Author Archive | Veronica S.

second semester reflection

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

In the spirit of the new year, it’s time to make plans for the future and reflect on the past. Personal growth doesn’t come only from making resolutions or setting goals, but it relies a lot on learning from previous experiences. This is especially important in your first year of university/college. So, if you haven’t done it yet, here is your chance to stop procrastinating and reflect a little on what you’ve learned as a post-secondary student so far after your first semester.

1. This is not high school.

While this may seem obvious, stay with me. When I say this isn’t high school what I mean is yes, okay you literally are no longer attending secondary school, but more specifically you are now an adult and university is where you learn to act like one (more or less). By the end of your first semester you will likely have learned the hard way that no one is responsible for you anymore, except yourself. At first this seems great. No one cares what time you get home, what time you get up for class, or if you even make it to class at all. However, it doesn’t take long for all of the good habits you spent years developing to disappear overnight, and when things go wrong, the flipside of all this freedom is that you usually have no one to blame but yourself.

2. The sooner you can come to terms with failure the better.

In the land of startups there’s a strange motto these potential tech giants live by that may seem foreign to the rest of the world: “fail fast”. If taken at face value it appears as if they are encouraging companies and ideas to fail, but that’s not the case. What they are really doing is attempting to normalize failure and make it part of the process that leads to success. In other words, if you are going to fail, it’s better to get it over with quickly and move on to the next thing. The important lesson here is to let failure happen and keep moving forward in spite of it, which is something that you need to learn by the beginning of your second semester. One of the first big lessons of university life, both academically and personally, is that you are going to fail at something, but that failure is not the end of the world. It’s how you respond that matters.

3. Friends come and go.

Remember all those friends you met during frosh week? I hate to break it to you, but most of them are not going to be around come the end of the semester. In university, people will constantly come into and go out of your life. For the first time, you won’t have the same day-to-day schedule as most of your friends and you’ll learn very quickly that maintaining adult friendships requires work. People get busy. People lose touch. If you really value someone’s friendship, you need to make an effort to see them. However, the upside of meeting a lot of new people is that you also have the opportunity to be a bit selective. The one thing you’ll learn as a university student is that when it comes to relationships, quality matters infinitely more than quantity. You need friends who aren’t just there for a good time, but who are going to be there for you when times get tough.

4. It’s okay to change.

At the end of your first semester of university, you are no longer the same person you were just a few months ago. You may have moved away from home for the first time, and you’ve been exposed to new people, new ideas and a new way of life. In the process, you’ve found out a lot about yourself and what really matters to you. You may not realize it right away, but this is a big turning point. Who you become now is going to determine your life going forward. Embrace these changes and seize the corresponding opportunities that arise. Then change your mind again. Experience as much as you can while you have the time and the freedom to do so.

5. It’s okay to have no idea what you’re doing.

Here’s a heads up: no one does. Everyone who seems to have their life together is usually just as confused and stressed out as you are beneath that perfect exterior. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else and don’t feel pressure to do something because you think that you should. Now is the time to listen to your heart and tune everyone else out. I know that may sound cliché, but everything is going to be so much easier and more exciting if you take this time to find out what you’re really passionate about. Life will sort itself out one way or another. Don’t waste time worrying if you don’t have it all figured out right this second.

6. When you can, choose sleep.

This is, hands down, the best advice. Sleep is so much more important than whatever it is you were going to do instead. I know that as a student, a lot of the time it’s not realistic to expect a full eight hours of quality sleep every single night, but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Just because no one is enforcing a bedtime doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have one. A lack of sleep will catch up with you. Sleep deprivation takes a mental, physical and emotional toll that no amount of caffeine is going to be able to counteract.

7. If you aren’t already, get involved.

Join a club. Play a sport. Start something. Create something. Do something. Do anything. In school there are so many opportunities to try new things and meet new people, most of which do not exist in the “real” world. Get out there and take advantage of them. Life is about balance and this is one of the best ways to find some as a student.

Image by Giulia Bertelli,

Image by Giulia Bertelli,

Here’s some recommended reading for your scheduled MCAT study breaks.

