by Ashwin Venkatesh (2017-18)
Firstly, congrats on getting through the infamous tribulations of second year! Now that you have completed the culmination of your pre-clinical sciences, you are about to enter a very different year in terms of content, demands, and expectations, so it is worth considering how to adapt your approach to face the new challenges that Part II offers.
The first major difference from Part IA and IB is the content and style of lectures and the material you will receive. Whilst Part I typically offers comprehensive handouts that will by and large suffice for you to comfortably get through the exams, Part II is quite the contrast. Firstly, lecturers rarely (if ever) provide handouts to supplement their slides, and even if they do, I would suggest that these are not worth too much of your time. Secondly, the lecture slides may well be minimalistic, involving just a few words and diagrams, so I would stress the importance of attending lectures to pick up any pearls of wisdom. Moreover, perhaps making an audio recording of the lectures (with the lecturer’s permission of course!) might save you the stress of scrambling to scribble down their narrative, allowing you to focus on the crux of the points that are made, and refine the details later. In terms of note-making, it is a matter of personal preference. Generally you should be able to download or print a ppt./pdf. of the content and annotate that during the lecture, either by hand or on your computer.
Indeed, these differences exist for the reason that the emphasis of the goals of the course is different in Part II. Your lectures, instead of forming the totality of your learning – as was the case in Part I – should now serve as a basic framework that you should delve into and explore further.
What is Part II all about?
In a nutshell, Part II is all about grappling with the forefronts of the scientific arena. The aim of the course is not for you to simply learn by rote the narrative of a lecture, but instead to appreciate: how your field of study has advanced, the landmark research innovations that have aided this process, the setbacks that have occurred along the way, and the big questions that remain unanswered and how you might go about answering them scientifically, acknowledging merits, limitations and contrasting arguments at each step.
How do you go about achieving the goals of the course?
To engage in science, one must engage with the literature. And that means reading academic papers (typically accessed via PubMed). This may be an entirely new and thus daunting task, and so I will now offer some tips about how you might approach this challenge effectively.
1) Reading lists
For starters, the lecturer is likely to have given you a reference list of their recommended papers that might be worth reading and that are relevant to the lecture content. Often, the lecturers will make clear the really important papers that you should know about, either on the reading list or during the lecture, especially if it is a landmark study that crops up multiple times and is essential to understand. However, I strongly encourage that whilst you explore some of the interesting and important studies that they prescribe, you should delve further into the literature and read other papers, with particular brownie points being offered for evidence of critiquing:
- other important papers the lecturer hasn’t mentioned;
- the latest, most original research – hot off the press science. This is the most outstanding thing you can be doing, since it shows you have an active interest in how the field is evolving, and you are likely to teach the examiner (often your lecturer!) something new in the field! Education is after all a two-way interaction.
2) Review Papers
Review papers, in my opinion, are often quite an efficient way into the literature. They basically provide a summary of all the experiments related to a particular subject, and are structured coherently to give you a sense of the important aspects of the field. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that you should aim to produce in the exam an answer that appears analogous to a review/perspective paper, where you convey the breadth of your reading whilst honing in on points to offer scientific criticism. Thus, if you find the latest, highly relevant review paper, your work in terms of scouring PubMed is pretty much laid out for you – just read the review, note down the important points they make, any critique of papers, and look further into the cool papers that they reference, as they will often incorporate the latest papers at the time of publication.
3) Reading and critiquing papers effectively
When reading papers, you need to be efficient. Papers can take a long time to read, and you don’t need to waste all of your newfound free time by reading them in their entirety. In general, every academic paper typically has one (at max only a few) key finding(s), often detailed in the abstract. So, your key initial focus should be on the abstract, to suss out whether the paper is relevant to your question, and what the important points are that it offers. Once you’ve deemed the paper to be worth your time, that’s when you need to start making your notes:
- Note down the first author and year of publication
- Sketch relevant, key diagrams/tables/flow charts in the body of the paper if you think you could reproduce it in the exam
- Write a paragraph outlining the research question of the paper, how the study addressed this experimentally, their main findings, and the limitations (experimental/scientific) of their findings, as well as any contrasting viewpoints (which review/perspective papers/the discussion within the paper itself are highly informative). Indeed, nearer the exam, you can effectively be memorising such paragraphs so that you can slot the relevant permutations of them into your essays without having to scramble too much in the highly time-pressured conditions to piece together an argument.
How do you make effective notes?
Since your end-goal is to solely write essays, it is worth structuring your entire year towards achieving this end goal in the most efficient way possible. Moreover, since essay papers are inherently associated with the risk of “have I prepared adequately to be able to answer enough questions,” it is worth saving the stress by adopting as risk-free an approach as possible.
Personally, the most fail-safe approach I developed was:
1) Overview the lecture by dividing the lecture into subheadings. Each lecture only really discusses a few key ideas/concepts in depth, and often lecturers will provide a helpful overview slide at the very beginning that outlines how their lectures will pan out. Use this as your framework.
