‘I wish I’d known that when I went to uni’ – Stirling staff share their advice

Freshers Week is over for 2016. It’s time to get stuck into this semester’s course work, essays, dissertations and all the rest. For some of our freshers, this is only the third week they’ve spent away from home. Ever (pro-tip: Everything is going to be OK).

In light of this, we asked some of our staff members what they wish they’d known when they first started studying.

Professor Paul Cairney

University of Strathclyde, 1990: Politics and Economics

My intellectual wish is a bit boring and Professor-y. I wish I had known how to read and think.

I spent a lot of time staring at books and articles, hoping that the hours I put in would translate perfectly into the knowledge I developed. They didn’t.

Instead, it took me a long time to develop reading skills: to decide first what to look for, to try to find it in books, to stop reading when I found it, and to use it to spark off my own ideas rather than rely on those of the original authors. It took me longer to realise that the hours spent producing a crystal clear research question would save me days in the long run.

My life wish is less boring, and seems quite romantic now that I am writing it down: I sort of wish that I knew I’d still be sharing my life with the person I met in my first year politics tutorial group.

Corrie Campbell (Communications)

University of Edinburgh, 2007: English Literature

I wish I’d known that there’s no use in panicking! It’s something I occasionally forgot along the way. I think I just about grasped the concept by the time I parted with my beloved 10,000 word dissertation and – with mild hand cramp – scribbled the last words on to my final exam.

Take a step back

Don’t be daunted by the volume of reading presented to you. Yes, the reading lists are long. Yes, there are a lot of deadlines. I wish I’d realised that you can be smart about these things – prioritise, embrace list writing and most of all, remember to take a step back and enjoy it all. I loved the books, poetry and plays I studied, but I should have reminded myself from time to time just how lucky I was to dedicate four years of my life to that enjoyment. I went on the basis that if you follow what you’re passionate about, you’re on the right track to finding a job that you love at the end of it all.

Make use of your summer hols

Those long summers can work in your favour if you make use of them. Earn some dosh, get out there and gain some experience that you can use in the future. This was particularly important for me. I wanted to give myself that helping hand to knock a wee bit louder on the doors I wanted to open in the future.

Corrie Campbell, 2010


Last but definitely not least is travel. You have weeks stretched out ahead of you each summer. This is your chance to go and see the world! Five weeks backpacking in Morocco in my third year not only gave me the wanderlust bug that inspired me to travel for 18 months after graduating, but taught me how to be resourceful, bargain for your life (I know this taxi is really £2, not £20 mate!), read a map (essential life skill) and relate to people from hugely different walks of life. For me, it’s a no brainer.

Oh and one more thing: don’t go home too often. Cut those apron strings and go it alone if you can.

Professor Rachel Norman

University of Liverpool, 1988: Mathematics

I arrived at Liverpool University to study maths in 1988 – I studied maths because it was what I enjoyed and what I was best at. I don’t remember being anxious about what my long term career plan was, but I wish I’d known that I would end up with a great job by continuing to study what I enjoyed and taking the opportunities that came my way. I don’t know whether life would have turned out differently if I had taken up that offer to go on tour with Jimmy Sommerville – me and my lighting rig!

Prof Rachel Norman, 1989

If I had my time over again I would both work harder and have more fun. I’m sure I could have come away from my degree understanding more mathematics than I did – the opportunities to dance are few and far between when you’re in your (cough) early forties.

Finally: I wish I’d known that although my hair was boring and straight, asking for a ‘light perm’ was never going to work and someone should have taken me to one side and explained about mullets.

Professor Leigh Sparks

University of Cambridge, 1976: Geography

I arrived in Cambridge from a South Wales Comprehensive School, one year older than most of my fellow first years. In my year off I’d run a pub, interspersed with manual labour at a factory making industrial fuses and being a builder’s labourer. Cambridge University was a different world, filled with very different people, with often very distinctly different backgrounds and experiences from me.