The House of God (Samuel Shem)

For any wannabe MD, this is a classic. It is also easily one of the weirdest novels I have ever read. As the only work of fiction on this list, its painfully real unreality often borders on the bizarre. But don’t be fooled, this book reveals a profound truth. I’m just not completely sure what it is yet…

Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death, and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon’s First Years (Michael J. Collins)
A surprisingly funny and candid account of what it’s like to be an orthopedic surgery resident at the Mayo Clinic. Collins is introspective, honest, and often sleep-deprived, but clearly passionate about medicine which makes for an enjoyable read. However, if you want to maintain a romanticized view of what it’s like to do a surgical residency it might be wise to skip this one.

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (Atul Gawande)

Humans are fallible. We make mistakes. We learn. We get better. Perfection is something often strived for but rarely attained. This is true of life. This is also true of medicine. Doctors are not superior beings. Even when they fight against their inherent humanity, acting like a machine is far from actually being one. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in Gawade’s book of personal essays and compelling anecdotes. Set in the early years of his surgical training it serves as a much needed reminder of the uncertainties and unsolved questions that still plague modern medicine.

How Doctors Think (Jerome Groopman)

An excellent look at the psychology that drives the diagnosis doctors arrive at, the treatments they prescribe and even the general approaches they tend to favour when it comes to patient care. While Gawade addresses the concept of doctor fallibility, Groopman takes it to the next level, exploring what kind of mistakes doctors make, why they make them, and perhaps most importantly how they can be prevented. Do good physicians know more or do they just think better? A must-read for aspiring doctors and occasional patients alike.

White Coat: Becoming a Doctor at Harvard Medical School (Ellen Lerner Rothman)

The one who wears the white coat wields the power. She has the power to cure and the power to mend but also the power to do great harm and cause horrible suffering. She should never let it rest easy on her shoulders. This reality is not lost on Ellen Lerner Rothman as she recounts her journey from pre-med life to Harvard graduate. At every turn, she is aware of the responsibility conferred on her and her peers from the very first day they set foot on campus. A sobering look at the life of a medical student, this book serves as a reminder to all medical school hopefuls. The path may not be easy but it can be incredibly rewarding.

Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted (Gerald Imber)

Equal parts biography and history of medicine, much of this book recounts the creation of Johns Hopkins and the lives of the medical giants who helped propel it to prominence. One such man, Dr. William Stewart Halsted, carries the story. Surgical pioneer, clinician scientist, and part-time cocaine addict, he almost single-handedly lifted surgery out the dark ages. This book is truly an eye-opening look at the medical advancements we too easily take for granted.

The Gene: An intimate history (Siddhartha Mukherjee)

While not strictly about the practice of medicine this book is, at its core, the future of medical science. While the length can be daunting at first, Mukherjee weaves a seamless narrative that is difficult to put down. In tracing the history of the gene from its ideological inception as an indivisible unit of heredity to its physical manifestation as a protein coding segment of DNA (and beyond) he has created a work of such magnitude, I cannot even begin to do it justice in the minimal space I’ve allotted myself here. It is a story of logic and experimentation, failure and success, heartbreak and triumph, but most importantly it is a chronicle of humanity, and just how far we will go to understand ourselves.

Image by WikimediaImages,

Image by WikimediaImages,

I’ve been there. I know that, despite spending weeks confined to the same lecture hall, actually striking up a conversation with your professor can seem daunting. It is often easier to “forget” about office hours, stay silent in class, and scurry out with making eye contact. But remember, your professors aren’t just lecturers, researchers and evaluators – they are people too. Admittedly extremely knowledgeable, articulate, and often charismatic people (who are leaders in their chosen field), but people all the same. So being the highly-motivated and intelligent student you are, have a little faith. You can handle it.

Better yet, you can ace it. Consider this your office hour cheat sheet.

1) Prepare. Make sure you have at least one intelligent question ready to kick off the conversation (but realistically having two or three is probably better). Also familiarize yourself with your professors’ research interests. Not only will this score you extra brownie points but it is virtually guaranteed to get them talking.

2) Timing is everything. Everyone is going to be vying for the lecturer’s attention right before midterms, exams and assignments are due. So try to make contact during the first few weeks of the semester (when stress levels for everyone on campus are usually lower) and see how it goes from there.

3) Bring back-up. Have a friend taking the same course? Perfect! Drag them along with you to office hours. At best, they can save you if the conversation starts to go south. At worst, after the fact, they can reassure you that everything did not go as badly as you think.

4) Start strong. Know how to properly address them. Generally, stick to “professor” unless you know they have a Ph.D., in which case “doctor” is also acceptable. Usually they will be upfront if they are more comfortable with you calling them something else.

