Martin Lukačišin: Work Smart First
The world’s second-oldest university, Oxford, comprises over 40 self-governing colleges and halls, and maintains 102 libraries as well as a number of museums and galleries. Its alumni, sometimes referred to as Oxonians, include many British prime ministers such as David Cameron, Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher, but also the premiers of Australia, Canada, India or Pakistan. Famous writers such as Lewis Carrol, Aldous Huxley, Oscar Wilde, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Graham Greene or Joseph Heller were also educated at Oxford. PERSPECTIVES talked to one of Oxford undergraduates, Martin Lukačišin, about his experience at the University.
Martin Lukačišin (ML): The decision to study at Oxford came from a rather straightforward kind of thinking. My greatest passion when I was at secondary school was chemistry, and in Slovakia, students interested in a particular subject (this is definitely the case with maths and natural sciences in general) have the chance to boost their knowledge and interest by joining a very well developed system of nation-wide student competitions, known as Olympiads. Thanks to the good conditions my teachers in Levoča had created for me, I soon started placing well on the national level. Although the quality of major Slovak universities should not be underestimated, it is a matter of fact that they lack the momentum present at the world’s best universities and since I believe that we Slovaks are not less intelligent or skilful than people in other countries, I do think that Slovakia’s most gifted students should aim to study at leading universities, all of which are at present located abroad. So I did a rather limited Internet research about the quality of universities granting life sciences degrees. Since the best ones are in the US and the UK, and applying to study in the US is rather difficult and the chances are low, I decided to have a try at ‘Oxbridge’, i.e. Oxford or Cambridge. As natural sciences at Cambridge are taught within a common framework called the Natural Sciences Tripos, where students start studying rather broad topics and start specialising only later, and as I knew very precisely that I wanted to study biochemistry, I decided to apply to Oxford, which offered the exact course I imagined in my best-case scenario. I have to admit that in retrospect, this seems to have been a rather pragmatic or perhaps even ignorant approach, given that I had no clue about the great tutorial system, tradition and attitude I was to find at Oxford.
PP: What did you have to do to get accepted? Did you have to prepare for admission a long time in advance?
ML: I vaguely remember having an intention to apply to Oxford sometimes at the end of my penultimate year at secondary school and yes, thinking ahead definitely helps. However, I have a good friend who decided to apply a mere week before the deadline, and now he is doing his second degree at Oxford. To get accepted to Oxford, you must have done something special, just acing your exams is not going to get you through (and this might not even be needed anyway). For me it was the several good achievements in Olympiads. You simply must show an extraordinary passion for your subject and that you are able to do well at what you do. The most important thing, however, at least for the undergraduate programmes, is the interview. The teachers at Oxford, or rather tutors, as we call them, are looking for people who can benefit most from their tutorial system. Thus, they will probably bring you somewhere to an area at about the edge of your knowledge and see whether you can grasp new concepts quickly, whether you are able (and eager) to develop your idea into an argument even if it is contrary to what your tutor is suggesting, whether you can find a way to reconcile what you are saying with what your tutor is saying (or spot a fallacy or a wrong assumption in your thinking) and think about the consequences of the new idea. This is, sadly, or better still, luckily, something you cannot learn just for the interview, it is something you have to cultivate gradually.
ML: Oxford is very specific in terms of the number of hours students are expected to devote to self-study. Since tutorials are a very intense academic experience (and from the university’s point of view also a very costly one in terms of time and hence money), you have usually only one or two one-hour tutorials a week. The rest of the time should be spent preparing for the tutorial, so that in that particular topic you could be a fair discussion partner for the tutor (who sometimes has spent a lifetime studying the topic). Apart from this, you may have lectures and, for some subjects, classes, which are open to a larger group of students and usually go over a set of problems solved by the students in advance. Although sciences generally have more hours of organised teaching than humanities, I still have a rather generous amount of time to organise my studies and leisure as suits me. In Oxford, there is a zillion of student clubs and societies plus numerous cultural events and academic talks, so you will almost definitely find what you are craving for. I, for instance, enjoy attending popular philosophical talks and playing tennis and squash; last year I spent quite some time doing dancesport. Moreover, from time to time (actually quite often), there are formal dinners and similar social events. And to answer your second question, it is hard to say, but I guess that as for the academic side it is the tutorials--that one hour (or sometimes more if the tutor is happy to overrun) is the icing on the cake after the hard time spent on preparation--and as for the non-academic side, I guess it is any occasion to enjoy the company of my Oxford friends.
