Moving from Part IB to Part II is initially a steep jump; no longer can you rely on being boosted by relatively simply MCQs/SAQs, and learning the lecture notes is (intentionally) not enough to do well, and so much of your learning must be from other sources, mainly journal papers; textbooks are of limited if any use at Part II. However, it is a much more interesting and rewarding year on the whole as you can focus on what interests you the most and gain a proper insight into the world of research. My discussion will focus firstly on tackling the lecture content for examined essays (80% of the final mark) and then the research project (20% of the final mark).
The lectures essentially provide an introduction to the subject and it’s up to you to learn further.
Many lecturers provide reading lists or references in their lectures, and this is usually a good place to start. You should also try to find other relevant papers, in particular those which have been recently published. Journal reviews can also be extremely useful as they summarise the field of research and often contain useful references. With regard to reading papers, I’d usually read the abstract and then other parts of the paper which I felt important such that I fully understood the paper. Make sure that you don’t spend hours trying to understand a single paper as it’s an inefficient use of your time.
It’s important that you make notes whilst reading papers. Your notes for each paper might look something like this:
First author surname:
Year of publication:
Findings (with key diagrams):
Criticisms and further studies:
Remember that the point of these notes is for the examination so be concise and just include the key points; there’s no point copying down the whole paper.
Choose your topics wisely
It is inevitable that you will skip certain topics in order to concentrate on others. It’s obviously advisable to concentrate on the topics you find the most interesting. Look at past papers to work out which which and how many topics you can safely skip. How many topics you decide to do will depend on your appetite for risk, however remember that taking too many risks can be an extremely poor strategy and I know of several people who ended up having to write essays on topics which they hadn’t learned. Don’t forget that the lecturers and examiners can change from year to year and therefore the ‘trends’ might break pattern.
Writing the essays
With regard to writing your essays, ensure you provide an introduction which introduces the topic and outlines the points you will discuss in your essay. Your essay should flow well and form a coherent, well structured argument or discussion. Use journal papers to illustrate a point, and only include them if they are indeed relevant to the essay title – don’t dump papers into the essay which aren’t directly relevant. I used to provide the first author name and year for each paper I cited. Diagrams, whether they be schematic mechanistic diagrams or figures from journal papers can be extremely effective at illustrating your point. Criticisms of papers or suggestions of further research can also be useful in demonstrating that you understand the literature.
You should try and write a number of practice essays based on past papers throughout the course of the year and hand them in to the lecturers. They will usually offer very useful feedback.
There appears to be much confusion flying around about the proportion of marks which is gained for each component of the research project. The breakdown in 2012 was:
Report from project supervisor = 5%
Write up = 80%
Oral presentation = 15%
Conducting the research
Your research project will begin in, and last the duration of Lent term. It’s a good idea to ask your project supervisor for relevant reading so that you can hit the ground running. Ensure you are aware of precisely what you are doing, why you are doing it, how you are doing it, and what you hope to achieve. Try and set goals and meet them, and don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for help when you need it. It’s easy to get carried away with your research project, however don’t lose sight of the lectures which are worth a lot more of your final mark than the research project.
The write up
Commencing the write up can appear daunting, however once you start you can have it completed fairly quickly. I would advise you to read recent research projects from past students in the Pharmacology Department library. You will submit the research project at the beginning of Easter term.
The oral presentation
The oral presentation is during Easter term, and by this time you would have already submitted the write up. Although many fear the presentation, it is actually fairly straightforward. You essentially need to take the key points out of your write up and form a coherent presentation. The general rules that always apply to presentations are relevant here; for instance, don’t include too much text in your slides, try to avoid reading from the screen and ensure you include key figures. Practice the presentation several times in order to check for timing.
After your presentation, you will be asked questions by members of the department. So that you can tackle these questions well, ensure you have read your project write up several times and fully understand everything in your presentation.
Oral examination (viva)
In 2012, five of the thirty students studying Part II pharmacology received oral examinations. In general, these are candidates who are just below a grade boundary, however you may receive one for another reason for instance if the external examiner wishes to randomly examine you. A timeline for the process is shown below, although note that the timings are approximate and may vary from year to year:
I know some people decided to work during the 10 day period despite not knowing if they had an oral examination or not, but I’d recommend you simply enjoy what are potentially your last few weeks in Cambridge, and the odds are that you probably wont receive an oral examination anyway, so its probably best to start work only if you find out that you do have one. With regard to the content of the oral examination, I understand that you can be asked on any aspect of the course. This may include your project, the essays you wrote in your examination and even topics which you didn’t write about and may have not learned in depth. Remember that your mark can’t go down based on your viva; it can only stay the same or go up.
Whilst only a small proportion of Part II pharmacology students receive oral examinations, 100% of students studying Pharmacology as part of BBS receive oral examinations, however note for BBS students, that the oral examination will be only on the content of your dissertation.