The absurdity of a first formal college dinner when we were given a knife and fork to unpeel and eat a banana, made me wonder what world I’d entered. The absurdity of my first lecture – when the eminent Professor began to read his text book out loud word for word – made me realise I needed to take charge of my own learning. Thankfully, I quickly encountered more engaging academics.

Knowing my way round alcohol helped me settle in, as did my sporting ‘prowess’. My capabilities were easily demonstrated, but then so too were my limitations. Academically I was hard working but not single mindedly so. As a tutor (who 20 years later I found out was an Enigma code breaker) put it in a reference, ‘surprisingly, inside that prop forward’s body is an excellent mind’.

Prof Leigh Sparks (2nd from right), 1976
Prof Leigh Sparks (2nd from right), 1976

My three years were a blur of socialising, sport and studying. The freedom to control my own activities, seek out my own friends, create my own pathways and to escape the occasionally clinging claustrophobia of South Wales made it exhilarating if exhausting. My friends became life-long ones. My studying led eventually to a PhD and becoming an academic. My sport became more recreational as, by playing with both, I realised the dedication (and skill) needed to be an England cricketer or a British Lions rugby player was some way beyond me.

I grasped every opportunity I could, including spending four months in my second year working and travelling on exchange throughout Australia. I wish I knew at the start both how short a time Cambridge would be, but also how its opportunities would shape and change the rest of my life.

When my mother died last year I found letters home I’d written in my first year (yes I am that old – I predate mobiles and computers and had to rely on snail mail). I was initially ludicrously bright eyed and awe-struck by Cambridge and some of the staff and students. But there quickly grew a recognition that I was every bit as good as most of them were academically (if a lot rougher socially and on the rugby pitch).

By second year my father wrote to tell me my mother was wondering if I was still alive as my letters home seemed to have ceased. My graduation ceremony was on the day of my father’s birthday – guess which I forgot and about which he never ceased to remind me?

A lesson for me – grab the opportunities, fully embrace all the experiences, have no regrets – but remember where you come from.

George Vekic (Social & Digital Media)

University of Stirling, 2007: Business Studies and Marketing

I had a false start. I spent 2006 studying Biochemistry at Strathclyde before quickly realising that lab coats were just not my thing. Plus the commute was an absolute killer.

In all honesty I should have just went to Stirling to begin with – I lived locally with my parents, just down the road in Alloa. I’d visited campus almost all my life. When I started my course in 2007 I felt at home.

George Vekic, 2009 (R)

Uni life wasn’t without its challenges, though. At one point I had three jobs, which was just a wee bit too much to juggle along with my uni work – which inevitably suffered. Thankfully my mum and dad were really supportive (don’t take that support for granted).

Anyway, here are four nuggets of advice I wish I’d been given when I started university.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Seriously. I worried about every single little thing at university. Just take each day as it comes and chip away at big, scary pieces of work. Write down a to-do list then break down each item into smaller checklists.

Organise yourself

Find a method of organising yourself and what you need to do each semester. Back then I used post-it notes, these days I use Trello to organise my work and personal lives.

If you find it hard to concentrate on a piece of work, try the Pomodoro technique – where you focus on one thing in particular for 25 minutes at a time broken up with 5 minute breaks. You will get stuff done.

Start writing early

Start writing those essays early. On the very day you get your assignment, take a single page of paper and write out a basic structure for what you’re going to write – a skeleton document. Then start to flesh it out – list all the key points you want to cover and then check them off as you write.

You should always have a first and a final draft of your assignment, with several iterations in between. Ask a friend, classmate or flatmate to proof read and provide critique.

Join a club or society

My biggest regret is not joining a club or society whilst I studied at Stirling. I toyed with the idea of joining the rugby club – even going along to a few training sessions – but decided against it. Don’t make the same mistake: even if you’re not that into sport, there’s bound to be a society full of like-minded folks. These connections are important in later life – for both your social and professional life.

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