ML: The most valuable part of the Oxford experience for me is the spirit of generous thinking at Oxford. What I have in mind could perhaps be very well demonstrated by a question one of my friends was to answer in one of the course-feedback questionnaires, namely whether he saw himself as a ‘suppliant at the threshold of knowledge’. I have the impression that at Oxford, more people than anywhere else attend the university out of a genuine desire to know more, to push the boundaries of knowledge--firstly their personal ones and later our collective ones. The idea that we should tackle the hardest questions is almost tangible there. It is very easy to find enthusiastic people there, and talking about something abstract or sophisticated over a meal is not considered nerdy or antisocial as I was used to, but is echoed back even more strongly. At the same time, people there are broad-minded and almost everybody in Oxford understands that there is more to life than just their subject, career, or research and therefore they are not mere zombies buried deep inside their books. They work hard but they also play hard, meaning that you see people pursuing the most diverse hobbies or taking various trips. They still manage to do quite well in their work, but they do it with some kind of nonchalant fervency and hence I have seen fewer people approaching their studies with a sort of oppressive feeling of duty than elsewhere. And last but not least, as the tutors are often made of similar fabric as the students I have just described, the teachers’ attitude towards students is unparalleled. Their approach is very fair and supportive and it is a very personal experience. Just by way of an example, the other day I had a Skype chat (since I am in the US now) with my former personal tutor at Oxford about my plans for graduate studies.
ML: I should see very soon [laughs]. Well, I think, expectedly, they are pretty high. When you mention Oxford, everyone starts listening a bit more carefully. There are companies that go around Oxford and Cambridge to recruit clever people, often even from non-related subjects. That is a consequence of what I think is Oxford graduates’ most important asset: for the three or four years spent doing their degree, they have been taught to think hard and independently, to address problems in a very targeted way, to realise that what matters most is to work smart and only then to work hard. This is what gives Oxford graduates more than a solid ground to build on later in their lives. And the disadvantages? If someone says he studied at Oxford, immediately there are a higher pressure and higher expectations placed on him, and, also, sadly, for some less well-intentioned people with directive powers in working teams such a person might easily serve as a good target for boosting their own ego.
ML: I have a deep desire to come back and do research in Slovakia. However, this will probably not be the case in the near future, as I am still--and for quite some time will be--at the stage of learning the art of scientific enquiry, and having a sense of responsibility, I feel I should aim to learn these skills at the best place possible. Then I hope to bring the good things I will have witnessed and learned back to my homeland.
Well, for sure there is a great rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge, but I would liken it to two old friends engaging in a friendly banter about who of the two has a nicer garden. Each of the two would be the first to point out the imperfections of the other garden, but at the end they both know they are on the same boat of horticulture devouts. We have very much in common and occasional teasing remarks serve just to season our special relationship. And to be honest, with my Cambridge friends we actually do not talk about this too much (but it goes without saying that anytime this topic comes up, both sides tend to hold almost patriotic positions). The universities sometimes even do things together; for example, one can apply for an undergraduate programme at only one of the Oxbridge universities in the same year. Another good example is the winter ski trip to the Alps, boasting to be the biggest ski trip on the planet, which is organised jointly. Of course, one should not be surprised if, in addition to a special common mountain dinner, one gets an exchange of ‘patriotic’ chants as a bonus, as I indeed did. And oh, well, if you really want to understand how profound the chasm between our two universities is, you have to appreciate how much contempt we both have for the way of punting exercised at the other university [laughs].
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