5) Smile. You’ll be surprised how much this eases any underlying or overt tension in the room.

6) Be honest. Be upfront about the reason for your visit, but also be polite. You are not the first person and will not be the last to ask for a reference letter or an extension on your paper. That said, don’t be afraid to make purely social calls. Most professors like getting to know their students.

7) When in doubt. Send an email. If you are feeling nervous, this can be a good way to test the waters. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t receive an instantaneous reply, though, as some professors are notoriously hard to nail down in the digital world.

Image by Jean Henrique Wichinoski, Flickr

Image by Jean Henrique Wichinoski, Flickr

In university there are only two months of the year that really matter – October and February – or, as I personally refer to them, the Midterm Months. Let’s be honest; September is a write-off. Yes, you should be preparing for the eventual demise of any semblance of a life you may or may not have had outside of academia. But honestly, while everyone starts out with the best intentions, most of your time will be spent trying to keep on top of everything as you enjoy the remaining “due date free” weeks. January is the same, unless of course you have full year courses – then good luck with those midterms you should have been studying for over Christmas break. Why not say December or April? Well, assuming that the average student is enrolled in mostly semester long classes (at least at a Canadian university), these are your exam months. While it may seem as if I am belittling the importance of exams/final projects, believe me, I have done enough of them myself to know that would be a foolish endeavour. Nevertheless, classes are winding down or over, the collegiate social calendar is sparse and your motivation to pass is kicking into high gear. Jump to October, which bleeds into November (or February which carries over into March) and life is going high speed. In these months there are no safety nets or extra seconds. This is how you control the chaos and come out ahead.


The first thing you need to do is devise a plan of attack. Literally, you need to visualize what you have to do as a function of when it has to be done. This can mean one of two things (but as per the unwritten code of higher education is actually means both). First, you need to know what the due date is for each assignment and the writing day for every test. All of that information should be in the syllabus you received on the first day of class for each of your courses (if you don’t have a hard copy, it’s probably on the course’s online companion site). However, always clarify these important dates if your professor has not yet mentioned them in class. Any changes made to these dates will usually be announced well in advance, always in class and usually online, so if you are not in the habit of making a regular appearance at lectures make sure you know someone who is and touch base with them occasionally.

Once you have all of these dates, record them digitally on your Google/iCalendar, colour code them by class and set reminders (you’ll thank yourself later). If you still use a paper planner, jot them down there as well using a different coloured pen than what you usually write with (I favour red ink) or a highlighter to make ensure these entries stand out. Finally, make sure to include the exact time and location of each event. This will hopefully prevent you from showing up at the wrong time or in the wrong place (I have seen this happen on multiple occasions). Side note: if you have time, scout out the location beforehand. If you go to school on a large campus and the room is not where your lecture is regularly held, there is no guarantee that you are going to find is easily.

Next you are going to have to engage in the dreaded practice of time management. Better known as the skill most used to pad resumes and probably least put into practice. You need to figure out relatively how long it should take you to complete each assignment or study for each test, and then mark out the corresponding length of time on your calendar. This is where things are going to get tricky. Unless you are very, very lucky, these blocks of time are going to overlap; sometimes significantly (aka four midterms in one week). While making time to complete everything may appear daunting at this stage, it will feel near impossible if you are blindsided by it at the last minute. It is always better to know what you are getting into before attempting to accomplish anything.


Now that you have your detailed plan for the month(s), it is time to get to work. As the weeks wear on, your workload is only going to increase – it’s best to make a start when you still have some time to make mistakes. That said, you don’t just whip out your laptop and attempt to effortlessly complete the introduction to your term paper. You are only going to make yourself frustrated and view the task as futile. Once you start out with this negative mindset it is going to take more time and energy than you realistically have to change it and soldier on.

Instead, what you should be doing now is all of the preparation that will allow you to write/study effectively. These exact actions can take many forms, such as researching potential essay topics, consulting with your professor or TA, choosing an appropriate topic, and gathering/organizing all of your source material. You may need to do the required readings, pay attention in lectures and consolidate both of these sources of notes into an ultimate study guide. Do the legwork now and you will be halfway to a better grade without even technically starting anything.


While the other stuff you may have heard before and potentially tried to implement, this is what is going to make all the difference. No matter what your professors think or how your peers appear to act, you’re a student, not a machine. You are a human being that has needs and other interests outside of learning the course material inside out.

