All posts by Honor Elliott

Semester Three

One of the bigger contrasts between university and school/college is the contact hours. Like school, you have three terms (semesters), with exams concluding your third term in the summer. However, at Queen Mary, in your third semester you have nothing timetabled before the exams in May/June, so when teaching ends in late March, you are left with enough time to prepare for exams.

In semester three, you must become a sponge. You have up to eight modules’ worth of physics to absorb in around five weeks before the exams start. There is generally a series of revision lectures just before exams kick in, but until then you are left to your own devices. This is the real test of independence if you have left home – can you wake at a reasonable time, cook yourself more than tea and biscuits, do your laundry and make sure you get some work done?!

I have an iPad full of all the homeworks, tutorials & lecture notes (I use the Evernote app to keep everything together and find it much easier to keep everything organised virtually than with paper), and each day I work through problems, creating flashcards as I go so I can go back over everything efficiently when I need to. It’s actually quite therapeutic at times, figuring out solutions to problems and making pretty colourful cards (that definitely does not constitute procrastination because of course that many glittery gel pens is absolutely vital to my understanding of thermodynamics). That is, until you remember just how much you need to learn and how little time you have to learn it all… anyway…

Use bright colours & pretty diagrams to distract yourself from the pain and misery of exams!
Use bright colours & pretty diagrams to distract yourself from the pain and misery of exams!

Personally, I prefer this semester. Being on the canal provides me with a peaceful environment in which to study and always having my dog by my side does wonders for my stress levels. It also makes a vast difference to me to be able to work at my own pace – I have a short attention span and like the odd nap (okay yes I’m pretty much a toddler), so I tend to put aside the whole day, every day, to just work in short bursts with various little distractions in between. This ensures that when I am having my short (but frequent) periods of productivity, my brain-sponge is truly absorbent and I don’t have to keep going over the same things.

On a nice day, Picasso sits like this outside while I study inside. Quite possibly the least intimidating guard dog you've ever seen.
On a nice day, Picasso sits like this outside while I study inside. Quite possibly the least intimidating guard dog you’ve ever seen.

This works for me but I don’t really have a social life during this period. I enjoy studying and like to just put my head down and engage hermit mode, especially knowing it will be worthwhile in the end. Some of my colleagues have greater self-control, working certain hours each day and then having their evenings free (for example), so it’s manageable to balance social or work commitments if you need to. It’s also an option to actually combine being social with their studies – going over problems with friends can be a great way to get your head around difficult topics and can really reinforce what you learn. University remains open throughout the year offering both silent & social study areas. Everyone revises differently and it’s so important to not feel pressured by what others are doing!

Boating, biking and banging on about my dog: My spare time in London.

You may think studying physics at university will finally give you a valid excuse to avoid social interaction and public spaces. Unfortunately however, being at a busy inner London university with a dedicated students’ union makes this difficult for even the most reluctant of hermits. Within the university, there are over 200 societies, sports clubs, student bars, cafes and an extensive sports and fitness centre. If that’s not enough, you’re in London and anything else – from cat cafes to adult bouncy castles – is on your doorstep.

Many people come to London for its vibrant nightlife. There’s a huge variety of clubs, pubs and bars to choose from and when I first moved here I would go to them all, and even worked as a club photographer in high end Mayfair venues as well as somewhat less desirable bars in South London. It’s definitely worth experiencing nights out here and they will be some of the best nights you have, I did however soon realise that every night (and next morning) ends up the same if you’re prone to drinking too much and I now rarely drink at all, with my spare time mostly taken up elsewhere:


My fixed wheel built by my boyfriend, on London's South Bank
My fixed wheel built by my boyfriend, on London’s South Bank

I’m a keen cyclist and I’ll use this to illustrate what London and the university can offer in terms of having a hobby, but replace bicycles with your own interests and you’ll find it works the same. I bought a bike in my first year as it seemed to be the best way to get around the city’s packed streets cheaply and quickly. London’s roads appeared daunting and while a free bike proficiency lesson from TfL was a great help (would recommend!), I wanted to find like-minded people who could join me for rides and help me get comfortable. A quick search on the Students’ Union webpage brought me to Queen Mary Cycling Society, and within a few days I had other cyclists to meet and group rides to join. We went to Critical Mass; a huge group ride that reclaims the roads in big cities nationwide every month, consisting of friendly people, music and maybe a little alcohol. The friends I made through the society actually got me a job in a bike shop, and going to Critical Mass allowed me to meet my bike mechanic (very useful) boyfriend. I now ride hundreds of miles a month, visiting the London Olympic VeloPark every week (two miles away from QM) and taking advantage of the countryside surrounding London. London traffic no longer phases me, in fact I love the buzz – I’m a champion weaver and hold top spots on Strava (a social cycling app) segments, and there’s only been one minor accident so far! (London does seem to have a high concentration of terrible driving, but if you do need some reassurance, I’m your girl).

We went on a cycling holiday over Christmas. This isn't London
We went on a cycling holiday over Christmas. This isn’t London

Despite studying something so strictly academic, the university has also allowed me to follow more creative pursuits. I work as a photographer for the university, capturing everything from outreach events with kids to conferences and prospectus photos. This is enjoyable work I can easily balance with my studies, and lets me play with the kit I thought would end up gathering dust. As with cycling, I got involved with the photography society here, which introduced me to other like-minded individuals and had me attending exhibitions, socials and even getting additional work. One really great thing I have found with London is that if you are short on cash, there are plenty of opportunities to earn here and there if you look.

The rest of my time outside of studying is spent on the upkeep of my home; 50ft narrowboat Laika (named after the first dog in space). Living on a boat is a job in itself and moving aboard was not a decision I took lightly; aside from the constant (slightly, but unfortunately not completely, irrational) fear of sinking, maintenance and cruising consumes any leisure time I get. I do not have a permanent mooring; instead my license requires me to move to a new spot every two weeks and I must cover a certain distance annually. It’s sometimes hard to keep on top of, but it’s a really beautiful alternative to renting that shows me the prettier side to London, and also means I don’t have a landlord banning me from having a dog!

Boat interior, now with a desk and a fair bit messier
Boat interior when I first bought her
My dog, Picasso, on top of my boyfriend's boat
My dog, Picasso, on top of my boyfriend’s boat