“Thinking of criticisms to every single paper became automatic.” – Lena Duma (Biomedical Sciences, St Hugh’s College)

Hi! My name is Lena, and I’m a second-year Biomed student from Poland. I love reading books and playing team sports, like volleyball and sailing. I have liked biology for as long as I can remember but always thought I would become a doctor since, in Poland, there are not many other paths viable after doing biology in high school. After a talk in my school, I started considering a science career in the UK, and here I am.

Why did you decide to study your subject at Oxford?

I’ve always been more or less interested in biology. My great interest truly started when I did a project on carcinogenesis in high school and was blown away by the complexity of the pathology of cancer. I read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer’ and decided I want to be involved in cancer research. Oxford seemed like an obvious choice since it’s pretty well-known in Poland. I liked the course structure and tutorial system, so I just decided to go big or go home and applied.

What was your experience of the application process?

Writing a personal statement was excruciating; I hated pitching myself to the universities. But after I wrote it, the interviews honestly weren’t that bad. Of course, I was very stressed, but all of the tutors were lovely, and I found their questions very engaging. There is no one way to ace the interviews, but in general, try to be yourself and try to answer every question. Even if you don’t know at first, use what you do know to formulate a hypothesis. Tutors want to see how you think, and often they ask questions they don’t expect you to get right but want to know how you tackle a challenge.

How were the first weeks of your ‘Oxford experience’ like?

Coming to Oxford, I tried not to have many expectations because I knew it was probably going to be different. I was very stressed about finding new friends and overcoming the language barrier, but everyone I met in Fresher’s Week was lovely, and the college structure helped me to find friends from across all subjects. Still, the first few weeks were intimidating with events taking place in very old and beautiful buildings, so there were many new faces and a whole new culture to learn about. I think the moment when I felt the most left out was my first party in the UK when everyone around me knew the lyrics to every single song that was playing—but this changed eventually, and now I know more song lyrics than I ever thought was necessary.

What does a typical day during term look like?

My typical day starts at around 9am as we have lectures in the morning almost every day (two to three in the first year and one to two in the second year). After lectures, I usually head back to college and spend time before lunch to do any ‘little’ things that I need to do that day, for example, respond to emails, proofread my essay and things like that. Then I usually have lunch with my friends. I often spend the afternoons reading and writing essays for tutorials—we typically have one essay a week—or we have labs1. Then at around 7pm I have dinner with my friends and spend the evenings relaxing by either going to some college or university-wide events or just chatting to people or watching a series. On top of that, I play for a university volleyball team, so I have two hours of training every week and play games on the weekends.

What is your experience of the Oxford tutorial system?

Tutorials are one-hour long classes taken in a small group (between two to four students and a tutor). In Biomed, we are usually expected to prepare and hand in an essay before the tutorial. As most of our exams are essay-based, we spend a lot of time learning how to structure a good essay. Tutorials can have a different format depending on both the topic and the tutor. Most of them take a form of discussion, where we talk with tutors about the material from the lectures and expand on it. We then are often asked about experimental design, and we need to think about how the things we learn about were discovered.

For the more complex topics, tutorials can sometimes be similar to a personal lecture, where we say what we have struggled with at the beginning, and the tutor explains it in depth. In general, I have found tutorials very engaging. Knowing that we will have to engage with a tutor motivates me to learn the material better. I also love how personal they are and how they give us a chance to engage in the lecture material more.

What skills will you gain from your course?

Apart from the knowledge we learn in terms of course content, there is a heavy emphasis on critical thinking and questioning everything you hear. In the beginning, thinking of criticisms to every single paper I read felt forced and annoying, but after a while, I began doing it automatically. Furthermore, by writing so many essays, we learned how to formulate our thoughts and most importantly, how to do it in a concise but understandable way.

What is College Life for you?

I study in St. Hugh’s, which is a college that, in Oxford terms, is a little far from the city centre (so it’s roughly a 15-minute walk). It has rather big grounds compared to other colleges. We have an amazing library on-site that has most of the books you need and lots of space, which is perfect for lazy people like me who can’t be bothered to walk anywhere to study. Biomedical science is a somewhat centralised course, where from the second year our tutorials are organised by the department rather than by the college. Hence, college choice is not that important when it comes to the academic part of the university experience. Having said that, we still meet up with our personal tutors at the beginning and end of each term, where we have a chance to raise any issues we might have.

How is life outside university & college?

There is so much to do in Oxford outside of studying (maybe even too much). Soon after coming here you’ll become overwhelmed with all the events popping up on your Facebook feed and in your email inbox that—if you’re anything like me—you will probably never attend. There is a society for everything, and while I don’t get involved in society-life, a lot of people enjoy them.

Now is also a great chance to get involved in sports. I got to continue playing volleyball for a university team, which I highly recommend; Varsity, the annual match against Cambridge, is a highlight of the year. There are also many more casual clubs at the college level. At St. Hugh’s we play table tennis once a week, and it’s a very fun way to socialise.

For me, however, the best way to spend my time outside of my degree is to hang out with my friends. Living in college means that you live very close to most of the people you know, so the potential for spontaneous meetings is endless. I have spent hours sitting on the stairs in my building, procrastinating on an essay, just talking about nothing and I do not regret a second of it.

Anything else you would like to add about your student life at Oxford?

Having said all that, I think it is important to note that Oxford isn’t some fantasy paradise of knowledge. Not all lecturers and tutors are good, and the high workload can be very stressful. One manifestation of it even got its own name: ‘essay crisis.’ An essay crisis is when you start your essay way too late and need to stay up or miss lectures just to finish it on the deadline. Moreover, due to the way the tutorial system works, you might be forced to read a lot about some topic you couldn’t care less about just because you have an assignment on it (although that mostly happens in the first year as you start to specialise in the second and in the third you choose your own tutorials).

While the college system is very useful for making friends at first—for example by chatting to different people in Hall during meals—it may become a little intimidating later, because you see people everywhere forming friendship groups faster than you, which may make you feel left out.

Also, as Oxford is such a grand institution, it can value its reputation and wealth more than students. For example, this is visible in the treatment we receive from colleges in terms of accommodation. We are generally discouraged from staying in college outside of term time, and when we leave for a break, we have to pack everything in our room into boxes and leave it in storage or take it with us.

All in all, Oxford is just a university. It has its quirks and lots of bizarre traditions, and it’s not perfect. Nevertheless, it does give you a chance to engage with the scientific community in a way that not many other universities do.


1) ‘Labs’ refers to laboratory practical classes.

This article is part of our series of ‘Student profiles’ where we explore the student life at Oxford. Did you ever wonder how students come to study at Oxford and how the application process feels like? What about all the quirky Oxford traditions, the college system and tutorials? And how does all this ‘Oxford experience’ differ between natural and social science courses? In this series we ask students to tell us about their experience.