Welcome to this podcast about the anatomy of getting into science, or more precisely, the anatomy of me getting into science. It might sound dramatic, but I remember staring at myself in the mirror aged 18, thinking that I must at any cost receive an offer to study at a top uni. My whole life had been dedicated to this accomplishment.
It might sound dramatic, but I remember staring at myself in the mirror aged 18, thinking that I must at any cost receive an offer to study at a top uni… 00:52
I had a bad bout of pneumonia and around that time a series of bad things started happening… 2:48
I felt like an imposter and the line between being no one and trying to be someone was uncomfortably blurred… 11:33
I was only eventually given an offer because someone else declined theirs… 15:58
Hi guys, how’s it going? Did you know that a grown human has 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells, but babies are born with no bacteria in their bodies? Didn’t see that coming, did ya? ♪ tune
Welcome to this podcast about the anatomy of getting into science, or more precisely, the anatomy of me getting into science. It might sound dramatic, but I remember staring at myself in the mirror aged 18, thinking that I must at any cost receive an offer to study at a top uni. My whole life had been dedicated to this accomplishment. If I failed, it would be a failure representing my whole life. If you asked me now, I would tell you that desperation for public validation is a reflection of your poor relationship with your father. But then, it was real. I had to receive an offer. Specifically, from the University of Cambridge.
I cannot begin to imagine having a pandemic thrown on me in the midst of that. But this is what students today are dealing with. The exam season has been cancelled. If you wanted to bypass that and take your exams at an independent centre instead of your school, you can’t. The government has explicitly forbidden any awarding body from issuing new exam certificates based on the exams that should be taking place but are not.
Beyond the exams themselves, there are the university places based on them and the subsequent future plans. Accommodation, travel, careers, dreams and wishes. Many will feel a sense of being cheated – I can imagine this because I have experienced that sinking feeling before. So, I thought I would pop in and leave some of my anecdotes here for anyone needing perspective, a confidence boost or just something to take the edge off negative feelings. Let’s dive in ♪ tune
I had selected several psychology courses when I applied for my university places through UCAS, the UK central system for admission to university. I was about to submit my application when a doubt crept in. Did I really want to do psychology? I’d only got a B in my first year of psychology A level, and got As in biology and English, so why would I continue studying something that I thought I liked, but I didn’t seem to be doing that well in compared to other subjects?
I changed my mind. It was 2010 so there was lots of talk about lack of jobs and the need for a dependable degree. For some strange reason psychology was extremely popular, so the offers for psychology were higher than biology. It seemed odd. The penny never dropped for me that I was into biology as such, I just saw that I got a very high A in my exams up to that point. This was back when we could do retakes, there were exams twice a year and the A* grade had just been introduced.
I removed all my psychology options and replaced them with biology. The University of Sheffield: BSc with a year abroad – wow, I thought – I could go on to Canada; the University of Bristol, UCL, Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge. I got an interview from Cambridge but not an offer. Head over to the main site to watch the video of me going through the questions that I was asked in the interview, at thealevelbiologist.co.uk/revision-tips.
I had a bad bout of pneumonia and around that time a series of bad things started happening. I had started a relationship with a girl and assumed my parents wouldn’t have an issue with that, bearing in mind I hadn’t transitioned back then so this was a lesbian relationship.
I naively thought that they couldn’t have had an issue with it, but in hindsight I realise that they may have had an issue with me being with anyone at all regardless of the homophobic aspect.
We went on a family winter holiday skiing and she joined us, with the understanding, at least on my dad’s part, that she was just a friend. Things got very uncomfortable as my mother faced the situation of us being a couple, even though she was already aware of that; but she used the rising tension to reveal to my father that we were a couple rather than friends. Things escalated into a very bad situation where my parents expected me to break up with her and my dad lectured me on how no one in his family is gay. He also got into a physical fight with my girlfriend that I tried to break up, which drew me into the fight and made things even more tense.
Long story short, we got back from the trip and my parents made it clear that I was not to speak to her again, and cut me off from my phone and computer. At this point I had turned 18 so the restrictions felt completely inappropriate.