The most important, in both a physical and psychological sense, is rest. One way to get this much needed downtime is to sleep, and while you probably won’t feel as if you have time to get a solid 6-8 hours every night, it can make all the difference. However, there will be those days when even a 30 minute power nap is better than nothing. If you still need more convincing it has been shown that while you sleep, your brain is actually connecting and consolidating all the new information you’ve been taking in during the day. This allows for not only better retention of the material but also better retrieval come test day.

Despite sleep being the best way to recharge and refocus, also remember to take “awake breaks” and do something for yourself. Watch a TV show (one episode, not six), take a walk, text a friend or eat something delicious (and healthy of course). Be sure to do this before you begin to crash, and don’t stray from your original task for longer than an hour (15-30 minutes is ideal). Plan some longer fun activities and schedule whole days off from doing any kind of school work. You will find that you are actually more productive when you have something other than cramming to look forward to in a week.

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t stick to your plan. Life happens and it is better to deal with it and regroup than bemoan the fact that everything is ruined (which it isn’t) and you are going to fail (which you won’t). One of the most useful lessons you can learn is how to be flexible when faced with obstacles and how to keep calm in crisis. Once you’ve mastered these skills, you pretty much deserve your diploma on the spot (and maybe the Nobel Peace Prize).

Image by CJ on Flickr

Image by CJ on Flickr

As a university student, you will often find yourself doing a lot of soul searching. I know it sounds cliché, but take it from someone who has been there – it’s completely, one hundred percent true. If your only experience with such deep meaningful moments is from watching teen dramas, be prepared for a shock. These “experiences” are not going to give you the answers you’re looking for; in fact, they usually just leave you with more questions. Your soul searching starts with the big picture stuff: Who am I? What am I doing here? What do I want out of life? and usually then devolves into something along the lines of: Should I order food? Can I take a Netflix break? Both? Yes, both is good.

Once again you are content with life. You don’t know if it is the mild food coma or the comedy you have decided to binge watch, but sometimes it is better not to question the universe. That is until your half hour study break has become a three hour marathon. Then comes the panic. You know what you’re doing is wrong, but you can’t stop. Another episode goes by. Panic gives way to shame and self-doubt. I’m just not cut out for this. It’s 2 am. I should just go to sleep. The books lie there, taunting you. I hate (insert subject here). Have you ever considered that maybe this isn’t your fault? Maybe you aren’t a terrible student. Maybe you’re just in the wrong major.

Does this story sound a little too familiar to you? Then it’s either time for a change of academic focus or an intervention for your Netflix addiction. How do you tell the difference? Well if this downward spiral is really due to your lack of interest in the subject matter you’re studying, you are probably also doing most of the following:

  1. Skipping class. Sleeping in or missing lectures to do other work doesn’t count. I’m referring to the “I literally can’t remember the last time I went” kind of skipping, which only means one thing: you are not interested.
  2. Having trouble staying on task. You find yourself easily distracted when you sit down to study. Your Facebook account is always one tab away. Your cell phone is in your hand. Your jammed stapler is suddenly fascinating (before and after you have taken the time to unjam it).
  3. Searching for the motivation you used to have. The work ethic you had in high school seems almost superhuman. Now just the thought of doing anything class-related is exhausting. You usually take a nap instead.
  4. Anything but your readings. If you haven’t opened the textbook you nearly bankrupted yourself to buy, your prognosis for the rest of the semester is not looking good. Yes, some students pride themselves on acing classes based on lecture notes alone. But if this is really something you are passionate about (which it should be) you will want to read more about it whether the material is testable or not.
  5. Procrastinating. While I have yet to meet a student who has never put anything off until later, it is not the act itself that should raise red flags but the reason behind it. Pulling an all-nighter to finish the paper you had no time to start until the last minute because of all of your other obligations is the norm. However, purposefully doing anything else to avoid working on your assignments until is almost impossible for you to complete them on time might be a sign that this discipline is not for you.
  6. Enjoying your electives more than your required courses. These are the lectures you show up for every single week. Not only are you actually prepared and engaged but you leave looking forward to the next class. Take a step back and you will probably see that most of the classes you choose to take of your own free will fall under a certain branch of academics. Maybe this is what you should actually be getting a degree in.
  7. Letting your grades slip (and surprisingly not caring). You are intelligent. You have made this far in the education system and you are so close to having something to show for it. Don’t sacrifice your GPA because you could care less. Trust me; there are enough challenging courses that will be more than willing to drag it down for you (even when you are studying something you love).
  8. Avoiding opportunities you should be pursuing. Contrary to how it might appear, most universities actually want you to be employable. They benefit if you get hired and excel. This creates an incentive for them to provide avenues for their students to gain real work experience. However, it is still up to you to make the most of these opportunities. Being reluctant to search them out and apply is often the first sign that you are not serious about your future as a (insert subject here) major.

