Yasmin - Psychological and Behavioural Sciences
Yasmin is from Cullompton in Devon (South West England), and wrote this at the end of her second year studying Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (PBS) here at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At school, Yasmin took A-Levels in Psychology, Biology, English Literature and Philosophy & Ethics. Yasmin has won an upReach Ten Award at the 2018 Student Social Mobility Awards and written a blog about overcoming serious disadvantage to succeed academically.
Why did you choose PBS?
I really loved the idea of studying a flexible course. When I was applying, some part of me really wanted to do Philosophy, and there were only a few universities which would have let me combine Philosophy and Psychology. Since coming here I’ve found out that Philosophy really isn’t for me, but I have found an interest in Biological Anthropology which I wouldn’t have known about if I had studied a narrower degree. Biological Anthropology is the study of human behaviour from a biological perspective. For me, that has meant looking right the way through from chimps and gorillas to early members of the genus Homo to explore our evolutionary trajectory.
Why did you apply to Christ’s?
I applied to Christ’s because it seemed like a good fit for me. I couldn’t make it to an open day for logistical reasons, so I had to do a lot of research online. I was really concerned with facilities, location and the cost of living in picking a College, and Christ’s seemed (and has proven to be) the best fit for my needs. If I need a book, I tend to ask the College librarians to order it in so I don’t have to buy it myself, and so that others can read it after me. Also, the College cat Rocket was a massive pull!
Christ’s has given me so much support during my time at university. Before I came to Cambridge, I had some difficulties and was concerned about starting my degree – however, my tutor was a huge help even before I met him! Christ’s is really proactive with things like counselling, in my experience. Academically, I’ve never had to ask College to intervene (e.g. moving deadlines or aiding with exams) but I’ve talked about the options with my tutor before and so I know that help is definitely there if and when you need it.
"Christ's has given me so much support during my time at university."
What do you think of the collegiate system in general?
I think the collegiate system can be really helpful. It narrows down your teaching experience - your Director of Studies can focus on you and a couple of others doing your subject, giving you a really tailored programme of support. Socially, a College can be really useful in introducing you to a pool of like-minded people right from the start of your time in Cambridge.
Socially, I spend the majority of my time at other Colleges – a lot of my friends are from my course, and so the people are spread out across the city. This is great for me as it means I get a much wider experience of all the Colleges, rather than staying in Christ’s all the time. Academically, most of my time is spent in departmental buildings or libraries, as not much of my teaching has been based in College this year. Supervisions (teaching sessions in groups of two students withe one academic) in other Colleges haven't really been any different to supervisions in College, except for the building they're in! The supervisor will usually book the room so all you have to do is turn up and ask the Porters (who are usually by the College entrance) for directions.
How did you find the application process?
The application process wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. At each stage I went in thinking it was going to go terribly and usually came out feeling quite neutral about things. I had a pre-admissions test, which I prepared for by doing some example questions available in the specification online and asking my English teacher to help me think about a potential structure for the essay section.
After this I had interviews, which were sort of what I expected (from what I had read online and the videos I had watched). I didn’t have a mock interview, so I went in relatively blind and just talked authentically in response to the questions I was being asked. To prepare for my interview, I read a book (Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley – I’d still recommend it to this day!) and read over my personal statement. I tried to think around some of the things I’d written in my personal statement, but nothing I’d thought about before actually came up. Nevertheless, it was probably useful practice to think more broadly around the things I enjoyed about Psychology.
What advice would you give prospective applicants?
I’d say you can never know too much! I don’t necessarily recommend spending your time reading books but having a favourite podcast to listen to in your free time (I like BBC Radio 4’s “All In The Mind”) or following a couple of psychology blogs on Twitter does wonders to broaden your knowledge of the field. I personally follow a lot of Cambridge academics - try Googling something specific you really like and see if there are any big names in that field, then follow them if they seem to have an active Twitter. More generally, try the British Psychological Society Twitter which Tweets a new short article every day. I don’t think over-preparing is a good strategy, but engaging specifically with things you really love about your subject will make preparing enjoyable and worthwhile to you, as well as helping you come across well in your interview.
"Engaging specifically with things you really love about your subject will make preparing for interview enjoyable and worthwhile."
Before you came to Cambridge, what were you looking forward to and what were you most worried about?
I was looking forward to starting something new. Before coming to university, I was quite independent, which really helped me to settle into university life – I didn’t have any major budgeting fails and I already knew how to cook lots of good food. Not having an oven was a bit of a shock to start with!
When I started, I was worried about the workload – I read a lot of scary articles online which suggested it would all be too much for me and I wouldn’t be able to cope. In hindsight, I’ve found that this isn’t true – and even if it was, College would help me to reduce the amount of work I had to do, or support me in finding better ways to manage it.
How did you find your first term at Cambridge?
Starting lectures and supervisions was definitely daunting at first, but soon it becomes routine. For some reason when I started lectures, I stopped using all the useful habits I picked up at school – so first year often involved me re-learning good study habits. Supervisions were especially nerve-wracking, as it’s a very unique teaching style and you don’t know what you’re walking into. But, after the first few supervisions you get to know your supervisors and can build a bit of a relationship and work out exactly what they expect of you. This does take a bit of time but that’s what you’d expect when starting something new!
