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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Student Blog- Getting the most out of your Chemistry degree

Third year Pharmaceutical Chemistry student Greg Alvey offers his tips and tricks to make the most of the course

Greg Alvey

After completing my third year of pharmaceutical chemistry at Queen Mary I feel in a position to offer a few tips and tricks of how to get by. I am far from a naturally academic person and came in to this degree from an access course which I felt slightly underprepared me. So I relied on hard work, good organisation and a little charm to get me through. In this blog I’ll talk about how I’ve approached the content of the modules to get it to stick.

Get the books

So, first things first. You’re going to need some books for revising and to help your understanding of the concepts. Now, for 1st year there is one pivotal book that I’d advise you to buy which is ‘Chemistry3’. Most of the course content will be covered in there and it’s the perfect textbook to transition you into degree level chemistry. The beauty of ‘Chemistry3’ is that it’s likely there will be second years wanting to shift theirs so you may get it cheaper from them, so ask around. If you keep it nice you can do the same thing.

For the other years ‘Chemistry3’ doesn’t quite cut it as the topics get more advanced. My advice here is to get the reading list from the lecturer leading the module. Then get the books from the library before term resumes so that you can guarantee having one without paying through the nose for it. However, this does come with a disclaimer, don’t forget to renew the books. Otherwise you’ll end up like me, scraping your already empty pockets to pay library fines.

Prepping for Paperwork

You’ll need to be ready to take on a barrage of paperwork and not just put it in a folder willy-nilly… oh no, believe me when I say you’re going to lose half of it. I’d hope most of you will be much more organised and sensible that me in my first semester. But in case you want some advice, I found the trick to it is to have a folder for each module. In which, you have plastic wallets with the paperwork for each session that is titled and dated. This means when you come around to revising, you know exactly where your notes and handouts are.

Then to save you dragging loads of folders in to uni, I found it useful to have a day folder. In it would be some spare plastic wallets as well as notes that relates to any workshops you’ll be doing that day. The key to making this system work is refiling the wallets back into your module folders at home at the end of each day.

Now the other option which a lot of my colleagues took was to go paperless and have everything on a laptop or tablet. If you have this facility where you can annotate on the tablet with a pen then go for it. But I would advise not to type everything. As you’ll have come to see with most sciences a diagram or sketch can be the best way to explain or summarise a concept. For me personally the process of drawing or even handwriting content helps me retain it.

On a more general organisation note I’d suggest getting yourself a diary. There is loads to do, especially as you progress into the later years. This can seem quite overwhelming but I found having a rough plan of what I can do and when in the week helped me squash this catalyst for anxiety.

Prepping for lectures

This is something that helps so much and means you get the most out of the lecture. I always try to make sure I have read and printed all the slides so I can take them in. Some lecturers will print them for you. If I have time I also do some extra reading around the material being covered. With lectures being two hours long, and especially when its Friday afternoon, it’s easy to switch off for 2 minutes and suddenly you’re lost. Already understanding what the lecture is about and having some idea of the concepts it’s trying to introduce to you means you can pick it up again. This means you’re not wasting time in the lecture, which leads me on to my next point.  

Go to and engage in lectures

You’re going to be sick of hearing this from your teachers now and during your every year at uni too. But honestly never a truer word was spoken.  Being in the lectures gives you the chance to see all the diagrams drawn on the board, hear the content firsthand and have your questions answered. It’s no secret that the lectures get recorded. However in many of the recordings you can’t see what being written on the board and the sound quality can not be the best. Also in my experience it takes so much longer to get through a lecture even if you watch it at 1.5x speed. It’s so easy to be distracted and you just end up pausing it a writing everything down rather than being selective over the most important points.

When you first go into the lecture halls it can be intimidating. I remember my first lecture was in organic chemistry and there must have been over 200 people there, it was incredibly daunting. One of the best pieces of advice I received from my school chemistry teacher Jon was: “the only silly question is the one that you don’t ask”. With that in mind I went into lectures and asked questions and gave a good shot at any questions asked. After all you are the one paying to be there, you would be silly not to get the best understanding you could from it.  

Note taking in a lecture is a real skill. Something hopefully you will have an opportunity to practice before you come to university. Everyone has there own approach so you need to find the best way for you. I’ve seen loads of really creative ways but if you’re anything like me and lack the artistic flare here’s a fool proof way. I bring; printed slides, a couple highlighters, 3 different coloured pens and a note pad. The main essence of my note taking is annotating the slides. To add to this I keep larger notes of extra information given on the pad under a title of the slide number so later I know where I am referring to. It’s as simple as that.

Put in the time after lectures

Now if you just have timetabled sessions 10 -2 it doesn’t quite mean you can just finish and go home. You need to put some time in to cement that content you covered in the lecture otherwise it’ll go straight out the other ear. This is where I find people differ the most in their approach. But none the less the best time to do follow up work is straight after the lecture, failing that the days commencing. It being so fresh in your mind means any notes you take after are going to be the most coherent.

For me writing my notes up is a culmination of information on the slides with the annotations, adding in the notes from the pad and if I found something great in one of the text books then that too. I take all these sources and combine them in my own words with plenty of colour and sketches where ever possible. I can’t lie, this is a pretty lengthy process and can sometimes take up to 5 hours just to do the notes for one lecture. But, for me anyway, it’s the best way to have the information presented. It means that when it comes to any workshops or answering questions set after the lecture the information is fresh and structured in my mind so I may know the answer already. Then if not I know exactly where to find the relevant information within my own notes.

The simple matter of fact is that if you put the time into your degree you will have noting to worry about. There are no shortcuts in chemistry, we are forever on the hunt for perfection. This takes time, dedication and patience. If you apply this to your studies you will succeed no matter your background.

Once you understand chemistry’s central concepts, that’s when it really gets fun. You get into the intricacies of the processes and tinker with matter. You see how it contributes to our lives from basic comforts like fabrics, to the semi conductors essential for communication. You can see how to challenge the chemical industries’ stigma as a polluting sector by putting our heads together and seeking a greener chemistry.



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