Image by UBC Library Communicationson Flickr

Image by UBC Library Communicationson Flickr

One of the biggest mistakes an undergraduate can make (and most do) is to assume that once the academic term ends and you are physically removed from campus, you can mentally distance yourself as well. As much as we all might want to turn off and fall back into the summer routine of our youth, the one thing they never tell you is that even though you are not technically in the classroom (unless you elect to take summer school of course) that doesn’t mean you don’t have work to do. One not-so-pleasant way most institutions remind their students of this reality is by scheduling the designated time to select courses for the upcoming year right in the middle of this well-deserved break. Thanks to the internet, most of this process is now done remotely, but just because you can do it while lounging in your bed doesn’t mean that you should (or that it will be any less stressful). The key to course selection success is to prepare ahead of time. When your diploma is riding on admittance to certain classes, you are going to need more than luck to secure that last spot. You are, at the very least, going to need to avoid making these all too common mistakes.

1. Not Checking Your Program Requirements. No matter what discipline you have elected to study, there are going to be certain courses that are mandatory in order for you obtain your degree. The majority of these classes will fall in your first and second year and if you have chosen a double major or added a minor (or two), creating a workable schedule may require some creativity and compromise to achieve the right balance. However, don’t worry too much if you can’t fit everything in. Most programs have a bit of leeway and will allow you to take some of these courses in upper years when you will have more scheduling flexibility.

2. Ignoring the prerequisites. That said, often programs are structured in such a way that taking introductory courses paves the way to allow you to take more advanced classes in later years. Therefore, some courses may not be accessible until you have taken certain others (aka prerequisites). So before attempting to enroll in a course, especially if it is not in your year or area of study (e.g. any elective), always make sure that you have successfully completed all the mandatory prerequisites. The administration is usually very vigilant about this and despite what you have may heard from those who claim to have slipped under the radar, you can and usually will get kicked out. By the time this happens the rest of the classes you are actually able to take will likely be full.

3. Creating Only One Perfect Schedule. At most schools your first year courses are virtually selected for you, leaving most people woefully unprepared for the amount of choice they will have in the following years. However, as course selection gets more complex it puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you the ability to tailor your class schedule to your interests and time preferences. Yet even if you are able to build the perfect timetable, you will have to come to terms with the fact that due to forces beyond your control, you may not be able to get into every class you want. The best way to avoid getting thrown off-balance if (when) this occurs is to prepare for such a scenario beforehand. Choosing decent just-in-case courses and making a few different but compatible schedules will allow you to approach the process with some much needed confidence.

4. Enrolling in Courses You SHOULD Take. Now this may seem like a contradiction considering the advice above, but what you need to realize early in your undergraduate career is that there is a big difference between courses you HAVE TO take and those you feel you SHOULD. As stated previously, in every program of study there are classes that are nonnegotiable – those are your HAVE TO courses. Your SHOULD courses are those that you may feel pressure to sign up for regardless of what you may really think about the class. This could be the class that all your friends are in, the one with the great professor or that everyone says is a real GPA booster. Regardless of reason, never take a course that doesn’t spark your interest. You will end up resenting it no matter what everyone else says and often your grades with suffer as a result. On the flip side, if you feel compelled to take a class that is known to be obscure, difficult, or boring, don’t let other people’s opinions sway you in a different direction. They don’t know you like you do.

5. Not Seeking a Second Opinion. While there is usually no downside to going with your gut, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t investigate your choices further. Learning as much as you can about the professor, the marking scheme, and the specific topics covered in the class is never a bad idea (an old syllabus is typically very helpful on all fronts). The more informed your decision, is the happier you are likely to be with it by the middle of the semester. While friends and classmates are usually good primary sources, their own personal bias may get in the way of them being able to give you the objective assessment you need. In the end, a simple Google or Reddit search may be enough to solidify your selection or push you to look for an alternative.