For me, what helped me to settle in was taking lots of home comforts and not being afraid to do things that were self-indulgent. That could include a long warm shower, a hot chocolate, or a Netflix night. This helped me to feel at home even though I was in a new place. I would also say that because I didn’t leave Cambridge at all for the first term to visit home, I was forced to find things I loved about the city and places I enjoyed being, rather than just escaping and going home.
How is PBS taught?
I have a combination of lectures, supervisions and practical classes. This year, I probably averaged around 12-15 contact hours a week, but the number of supervisions I had in any given week really varied. For one paper, I had one supervision every week, and for the other three I had three or four supervisions spread across the term. This meant that sometimes I’d have one or two supervisions a week, and other times I’d have four (once I think I even had five!). This variability means some weeks are really quiet and others are a bit hectic, but if you plan in advance you can really get on top of the work.
I go to all my lectures because sometimes the handouts we are given aren’t that useful, and I find I absorb information better if it’s delivered verbally. This is a personal preference, but it helps me structure my time better. It also means I get out of bed every day, which might not happen so easily if I didn’t commit to attending all my contact hours.
I also have some practical classes. In first year, the practicals weren’t assessed so they were really just a way to get hands-on with some of the ideas we were learning. In second year, three of the practicals we completed were assessed, and for this we had to write a sub-1000 word report about what we did in the session and what the results were. This aims to help you understand the format of journal articles, and the process behind experimenting and then writing it up, which is often more engaging than an abstract lecture on a topic.
Is the course what you expected it to be when you applied?
My course has been just as flexible as I imagined. However, in first year we had so many options that it was hard to know what to choose. I got advice from people in the year above about what to choose, which made it loads easier to know what I might enjoy.
The best thing about my course is the scope. I’ve had a chance to learn about some really fascinating things this year, all the way from the development of resilience in childhood to the extinction of the Neanderthals. The course really feeds my curiosity – I’m one of those people who wants to learn everything about everything and here I have the chance to do that. On the flip side, that can also be the most challenging thing about the course – this year I had to learn how to write like a sociologist (for my Sociology module), an archaeologist (for Biological Anthropology) as well as continuing to focus on psychology for the other two modules. This can be a bit of a balancing act, but I’ve always found it tends to come together at the end of the year.
"The course really feeds my curiosity – I’m one of those people who wants to learn everything about everything and here I have the chance to do that."
What has been your favourite supervision or lecture from this year?
My favourite supervision was actually one of the revision supervisions I had in Social and Developmental Psychology. A lot of the supervisions throughout the year had felt a bit like I was getting nowhere with the subject matter, but in the revision supervision I got to have some really in-depth and meaningful discussions about the content and its implications.
How do you manage your workload?
I use Google Calendar for just about everything! I find writing a to-do list at the end of the day which has time estimates for all the tasks I need to do the next day really clears my head, and allows me to block time off in my calendar. Then, I can see how much time I have for other things. Usually, the social engagements take precedence – they’re in the calendar already and so I work around them with my to-do list. This means I can balance social and academic commitments and see my day and week visually, which also really helps to prevent stress.
I think the key to balancing social and academic commitments is making sure not to stretch yourself too thin. There’s tons to do at Cambridge so you’re never short of activities, but signing up for too much can leave you feeling a bit burnt out. Something which has worked for me has been gradually ratcheting up my social commitments throughout my time at university. In first year, I tried to find my feet with work and didn’t do too many societies, but in second year I really pushed myself to do more non-academic activities. I think it’s about knowing what’s right for you and knowing how much you can take on – and being happy to dial it back if it becomes too much.
Are you involved with any student initiatives, societies or sports in Cambridge?
One of the best things I’ve done while at Cambridge is getting involved with access initiatives. I’ve been a CAMbassador for just over a year now – this is a paid job where you reach out to students from various backgrounds and year groups, and help improve their knowledge of Cambridge or higher education more generally. I've been involved with the Insight programme, helping Year 7s and 8s to engage with meaningful project work to develop their academic skills.
I’m also involved in the CUSU Class Act campaign, which is tailored to those from less ‘traditional’ backgrounds such as care leavers or estranged students. CUSU is the Cambridge University Students' Union. It is the main Students' Union at Cambridge, though each College has their own mini-union too. CUSU runs a lot of the central campaigns (such as the Disabled Students Campaign or the Women's Campaign).
"One of the best things I’ve done while at Cambridge is getting involved with access initiatives."
How do you spend your holidays?
I always go back to Devon in the holidays. I find that I want a break from the Cambridge bubble and to catch up with friends and family. Luckily, I don’t live too far from College (though the 5-hour car journeys can feel really long). This summer I have an internship with the Civil Service, but I didn’t work during any of the previous vacations - I just used the time to rest and re-charge.
I first heard about the Summer Diversity internship through social media, although I'm certain it would also have been on a careers service email! I've met loads of interns who are all doing really different things, with some researching the prison system and producing a strategy for their reform, and others working on animal welfare laws. My specific role is centred on increasing the level of diversity disclosure - that is, how many people disclose aspects of their identity such as being LGBT+ or disabled on forms. This is to help the Civil Service know how well they are meeting representation targets.
What are you most looking forward to next year?
I’m looking forward to studying some more specific psychology options. For the last two years, my papers have all been rather broad overviews, but next year I will be studying much more specific subjects like Psychopathology, and the Family. I’m also excited to start my dissertation. I currently have no idea what topic I’m going to write about, but I’m excited to start thinking about ideas and doing some initial research!