Life@John Hopkins: Meta-study abroad

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A long-haul transatlantic flight brought me to this country in the far west, which many people are seemingly familiar with, due to the enormous cultural influence it has cast upon the world. The same insecurity and excitement surged within me once again, even though I was much more capable of containing these emotions now that I have spent two years reading biological sciences at UCL. I have since settled down in a flat that is just 5-minute walking distance from the gorgeous Homewood Campus at Johns Hopkins University. I am really grateful for having this opportunity to go to the US while studying abroad in the UK (hence, the title) and would like to share my experiences and also my perspectives on the differences between these two most sought-after study abroad destinations.

Academics. It is undeniable that a UK degree is more specialized than its American counterpart. In the UK, you have very limited flexibility when it comes to course choices. For instance, in my second year, out of 4 credits I have to accomplish, at least 3 have to be biology-related and it is rather rare for you take elective modules offered in another school/department, due to various reasons (mainly administrative and pre-requisite requirements), unless it is a language module. On the other hand, in the US, many students are allowed to juggle Virginia Woolf, the nodes of Ranvier and epidemiology in the same semester. Even though you still have certain requirements that you need to meet for your major, you have much more freedom compared to UK students. In this semester, I am taking neuroscience courses, which are completely foreign to me, as my specialization back home is molecular and cell biology. I am planning to do a course on natural catastrophes next term, since I finally got the chance to quench my thirst for studying geology. I simply cannot end this paragraph without comparing the grading systems. In the UK, grades are categorized into classes: first class, upper second class (2:1), lower second class (2:2) and third class. The grades are absolute. If you get higher than 70 (which is hard, trust me), you are considered first class, regardless of how your peers perform. In the US, you are assigned a letter grade for each course you take, and that letter grade corresponds to a GPA score. At the end of the term, you will get a weighted average of your GPA score (depending on the credit weight of the courses). How is the letter grade assigned? It depends on the course, many courses use normalized curve, which means that if you obtain a mark that is around 90% of the highest score below the 4th percentile, you will be assigned an A grade (and of course those top 4% will get an A+). Some courses may apply different strategies, for example, you probably need to get a score that is one standard deviation above the average grade to be in the A range or just to be top 10% of the class to achieve it. This is very dissimilar to the UK system, as you will face situations when you do not ‘reap what you sow’ and experience tension and competitions amongst your peers at all times. The advantages are that you are going to be more diligent and fastidious, as you will be very concerned about the scores of each report and midterms (I don’t even know what it was before coming here), and know how to manage your time so that you can learn happily and get a good grade. The UK education requires a huge amount of self-discipline and rigorous independent study, as in many cases; only one final exam (for each module) that counts heavily towards the final mark is given in the end of each academic year. This does not mean that it is easier. The exams in the US comprise mostly short-answered, analytical, problem-solving questions – you are normally given a set of data which you have to interpret and analyse logically and apply it – while in the UK exams are essay-based, in which you have to write pages and pages explaining how we can target EGF receptor signaling to stop tumour growth (as an example). The former demands clear thinking and complete understanding of learning material while the latter requires the ability to present your understanding and critical thinking about a topic in the most succinct and lucid form and also loads of memorization. So, which is more suitable for you? If you are determined on what you want to do in the future, the UK system may suit you best, as the specialized education equips you with the specific skills and advanced knowledge that are indispensable for your chosen path. Students who have not yet decided on their future career path should take advantage of the holistic, well-rounded undergraduate education of US universities, as you can always change your concentration in first or second year and balance your personal interests with academic preferences.

Social life. Owing to my ALDH2 (the enzyme that should digest the by-product of alcohol degradation) mutation, I am not allowed and not in the position to comment on the clubbing (seriously not my style) or drinking social life in both countries. However, I do participate in societies and hang out with friends who share common interests. Homesickness is an illness that every international student is highly susceptible to. To me, meeting fellow Malaysians and eating Malaysian food are the most effective remedies for this malady. As US is further away from Malaysia than the UK and is blessed with more decent universities (therefore, sparser distribution), you will most likely find fewer than 10 Malaysians in one university (we have 6 at JHU, including me!). On the other hand, Malaysians constitute a huge part of the international student communities in many UK universities. The opportunity to organize glamorous events that can unite all Malaysians across the country is surely deprived in US universities, as most do not even have an association for Malaysians, let alone organizing events. On the flip side, you are relieved of the burden of being obliged to cling to people from your home country (that is if you do not like it) and get to interact more with local students. A major part of my social life in the UK is eating out with my Malaysian friends or holding potluck sessions at someone’s apartment. In the US, I mostly hang out with some other exchange students and also people from the society I joined. So far, I felt that US universities are not as diverse in terms of student body in comparison to UK universities (mostly due to the lack of Europeans). Most of my course-mates are Americans (of different ethnicities, though). This may be slightly biased as I am studying biology, a subject that attracts fewer international students.

Travelling. I have to write a separate paragraph regarding this important activity. I reckon everyone is aware that UK is located slightly above Continental Europe, the dreamland of all travellers. The flights to all European countries are affordable and the travelling time is bearable to almost everybody. I am blessed to have so far been to many gorgeous towns and cities in the continent and am still looking forward to visiting many of them next year. In the US, this is not the case. Flight tickets are relatively expensive and it takes hours to travel one from location to another. Planning requires much more time and research that I expected, as many cities do not have convenient public transport service which you can seriously take advantage of when you are travelling in European cities. Again, this does not mean that the cities are not as worthwhile to visit. I have been to Boston and Washington D.C. (which are near to where I am studying at) and they are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Having said that, I have planned several trips to New York, Orlando and Miami in the coming holidays. Another point worth to mention is that, in fact, US universities have less vacation compared to UK universities. This has been troubling me as I have been in torpor for a long time after all the torment of late night revisions and weekly exams.

These are the points that I would like to cover this time and I hope you guys enjoyed reading it. I focused extensively on the academic part, as that was the main reason why I chose to come to the US, which is to experience the reputable education system in this country. If you are still struggling to choose between these two, do consider the universities that offer a study abroad option in addition to the course that you are fond of. Moreover, I would recommend you all plan earlier for the application, which normally falls in late first term of the second year This means that you will have to use your first year results to apply. Therefore, doing fairly well academically in the first year is crucial to secure a place in the programme, as it can be quite competitive (especially for US universities). The application process can be frustrating sometimes, as you will need to write a motivation letter and also to find a referee who can tell good things about you, but I promise the experience is going to be awesome.


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Victor Pong is a third year MSci Biological Sciences student at University College London (UCL) under the MyBrainSc Scholarship. He fancies playing Pokemon games, dining in posh restaurants and taking strolls in the tranquil city parks. If you intend to contact the author, feel free to contact the CollegeLAH Team at contact@collegelah.com.

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