Image by Sharon Drummond, Flickr

Image by Sharon Drummond, Flickr

As the semester draws to a close and exam season becomes less about preparation and more about survival, there is one question on the mind of every post-secondary student… how am I going to get summer research experience? At first the task may seem daunting. The main problem that most undergraduates face is that they don’t know where to start. There seems to be an endless stream of options from university job boards to department postings. There are even specialized internship programs that exist at other institutions (ex. local hospitals). However, once you scale the initial hurdle and start applying, what you will quickly realize is that even though applications keep going out, your inbox remains conspicuously empty. Is everyone just better qualified than you or is there a larger game afoot? What does it really take to get the coveted position that a million students wanted?

It’s all about connections.

Seriously, what looks like selection by merit is often just a diversion and the job will really be awarded to the individual who won the “who you know” game. A respectable GPA may get you noticed but at the end of the day a number will only get you so far; your relationships are what will really carry weight in a competitive application process. Therefore, the solution is simple but by no means easy.

Step 1: Decide what your area of interest is early in the academic year and then find professors or graduate students who are doing research on that subject.

Step 2: Find a way to make contact – and by that I mean face to face. Try taking their class or at least finding out when their office hours are and becoming a regular. Come prepared with intelligent and insightful questions, but always remember they are the experts so don’t try to show them up.

Step 3: When you feel comfortable, broach the topic of working for them over the summer. If necessary this can be done via email but be prepared to argue your case and convince them you would be an asset to their work.

Don’t expect to get paid.

Not only are most researchers strapped for cash but many are also very sensitive when it comes to money. If they think you aren’t there for the purely intellectual pursuit of furthering your own knowledge this could act as a strike against you. However, what you want is to get your foot in the door and volunteering is a great way to make this happen. People are not usually going to turn down extra help they don’t have to pay. If you can find some way to ensure your funding, for example through a government grant, that is even better.

It’s not just for science students.

When most people hear the word research they automatically think of scientists in lab coats creating various concoctions from bubbling beakers. Admittedly for anyone engaged in serious scientific study research experience, even if it involves just cleaning that glassware, is a must. Nevertheless, to be competitive in the humanities and social sciences, especially if you have your sights set on graduate school, research experience is also becoming very valuable. Though it may involve less time in the lab and more in the library there are skills to be learned in these fields as well that cannot be effectively taught in the classroom.

Don’t wait until an opening is posted.

Once a position makes it to the job board it becomes common knowledge – and that means that your chances of getting it are drastically reduced. Not only does everyone at your school in a relevant field now have a chance to apply, but if there are no restrictions, students from other schools will be interested as well. This is especially true if your school is in a densely populated metropolitan centre. Therefore, unless you are feeling incredibly lucky you need to utilize your connections to lock down the job you want before it goes public.

Don’t be afraid to explore options outside your major.

The subject you have chosen to study may be incredibly general or exceptionally specific. However, whatever your discipline it is probably interrelated with a dozen others that may also touch upon your interests. Therefore, it is paramount that you don’t limit yourself to doing research that is specific to your major. Venture outside of your comfort zone a little and the opportunities will only increase. The same way immunologists may gain worthwhile experience in a biochemistry lab, international relations students should not rule out research in political science.

By the time you’re reading this it may already be too late.

As someone who has been through this process (successfully I might add), I have learned a lot of lessons the hard way. The reality that you need to be contacting supervisors about potential summer research opportunities before leaving for Christmas break (January at the latest) was one of them. Whether you have strong connections or not, the best way to ensure that you will be assisting with research this summer is to be the first applicant. Professors are just like the rest of us and are often ready to settle for a sure thing rather than wait to see if something better comes along. If your email is one of the first read, your chances of getting hired just increased exponentially. If your inquiry comes trickling in at the end of second semester it is likely to not even be read.

Science Image by Sean Loosier, Flickr

Image by Sean Loosier, Flickr

The scientist and the writer could not be more different. The former is concise and rational, while the latter often verbose and artistic. Therefore, it should not be surprising that many science students, especially at the university level, shy away from any kind of intensive writing. Others still take every measure to avoid it entirely, painstakingly building their course schedules around classes that assess performance solely based on multiple choice examinations. Though this might be an alarming fact (considering that most of these young people are studying to become our future doctors and scientific leaders) it is not really that surprising.

