For those of you curious about the academic experience of UCL, this entry will compare and contrast work at UCL with work at Caltech. While schoolwork should add up to the same number of hours (roughly, each class should require nine hours of work per week), the way those hours are spent at Caltech versus UCL is demonstrably different:
Sets vs. no sets:
At Caltech most of my classes assign a weekly set or quiz. The sets are usually very difficult, requiring most of the time allotted to them and frequently more. But the weekly assignments are all well and good because it means the course material is being applied. At UCL I don’t have weekly sets, quizzes, or even midterm exams! With the exception of one essay due this week, I only have final exams and essays. The lack of weekly deadlines really takes the pressure and urgency out of school. Without those sets, I spend most of my time reading. To keep focused during all that reading I need to listen to a lot of music and move every couple of hours from library to coffee shop to library to coffee shop. The reading is a is less stressful than weekly assignments and a very welcome change. Of course, there is always the temptation to put off the reading because it’s a really sunny day and Regent’s Park is only a ten minute walk away…but then I just remember that it’s impossible to cram a term into the night before a final and, suddenly, my feet are leading me up the library steps!
Collaboration vs. solo work (and it’s social implications):
When I work on a set at Tech part of that time is spent with classmates. We collaborate most on the hardest questions, but even for less difficult questions it’s good to have a sounding board for answers in progress. Collaboration on sets is rarely strictly business. Get a group of college students together in a room together for six hours and you are bound to get goofiness, especially as you approach 3AM. Collaboration is a very simple way for academic life to become social life. At UCL, however, my social life is stricly my social life. Conversations with friends here are rarely academic in nature. It’s certainly a change from the social dynamic at Tech, but it’s an enjoyable kind of change.
Deadlines vs. exploration:
I’m taking a wonderful primatology course. The lecture and recitation take three hours a week, leaving me to do about six hours of reading between lectures. I frequently finish the required reading in less time. To fill in those hours and the gaps in knowledge, then, I read a lot of extra material. I usually read from the optional, additional textbook and from primatology journals. The time I have to explore in the journals has given me the opportunity to strengthen my knowledge in areas of ignorance and to deeply invest in areas of specific, personal interest. Ideally, I can do this at Caltech, but with sets there is rarely time to go above and beyond what is due. A typical week at Tech is: attend lecture, get the gist of the reading (or, if I can, do all the reading), work on the set, go to office hours to get help on the set, rework the set, turn in set. Repeat for the duration of term! I’ve definitely managed to do independent reading for class, but it’s very difficult! The structure of classes at Tech translates into a very rigorous education, for which I’m very grateful, but I do appreciate the control I have at UCL over my reading because it is leading me to take ownership over my classes.
Thus far in my blog I’ve shown that living in London is a big cultural change from Pasadena, but I hope that you can now see that attending UCL also means a big academic change from Caltech.