Jamie Somerville’s College Journey from Dublin High School to Oxford University
My high school self would probably die of shock if he heard what I was currently doing. “A PhD?! But that requires even more school and writing (gasp)… A THESIS!” Throughout high school, I was arrogant enough to believe that I wouldn’t need English for my future (Ms. Briggs and Ms. Hollison can both attest to this). I really enjoyed math and I thought that as long as I excelled in it, success would just be piled at my doorstep. In my senior year at Dublin High, I applied only to the UC’s mainly because I really didn’t want to write any more application essays than I needed to. To compound the issue, my belief in the frivolous nature of writing translated into not spending as much time on my essays as I should have. Well, March rolled around and to my horror I was rejected from UCLA. My initial reaction was denial; I thought there must have been a mistake. I even started drafting a letter to petition the decision. Lucky for me, UCSD saw beyond the laziness of my essays and decided to accept me anyway. Moral of the story for any high school students reading this: being a good writer matters in life, not just for applications but also for communicating in the workplace and being able to explain your thinking. That was my first lesson post-high school and I wanted to make sure I got that across this time around.
With that said, I hope now to answer the maybe more interesting question: how did I go from entering UCSD as a Mathematics major to flying across the Atlantic to pursue a PhD in Materials Science at the University of Oxford? Well the first thing I’d like to make very clear is that UCSD was an absolute blessing for me. After 3 weeks in my first math major class, I decided that conceptual math wasn’t for me and I dropped the class and quit the major. I was fortunately allowed to change to what was the newest major in the university at the time, NanoEngineering. For those of you not familiar, “nanoengineering” (which, for the first time ever, my updated version of Word isn’t trying to autocorrect) is defined as the design and manipulation of materials that have one or more dimensions constrained to the length scale of 1 to 100 nanometers (1 m = 1 billion nm). I was also drawn in by how cool nanorobots sounded.
Fast forward to the end of my sophomore year, I was applying to internships in materials science (my focus within the Nano major). I managed to get one phone interview, and when asked what a grain boundary was (a very basic question for someone in this field), I had absolutely no idea. I had yet to take any upper division major classes at that point and this unsuccessful interview convinced me that I needed to get more experience ASAP. When I got back to school after the summer break, I started applying to a lot of laboratories within UCSD. At most research universities, a professor’s primary day job is to try to produce cutting edge research in the hopes of getting papers published in academic journals. In the science and engineering fields, this is usually done with the professor overseeing a laboratory filled with a combination of post-doctoral employees, PhD/masters students, and undergraduates. Despite my many formal applications, it was actually attending a Faculty/Student mixer where I met my undergraduate research supervisor, Professor Meng, and learned about her work in batteries. I sent her my resume that same evening, interviewed the next day, and had an email in my inbox on the bus ride home telling me I’d start my unpaid internship the following Monday. Oh the power of networking (another lesson to be had). I learned a huge amount over the next two years working in Professor Meng’s lab, but maybe most importantly, I learned I wasn’t as different from this perceived alien species of PhD student as I had previously thought. I felt the same obsession (bordering on compulsion) to understand things as I saw in them. Coming up through school, you read textbooks filled with information that has been proven time and time again. Being in a research lab, you are potentially dealing with materials, results, etc. that no one in the history of the world has seen before. There’s definitely a thrilling element to it. Coming full circle, in my fourth year at UCSD I started applying to universities again. This time I wasn’t satisfied with only looking at the possibilities California held and I began searching beyond as well. Knowing I had already been accepted to the fifth year engineering masters program at UCSD gave me a nice net to fall back on. I could then limit my applications to universities in the top 20 or so in the world. My reasoning for this was that the top ranked universities get significantly more research funding from the government and other agencies. At these schools, depending on the subject, a PhD student could expect to get all of his/her tuition paid plus a stipend to comfortably live off of. Learning from my undergrad applications, I spent months tweaking my statement of purpose bringing to light what I thought might make me stand apart from the rest (my own undergraduate research project, various leadership roles, and other hobbies).
One of the first schools to contact me after I submitted applications was the University of Oxford. After 2 different Skype interviews with the professor I wanted to work with, I got the email one very early morning saying I’d been accepted. Unfortunately, pure bliss was soon outweighed by the stress that ensued from the caveat email that followed, stating I was required to decide in the next 3 weeks. 7 of the 10 schools that I applied to hadn’t even got back to me at this point. But the choice had to be made; I took a week off school in the middle of midterms and flew to England to see Oxford and meet the lab group I’d be working with. I then traveled back across the ocean to New Jersey and had a look around Princeton in the middle of a blizzard, followed by a quick trip to the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign (also in a blizzard). It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, but the thought of gaining greater life experience outside the US at Oxford outweighed all else and here I am today. Oxford is everything I hoped it would be. My research on materials for next generation rechargeable batteries seems to be coming along nicely already. I have made friends that are here studying from the US, Canada, Columbia, Brazil, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Austria, Kenya, China, Japan, Korea, and Australia just to name a few off the top of my head. I’ve been playing a ton of football (soccer), picked up the hobby of darts, and have already taken on a couple different leadership positions in my college and academic department. I’ve come to appreciate a few things that Oxford does differently than the US. I really enjoy the fancy dinners, wearing all the regalia and pretending you go to Hogwarts (side note: some of the Harry Potter series was actually filmed at Oxford). Another thing is the “common room”. Each of the 38 colleges that make up Oxford will have one or more common rooms that people will congregate in at anytime of the day. Linacre (my college) serves coffee and tea there after meals and has a heavily subsidized bar in the center of it, open in the evenings (also foosball, darts, a jukebox, the list could go on). Lastly, the people that Oxford attracts to give talks/seminars are quite astounding. So far this academic year, we’ve had the likes of Dr. Dieter Ziescht (head of Mercedes Benz), George Whitesides (the most cited living chemist), and Morgan Freeman (need I say more?). And in true Oxford style, of course there was wine and appetizers at the receptions following all three of these talks, free for all attending. Despite all the fantastic parts of living here, missing my family, friends, and girlfriend can be tough at times. Fortunately, this is somewhat alleviated by the knowledge that I can go back and live the rest of my life under the California sun, if I so choose. Making the most of this opportunity before me, however, is literally a once in a lifetime chance and I could not appreciate that reality any more. I hope I’m able to carry this same attitude with me beyond Oxford and into my future. If you were able to get through this rather long and unstructured story, thank you for reading 🙂 If anyone has any questions or wants advice about graduate school, university in general or anything else, don’t be afraid to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Jamie’s first article for OneDublin’s Life in College Series: Life at UC San Diego – From Dublin High AP to Nanoengineering.