Speaking from experience, to excel at any scientific discipline (at least in the classroom) you learn early on that memorization and mathematics are more important than coherent prose. You get marks for what you know, not how well you communicate it. One word answers are best, bullet points are rewarded and sentences unnecessary. Beware of being stylistic or using advanced syntax; these practices are likely to lower your mark regardless of whether or not they enhance your work.

You could argue that this lack of emphasis on writing is an inherent quality of the scientific study – and you would not be wrong. The humanities and social sciences by the very nature of their subject matter not only lend themselves more easily to written evaluations, but quite often they require it. Therefore, the ability to write, and write well, is unintentionally cultivated in students of these disciplines because it is often the key to getting higher grades. Complex arguments and new insights are almost impossible to assess using multiple choice questions, whereas you don’t need an essay to confirm that a biology major knows what the genetic material is (Answer: DNA).

Though a good explanation for this anti-writing trend in science, it by no means justifies it. Writing is an essential part of our existence, especially in the modern global society. Face to face communication will only get you so far, but to really have an impact you need to be able to clearly transfer your ideas to paper. What good is all of this knowledge if you can’t communicate it in a way that will get people to sit up and take notice? Many researchers are doing brilliant work and publish incredible findings on a regular basis, but their prose is so convoluted, confusing or technical that their genius gets lost in translation.

As a result, the term “scientist” has almost become synonymous with “poor writer”. While this is by no means true of everyone pursuing this profession, it is quickly becoming a stereotype. Though not fundamentally negative, this label is not one that should be allowed to persist and I commend the various educators that are personally making an effort to remedy the situation. However, a lot of the interventions come too late. By the upper years, students have become used to a certain style of assessment and they are reluctant to change. Academic writing needs to be a priority from the start in order to allow science majors a chance to improve and gain confidence in their ability. The importance of good writing should never be an afterthought.

Image by Veronica Stewart

Image by Veronica Stewart

The first thing you need to know about pulling an all-nighter is that you shouldn’t. Honestly, if you have any other options, don’t do it. An all-night cram session is never a substitute for a good study strategy. Whether you have had past success with this last minute method or not, it is always risky, both for your grades and your health. However, as a university student myself, I know there times when this technique, though frowned upon and often ineffective, is unavoidable. Midterms and exams tend to cluster and no matter how accommodating your professors may be, there just aren’t enough hours in the day (or week. Or semester for that matter). Fear not – I am not here to shame you for procrastinating or criticize your FOMO (fear of missing out)-induced overscheduling. I’m here to help you survive the night. Everyone has their own style, but these are some of the tips and tricks students swear by to stay awake.

  1. Caffeinate: If you are currently attending a post-secondary institution, this should come as no surprise. Caffeine is like oxygen to the academic. So if it works, why mess with a good thing? Coffee, soda, or chocolate – get it any way you like, but remember to pace yourself. Too much of this stimulant will start to wear away at your ability to concentrate.
    Tip: Try tea. Its health benefits may be able to offset the bodily strain of a sleepless night.

  3. Drink: Water, of course. What were you thinking? Staying hydrated is essential to fighting off the detrimental “I’ll just close my eyes for a few seconds” urge. It is also said to increase alertness and improve your focus.
    Tip: Protect the environment. Always use a reusable water bottle.

  5. Move: Do jumping jacks. Run on the spot or attempt some push-ups. A few exercises can be just the kick start you need after hours of minimal movement. Get your blood pumping and give yourself a much deserved mental break.
    Tip: Keep it quiet. Your sleeping roommates will thank you.

  7. Keep it light: Sleep is your body’s biological response to the dark of night. The darker your workspace, the harder it will be to fight this impulse. The solution? Turn on the lights and keep them on. Brightening your room will trick your body, and thus you, into thinking you need to stay awake.
    Tip: To maximize light output, remove the shades from your lamps if possible.

  9. Set an alarm: It’s time to face the facts. No matter what you do, you may still fall asleep, and that’s okay, as long as you get up in time to write your exam, hand in your essay or fulfill whatever other obligation got you into this bind in the first place. Setting at least one alarm for the next morning is not negotiable.
    Tip: Set your alarm for an hour or so earlier than you need to be up. That way you still have a chance to finish what dosing off may have prevented you from doing the previous night.