So…About Intercalation Year

You’d expect that after several months of radio (blog) silence, I should make up for it with quality content. Well, strap in, boys — here is a real saucy reflection on how intercalation year went for me…

Starting off ~wild~ with a quick heads-up: this is entirely my personal experience and should in no way be extrapolated to what yours is/will be like (I chose to do BSc Physiological Sciences, so that in itself will be different in both the degree you’ll choose, where you choose to do it, and even the units you pick).

So intercalation had its awesome bits, which I’ll dip into, but a lot of my friends have mentioned feeling this sort of ‘intellectual shock‘ — feeling misinformed, and almost even a sense of betrayal, from the people we’ve spoken to before beginning intercalation, who never told us it’d be like how we found it to be. So, I hope to give an honest account of how I found the year, which I wasn’t aware of when making my decision to intercalate.

Also, my creative writing has severely regressed due to the lack of leisure reading in the past term, so forgive my usage of simple terminology. I mean…I can quote a paper pensively speculating the role of aquaporins in the urothelium? Aren’t pathetic redemptions great? Anyway. Enough of me faffing about, and onto the main body.

Let’s start positive.

Intercalation year brutally forced me to learn tedious skills I would’ve never dreamt to sit down and teach myself. Reading scientific papers, then scrutinising their approach? Learning how to use SPSS, a statistics software, to analyse dreary data-sets? If it sounds dry, it definitely felt like that on several (all) occasions; however, they are skills I’m honestly so grateful to have learnt, and can now execute, albeit mediocrely.

When the relief of submitting dissertation is vastly greater than the distress of how awful it probably turned out (yes, that is a mini snickers you see at the side)

So this next pro is highly subjective, but I tremendously enjoyed how much time alone I had. Because my last lectures ended late January, I essentially had no more scheduled teaching for the rest of the academic year, unless you count the revision seminars before exam period. Of course, there were all these tiny niggly things to deal with (like a little something called a dissertation that determines, oh, I don’t know — 33.4% of your entire degree as an intercalator).

But that was what my Term 2 was like: a solid 4 months of however you decided to use your time. Don’t get me wrong — you can most definitely take this time to travel or indulge in other fun social shenanigans. But I’d enjoy early evenings on Brandon Hill wearing out the Irozuku Sekai no Ashita Kara soundtrack, try out little hippie restaurant hideouts for Sunday brunch, and unintentionally act as the most suspicious Geocacher ever. I probably attended a grand total of 2.5 actual social gatherings, but hey, if it counts for anything, hundreds of minutes worth of FaceTiming occurred (time differences still stress me out). So, that’s just my outlook, but it’s totally up to you in the end.

Okay, now onto things that aren’t necessarily negatives, but just general comments to bust in some real-talk.

Intercalation passed by like slime that a kid dumped way too much Borax in. Earlier in September, I volunteered at New Scientist Live and had the privilege of monitoring “The Great Slime Race” attraction (an unfortunate test of resilience. Troves and troves of kids…and me, not a fan of kids. Nor slime). Anyway, one of the games included plopping your personalised slime into a tiny mesh container, and timed to see whose slime would withstand gravity the longest. There were some which splatted down like bird poo in the first 2 seconds (then the dismaying OHhHhh’s from the parents, as they see that dreaded quiver of their child’s lips). Then there was slime which hardly made it past the metal rungs of the container itself — barely moving, barely indented, barely going anywhere. I can’t believe my duty was to stare at this stupidly sparkly amorphous blob for 20 minutes; my contact lenses were absolutely screeching.

I mean, good on you, kiddo – you’re winning the game. But it sure doesn’t feel like it, does it?

That was how intercalation felt to me: an absurdly never-ending, Borax-crazy slime. You’re giving it your absolute all and more, but progress seems microscopic at best. And you ‘win’ by simply sticking it through.