I still logged onto MSN on my PC to reach out to my girlfriend and get closure, and she said I could live with her, which I was initially hesitant to do. The next day my dad kept being very confrontational with me, saying that I ruined my mum’s trip and I made her unhappy, which I found to be insanely unfair given that my childhood experience of their relationship was that he was the one making her unhappy, and I was the one she would come to for reassurance.
In that moment I realised that I was enabling his abusive behaviour by tolerating it, and I had to do something about it. I decided I was going to leave. I put my biology textbooks and World of Warcraft CDs in my backpack and sneaked out of my bedroom window in the dead of the night on new year’s eve 2010.
As the months went by I received UCAS offers from Sheffield for A*AA, and Imperial AAB with the As in biology and chemistry. It was very hard to maintain the previous ambition of just making it, going to Cambridge, leaving on good terms and generally having it all figured out.
My new reality was very different, estranged from my parents, living with my girlfriend’s mother and struggling to focus on meeting those rather high university offers. Indeed, I missed the lowest one by 1 grade. I got ABB. I was crushed by the failure to meet one of my offers, as well as the uncertain situation I found myself in.
As an estranged student I could not qualify for the usual grants because my parents’ income would still be taken into account, and I had to essentially present myself as a mature student in a civil partnership rather than a usual student living with their parents in order to be able to go through Student Finance.
I looked at Clearing. There were no places left, of course, on the courses that would correspond to my grades, because they would have been filled by people whose actual grades matched their offers, so the offers available to me were far lower than my actual grades. The cut-off grades for the other courses available through clearing were, inconveniently, AAB, one grade higher than mine. I was too low for the courses available, but way too high for the courses no one else had applied for in the first place, and were therefore available in Clearing.
I had also applied to Birkbeck which was a very unusual evening part time degree in London aimed at mature students. I had a choice between taking a poorly matched course for the sake of moving out and being independent and hoping to transfer later on; taking the Birkbeck course and hoping it works out; or not going to uni at all.
This was 2011 and there were no jobs available. I would be turned away because I had higher education aspirations. I did a pyramid scheme Kleeneze job delivering hundreds of brochures door to door and losing money. I trialled in a fish and chips shop during my second year of A levels but I wasn’t fast enough so failed the trial.
I felt like a total failure and like instead of fulfilling my life’s work by being accepted onto a degree, I had come to amount to nothing during the economic crisis that left everyone else struggling for employment – something I hadn’t even planned on doing in the first place.
I chose to take option number 2, going to Birkbeck in London and hoping it would somewhat make up for my failure to secure any of my UCAS options. I had no money so applied for grants and sources to cover the cost of taking the train to London to attend evening classes. It was not the campus university living fantasy I had in mind.
For the first year of the 4-year degree I commuted to London the 2 hours on the train and back from Norwich, and in the second year we finally moved to London after finding the only estate agency in north London which didn’t straight up say no to DSS, short for people claiming any sort of benefits. Proper people don’t want that negativity around them, so we were turned away not because of our ability to pay, but because of the source of pay.
After all the chaotic events of the past year or two my relationship had broken down and we did not live long together in London, but thankfully by that point I had started to get back in touch with my family and my mother urged me to live independently and helped me financially. What next? ♪ tune
You’d think moving to London would be the end of this story, and it certainly was, in terms of patching things up with my family and being able to do a degree.
It wasn’t the end of my career story, however. I was still conscious of the fact that my part time degree wasn’t the usual experience 18-yr olds have when they go to uni, and I was uncertain about the value of my degree to future employers. I just felt too different and unconventional to fit into a normal story, and having spent some time claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance I had come to a place of deep worthlessness and humiliation. I felt like an imposter and the line between being no one and trying to be someone was uncomfortably blurred.
Was a part time evening degree even anything worth stating on a CV? How does a teenager explain why their life is not what anyone expects? Why had I already been married and divorced, or more specifically, civil partnered and dissolved? How had I gone from gold star student on my way to a top uni, year abroad and general coolness to a half-assed barely justified pretender?
This general lack of confidence in my degree’s ability to singlehandedly validate my career efforts strengthened my resolve to beef up my CV. I knew the degree alone wouldn’t suffice. So I desperately wanted to get a research internship and work in a real lab.
