Seasoned chemists share their tips for surviving the undergraduate degree

Wear PPE. If I could offer first-year chemistry undergraduates only one tip for the future, PPE would be it. The long term benefits of lab coats and safety specs have been proven by scientists, whereas the rest of the advice below has no basis beyond a random poll on Twitter, asking experienced chemists sage words for the new university intakes about to start their careers.

Plan ahead, says @andymclach. ‘Review lecture notes before each tutorial, plan your actions before each lab sessions, engage with peers and turn up,’ he suggests. ‘Take general chemistry classes seriously,’ advocates @jubsnjubs, before less helpfully adding: ‘and drink coffee’. And Toria Stafford urges you to pay attention – ‘what you are learning now forms the basis for pretty much everything else you will cover in later years’.

‘Textbooks are your friends!’ advises @JacquieRobson, ‘don’t read front to back but read ahead in the course so you know what’s coming. Learn to use the index.’ A valuable tip, there – and keep in mind that while the university library has the books for free, they’ll all mysteriously vanish come exam season. Nessa Carson advocates a separate folder for each lecture course: organise yourself in the same way the university presents the material.

You’re not in it alone. ‘Don’t be afraid to ask questions or for help,’ remarks @nerdintraining. This is backed up by Kristy Turner’s sensible counsel: ‘Get to know your personal tutor … we can help you navigate the twists and turns and prevent bigger problems developing.’ Anthony Kane goes further, reminding students that lecturers are there to help: don’t be afraid to talk to or email them.

Remember it’s OK to have a little fun. Self-care matters, and it’s easy to get swallowed up in depression, imposter syndrome or just plain homesickness. The dirty truth of the first year of any degree is that it’s really about getting everyone up to speed, anyway – it’s not the end of the universe if you make a mistake. Make sure your support network is in place, take personal time and don’t be afraid to say you’re feeling overwhelmed.

No matter what older chemists may tell you, this is a tough degree. And trust me on the PPE.