Admittedly mesmerising if they’ve got that Goldilocks’s ratio right, though…

Of course it feels like ‘time flies by’ when I’m comparing this current state of post-cortisol submersion, proportionately greater >10,000 lux days, and shockingly empty seats in Beacon House, to the drawl of introductory “Why are you even here BSc” lectures, 8-month early pep talks (thank you, but not yet), and being the weirdo at Fresher’s Fair who knew way too much about where the freebies were. But it felt begrudgingly slow throughout the year for me, and it was the first time I’ve ever had so many recallable moments of “When will this ever end?” in an academic setting.

Be smart about your revision; you cannot cover everything. “Do not put all your eggs in one basket!” was the prevailing message hammered into us during revision period. So I thought, duh — I’m the kind of person who never wants to leave things untouched anyway; why would I not go through everything!?

…because, sadly, we’re no Spider-Man. Sigh. Teach us, Tom.

It’s really not the same as high school. See, everybody is incredibly bright, but it is utterly unfeasible to cover all the bases in the context of the university’s caliber, and then having to go above & beyond for a higher mark. This, of course, is unsettling if you have a similar mindset to me — having to gamble on topics that will come up in the exam, and selectively revising only half of an entire unit!? What a recipe for anxiety.

I’m so sorry olfaction, but it was an easy decision to selectively avoid you, there’s just way too much content already okay 😦

But you have to trust yourself. It’s not that I hated the topics I didn’t revise, but you’d be fooling yourself to go over absolutely everything and not feel alarmingly overwhelmed. With a bit of deduction, instinct, and hints from the unit structure/lecturers, you can somewhat predict the essay questions. For example, it was an offhand remark by the unit head, “…so because each lecturer set a question…”, that clued us into conducting smarter revision by just looking at the content of 3 out of 5 lecturers, because you’re bound to hit at least one of them even in the worst case scenario. But then other units are not as predictable, so once again, every exam is different even if they’re set-up the same — your revision approach will vary with each test.

It’s a break — from medicine. Not a break in general. So, know why you are doing it. It isn’t an easy year, and everybody has different motivations starting out. You are told to drive by passion, and indeed what you choose to do ultimately stems from some sort of inkling interest — but why intercalate? The reasons vary. Some want the experience of research, some just want a year out before starting clinical years, others find the idea “pretty cool”, or one person told me “I’m not *physically* ready” (yeah, whatever that means). There are obviously discrepancies between courses, with some coming out feeling absolutely lush (I’m looking at you, Childhood Studies — we get you had a great year, okay!?), and some…some looking like they need help.

Nah, but all in all, everybody gets through it one way or the other; the main take-home message is that intercalation is not a break, though how close you lie to this statement on the spectrum will obviously depend on your personal experience. I chose to intercalate for a few reasons, the main one being the challenge it posed and the subsequent experience of resilience. So, just figure out why you’re intercalating and know it isn’t close-my-eyes easy — but not to disregard everything else you get from it.

You become a ‘normal’ student for a year. Initially, I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant when a lot of my fellow intercalating pals cited this to be a positive reason. I assumed maybe this was because of the minimal contact hours per week compared to medicine and the workload flexibility (it boggles my mind that my Thursdays & Fridays were empty during Term 1, albeit meant for dissertation research). But, now having come to the end of this 5-week transition hospital training where I’ve reunited with familiar faces from pre-clinical years, I sort of now realise what this ‘being a normal student’ means: the false pretence in posing as a final year undergraduate student gives you a greater connection to the rest of the university, from the irks of submitting our dissertations in the wee hours of the morning, to the rushing sense of finality stepping out of Coombe Dingle for (what I hope to be) the last time. But, medical school does something different, secondary to this well-established subject isolation when we longingly wave our non-medics good-bye: fostering a strong sense of community in its entirely own misunderstood entity, to feel like a family, because we’re in it for the long-run. Ugh, I know, so wholesome!

Anyhow, here I am, having finished the last day of hospital training. The ratio of panini press to smoothie blender usage has considerably plummeted in the last couple weeks since the weather melted into humidity; the town has gotten as arm-y and leg-y as I’ve ever seen it. Ah, it finally feels like *real* summer has officially begun.

Oh, and about graduation. Well, results were released on Monday…and I’m glad to report that I didn’t order that £45 graduation gown for nothing.