to be able to use them. If it is a mechanism for a reaction you need to use it and draw it again and check you know what is going on. The best way of revising for me is to get together with a group of friends and all take an aspect of the course and go and try and paraphrase it or draw it out or say to your friend, ‘Would you do this reaction?' By doing it yourself you have to make sure you know it and by explaining it to others it helps everybody else. It is a really great way of reinforcing learning and for me that is the best way to revise.

How do you get feedback on how you're doing with your course?

When you hand in a piece of work you hand it in with a cover sheet on the front and usually your lecturer will have written comments directly on your work or on your coversheet. So if you've got a question wrong you won't just have a cross you'll have a couple of notes explaining why and the useful thing with most of our courses is that we have workshops as well so if you've got your work back and you've got a question wrong that's an ideal time to say to your lecturer ‘Why did I get this wrong?' or actually, ‘What's the right answer? - I don't understand'. So you have the opportunity to get the feedback and also go and help yourself by finding out the proper answers and finding out more about the subject.

How can student mentors help you if you're struggling with your studies?

The first people I go to if I'm struggling, and in my first year I went quite a bit, was to the student mentors and they're second year/third year/fourth year students who've all done the courses you've done and probably struggled in the same way that you're struggling but are there for a few hours a week in a room and there are sessions to go and have questions asked to them. So you bring your stuff along and say, ‘I've tried this question a few times and I don't understand where I'm going with it' and they'll give you a hand and it's great to talk to someone who is on your own level.

What is it like being involved in the Student Rep scheme?

When I came to Sussex in my first year I got to know about the student rep scheme.

It was quite interesting because I thought it would be nice to be able to give something back and I've got to know my class mates now and I'd like to be able to help them if they've got any problems. So I went through the voting week and I nominated myself and I got a few votes and I got to be a student rep. I've actually been a student rep for the other two years that I've been here as well and I've managed to help make some changes in our department. The thing with the department is the people they need to hear feedback from are the students. If you've struggled with something or if you've found a course really, really interesting or really not interesting or if there has been some sort of timetable mix up, they need to hear from you so they can fix these things. Every term you get to go to a meeting with a range of the faculty and express your concerns, so it's a nice way to be able to get some feedback going but equally it's also good to be able to get honest feedback from faculty about what you as students could be doing to help yourselves.

What have you enjoyed about being involved in the Chemistry Society?

The students here at the department have always been very sociable and I remember in my first year here, in my first Halloween, I got thrown into a Halloween party and it had all kinds of foaming punch and it was run by students in the department. For the next couple of years I went to loads of parties and helped to organise a few parties. It was the kind of thing where you got together as a group of people and decided to do a social for everyone you knew. We decided to formalise this because we thought this is ridiculous why don't we have a Chemistry Society and rather than just holding social events, that are great fun, we thought why can't we do things like lectures and invite visiting speakers in, science writers, people we have seen on TV, and go and do trips out to factories and to sites that are of interest to us as chemists. So we decided to establish C60 which is our Chemistry Society which is named after the famous buckyball that was discovered here at Sussex by Sir Harry Kroto. It has been really rewarding being involved in this society for me because I've managed to help other people, not just chemists, see Chemistry.

What are your plans for next year?

I actually changed up to do 4 years at Sussex and do an MChem degree from the BSc that I originally applied to do because I found out that in the fourth year you get to do a research project. I didn't like labs at first but now I really enjoy them and want to spend as much time in a lab as possible. So for me, a fourth year project is an ideal chance to go and focus on an area of chemistry that I like and do some real research and work with experts in the field which are our lecturers and our professors. So with my fourth year I want to expand my practical skills and prepare myself either for a job in industry or go on into further studies to do a PhD.

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