My applications were constantly rejected and my fear that my lack of academic pedigree was hindering me was proven true when a UCL professor discouraged me from applying to their internship saying that it was extremely competitive and UCL students would apply as well; implying that as a Birkbeck applicant I stood no chance.
I remember a clear moment when I was hanging my laundry to dry in my London flat, wondering if all my applications and efforts – and these are real efforts, because you have to write long essays for each application: tell us why you want to do this, tell us about your experiences, tell us this in 2 pages, and another 2 pages, and a lot of effort for something with a low probability of success. As I was hanging my socks I wondered if this was simply not going to happen for me. I decided to just try again.
Eventually I got an offer from SENS Research Foundation the second time I applied. I remember the moment I found out. I opened my email on the bus home and read that I had been given an offer. WOW! Instant smile on my face, finally I have been accepted into the world of science and being a legitimate professional. The internship was in the US, in New York State. I was absolutely thrilled. Except…
A little while later the organisers contact me to say that the usual visa route they use with interns is no longer available, so they will not be able to host me in the US. I cannot believe my eyes. I haven’t applied so many times and waited so long just to finally get an offer but not be able to do it – similarly to the pandemic, something scheduled to take place is suddenly cancelled.
I was seriously anxious about this and struggled to remain positive, even as they said they were trying to find alternative solutions for me to still be able to have my internship.
The Foundation had labs in multiple locations, so they found one in the UK to circumvent the visa issue. The lab was at the University of Cambridge. There was absolutely no other way this internship could have happened otherwise, no Cambridge internships for undergrads, no nothing. It was only due to this specific set of events that an opportunity like this was served on my plate. And the rest, unequivocally, is history.
From that point onwards, it wasn’t me who was trying to use my CV to get internships; it was internship supervisors who were trying to get me as an intern because University of Cambridge featured on my CV. I had made it, just in no predictable manner. What followed did so easily: another internship in Germany, a project in the US, conventions and events in other countries, and the end of my degree which was now embellished with plenty of experiences to make me competitive for a PhD studentship. Stay tuned ♪ tune
Those experiences were amazing for enriching my degree, and indeed the degree enabled them – I could not have easily or at all received any internships without being on a degree in the first place; so it is not about setting these things against each other, it is about synergising them into a better whole.
However, they were not exactly sufficient to easily guarantee a PhD offer. There were plenty of equally and better qualified and experienced applicants, and I was put on a waiting list rather than given an offer initially. I was only eventually given an offer because someone else declined theirs. I knew someone who had applied to similar programmes 3 times without success. It was fairly amazing that I did get an offer the first time.
When I did my PhD before dropping out, I had rotations in many labs at UCL and King’s College; so in any conceivable sense, I had definitively made it. This was it, the top. In some cases, quite literally – sweeping views of London from the 28th floor. Well done, you made it. Then I decided anything better than that I would have to create for myself. I thanked the experiences and confidence that I would take with me, and off I popped.
Back to Norwich where it all started. Being in the same environment, but as a different person. Walking past the Job Centre I used to attend with my head down and my heart empty. The small charity office that approved my £500 grant to support my train journeys to my part time degree in London. Back to the buses that took me to the fish and chips shop in Sprowston after college where I tried to wrap chips as fast as I could but did not have the gumption for it.
And back to City College Norwich where I used to bring microwaved tuna paninis from Iceland to save money. I’m due to give a careers and working from home seminar to college students soon. What a plot twist.
As you see, there are many ups and downs. Absolutely none of this would have happened accidentally, it all took so much focus and work and trials. So don’t even fixate on exams, don’t even fixate on uni places. It is the fact that you care at all that makes the difference – not the outcome today or tomorrow. If you continue to care about a subject, about a job, about a mission – it will find its way to you, whatever that ends up being.
It’s not the final PhD that sealed my success, it was the experience of doing it and everything that brought me to it that brought me where I am today – inspired, experienced, confident and settled with myself – where we all try to be.
Thank you for listening, and remember… The superb fairy wren teaches its chicks how to sing while they are still in the egg. Byeeee ♪ tune