2) For each subheading, I would recommend re-framing it into an essay question, either a past or predicted question, that incorporates that subheading. For example, your lecture might be on “how axons navigate towards their targets during development” and one of the ways mentioned is on “guidepost cells”, for which the lecturer offers a few slides and references to explain. In this case, “the role of guidepost cells” might be one of your subheadings that you’ve gathered from the lecture overview. Also to gauge how effectively you’ve subdivided the lecture, I would recommend looking at past papers from the offset: firstly make a document that divides the past questions according to the lecture series so you can get a grasp for what sort of essay questions are asked on the topic, and how they have varied over the years. E.g. “Axon Guidance Past Q’s ranging from 2013 – present.” Then, for your subheadings, slot in any questions they’ve asked related to that subheading (which shows that you have effectively worked out what the lecturer wants you to explore), and any remaining subheadings with your “predicted questions” might be something that could crop up in the exam. Indeed, returning to the “guidepost cells” example, this happened to be one of my predictions that came up in the exam I sat in the end of the year!
3) Once you have your subheadings for the entire lecture series that you have now converted into essay questions, it is now time to go about writing a plan/answer for these essay questions. To do so, I would always recommend writing out a complete introduction, even if just for an essay plan, since this is an high-yield skill to develop, which can make a marked impression on the examiner if done effectively, setting the tone for the rest of the essay. Like I said before, the latest review papers are excellent for helping you structure your essay as well as to give you relevant papers to look at to flesh out your response. In addition, it is always worth just typing the subheading followed by the current year in the PubMed search bar e.g. guide post cells 2018, and look at other original research papers too.
Most people will probably just end up accumulating swathes of notes on papers, many of which may turn out to be completely irrelevant for answering the essay questions, hence why I recommend adopting a focussed yet all-encompassing approach from the beginning.
How do you write a good essay?
1) Practice – if you have adopted my approach and have written essays/plans for the entire course, then this is automatically achieved.
2) Feedback – for essays that you write to completion, I would definitely recommend submitting them to the lecturer and arranging for a supervision to go through the essay as well as any other questions you may have. Supervisions are completely at your discretion this year. You won’t have weekly supervisions that’s you need to keep remembering to run to, instead it is your responsibility to organise them. In order to do this, email the lecturer whose topic it is you want a supervision on, and arrange a convenient time for the two of you. Ideally, if you submit at least one essay to every lecturer, then you can get a feel for what they tend to appreciate as a first class response, and also suggestions for how to make it even better. Indeed, since the lecturers are often the ones examining your essays at the end of the year, it would be quite wise to get their top tips on what makes them tick. However, do not feel it is necessary to have a supervision on every single topic. If you understand a topic and have done plenty of reading and are satisfied that you are comfortable with the material, then it may not be necessary.
3) General essay-writing tips – have a punchy but concise introduction that emphasises the importance of the question, defines key terms, and outlines how you will structure your argument. Use subtitles to effectively structure your essays, as well as tables and diagrams to summarise/add key content and break up long passages of prose. To conclude your essay, offer a glimpse as to “future perspectives”/”unanswered questions,” and how you might go about experimentally addressing them – examiners love this. Also (of understated importance) you should endeavour to make your work look neat and presentable.
1) Module combinations – Personally, when I chose my modules, I was lucky enough to find modules that I was interested in and which overlapped to some degree so that I could “cross-fertilise” knowledge that I had gained from other modules. This is looked upon very favourably, since it shows that you have the ability to link disparate sources of information, whilst doubling up as “extra reading” that was in fact just part of your course!
2) You DO NOT have to learn the entire course. You only have to answer 3 out of the 6/7 questions in the exam, and often (as I noticed in the Neuroscience modules) these match up nicely with the number of lecture series (i.e. 6-7 lecture series in the module, each of which an exam question comes up). The implication of course is that you can pick and choose what you want to delve into. Personally, I would recommend trying to be comprehensive for 4 topics (just in case one of the questions that comes up is a bit iffy), and also have a few essays prepared for “highly predicted” questions for the topics that you decide to discard, which you learn just as that extra fail-safe measure.
Along with the modules you study, you will be expected to do a lab based project or a dissertation, which is worth 36% of your final grade, and thus worth investing your time and effort to do well in. I won’t say much on this as all projects and dissertations are different. Be prepared to devote time to lab practicals or hours in the library finding relevant information.
During Lent term, there will be a ‘Poster Presentation’ event run by the PDN department. This is intended to replicate real experiences in science, in which you will be asked to present a poster on your project, its background, any results and resulting analysis. This doesn’t count for your end of year grade, but it can be useful particularly for picking the brains of the academics in the department and getting a feel for the sorts of viva questions that might come up, as well as any experimental suggestions they might have – which, even if you cannot execute in the lab, might be worthy of a mention in your project discussion.
At the start of Easter term you will be expected to hand in an 8,500 word write-up. My top tip here would be to have a look at some old projects to get an idea of how to go about this – the department has an archive of all the past projects completed by students, as well as detailing the top 10 projects in each year, so frame your project analogously to the tried-and-tested ones that have succeeded. Based on your project, you will have a viva. Make sure you know your project inside out and are able to talk about its relevance in its respective scientific field. This viva is important as it will impact on the grade you receive for your project.
That’s all the tips I have for you guys. It will take a while to get into the swing of things at the start of the year, but you will soon get used to it. Try and enjoy the year if you can, after all you did choose to study it! Good luck!