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News > OB News > A day in the Life... Aisling C Tarpey (DON, 10-17)

A day in the Life... Aisling C Tarpey (DON, 10-17)

Medicine at Queen's University Belfast & English at University of Oxford: Aisling's Vibrant Journey
13 Jul 2023
Written by Huw Richards
OB News
Aisling C Tarpey (DON, 10-17)
Aisling C Tarpey (DON, 10-17)

1. Hi! My name is Aisling (she/her). I graduated from the University of Oxford in 2021 with a degree in English Language and Literature, and am currently studying medicine in Queen’s University, Belfast.

2. I would love to be able to say that I always knew I wanted to study English at Oxford, but that’s not true at all! I applied to medicine as an A-Level student, securing an offer at Queen’s in 2017. However, when results day came around, I hadn’t achieved the required grade in Chemistry. That meant I had a few options: retake my A-Levels, accept my insurance offer of biomedical sciences, or take a year out and do something different. Given how hard I had worked at my A-Levels, I wasn’t sure retaking them would guarantee success; likewise, the idea of doing biomedical sciences simply didn’t appeal to me.

Luckily for me, I had done four A-Level subjects, including a mix of science and humanities, and English was always a subject I loved. So, with a lot of uncertainty and lingering disappointment about not getting into medical school, I chose to apply for a subject I really enjoyed and wouldn’t get the chance to study at a high level again. I also took a punt applying to Oxford, believing that they wouldn’t even look at my application. However, I was shocked to receive an offer for interview! Once again, after my first interview, I had decided there was no way I had gotten in. But, after a year of working and travelling, and applying for a completely different subject, I received an offer to study at Oxford! I knew it would be a huge challenge, but was excited to experience the university and to learn cool stuff about books.

I was always intending to apply for medicine as a graduate student despite doing a degree that was very different, and during my final year at Oxford I did just that. I applied to a mix of graduate entry medical programmes and some standard 5-year undergraduate courses. My decision to list Queen’s amongst those choices had a few factors. Firstly, I had a great experience of Belfast and of the university when I had attended my interview in 2017. Everyone was really friendly and the curriculum was very holistic in its approach. Secondly, my parents and extended family are Irish, so I knew Belfast would be a fun, warm (as in friendly, definitely not warm weather) and interesting place to be for 5 years. Thirdly, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking strategically: I figured that since I had received an offer as a naïve 18-year-old without her A-Level grades and significantly less emotional maturity and life experience, that I would be an even better candidate as a graduate applicant. Thankfully, Queen’s agreed! I am just about to go into my second year, and I am having a great experience so far.

3. Both courses and institutions are rigorous, and I have definitely struggled sometimes to keep up with the pace of the work, especially due to the level of independent learning required at Oxford and as a medical student.

Aside from that, a lot of the challenges I encountered at Oxford and QUB are the same, which goes to show how much the university experience is shaped by your confidence and your outlook. At both institutions, I have struggled with imposter syndrome, doubts about whether I am good enough and deserving of my place, and stress about my academic achievement. Aside from all that, I found that at 23 as well as at 18 I was terrified I wouldn’t make any friends! I was relieved, when I did make friends at both universities, that lots of people felt similarly to me – its ok to find the experience challenging, scary, and to have doubts. You just have to keep going and lean on those friends!

4. Student / campus life is very different at Oxford vs. QUB:-

a) In Oxford, the collegiate system means that you have a much smaller pool of people who you socialise, live, and even eat with. My cohort at Lincoln College was about 85 students. This meant that I made friends mostly within college, and from across several subjects. We also all lived on site in first year, as well as having our tutorials and classes on the college site. This meant that Lincoln was my own mini campus, as well as my home and the place I hung out with friends. I also found that I didn’t have any compulsory lectures as an English student – it was up to me to decide what was relevant to my interests and the essay I was working on and to factor those lecture courses into my timetable. This meant not spending as much time in the English Faculty building as I did in libraries conducting my own research and study. Though we had a lot of work, there was also a very rich social life in the college. There were lots of formal dinners, drinks receptions, activities like pool competitions and welfare teas, and excursions. This meant that you could always look forward to a fun event to break up the working week.

b) QUB and medicine, by contrast, is much more faculty based. I am part of a cohort of roughly 300 medical students this year, and all of my friends are fellow medics who I met through the course. I also have lots of lectures, classes, tutorials, and practicals, and my timetable is more structured and closer to a traditional 9-5 rather than the more independent, free form timetable I had in Oxford. This means I spend more time at the Medical Biology Centre, my faculty building, than anywhere else! But this also means that I have a bit more of a work-life balance, as there is a clearer cut off when work ends for the day and where my own time begins. Unlike in Oxford, where I could often be found in the library until 2 in the morning, in QUB I tend to take evenings off to relax, spend time with friends, and watch some trashy Netflix.

5. I have been lucky to study a lot of really interesting modules at both universities:-

In Oxford, the English course is split up by time period. In my first year, I studied a mix of Old English, Victorian, and modern-day literature. Then, in my second and final years, we studied literature written from 1350-1830 across four modules. We also did a whole portfolio on Shakespeare, a special options paper, as well as a dissertation. Like many people, the dissertation was my favourite part of the course. I chose to specialise in medical literature and the history of women’s health in Elizabethan England. I wrote about ‘the wandering womb’, a disease they believed in in the 1600s. I loved learning about it as it unified my interests in medicine and literature, allowed me to become a mini expert on this niche topic, and was just really wacky and ridiculous! I had brilliant tutors in my college, and they provided great pastoral support throughout as well as being amazing academics and teachers.

As for QUB, the medical course is really interesting and we have varied teaching on anatomy, physiology, psychology, and clinical skills. In my first year, we have focused on the foundations of clinical science, the upper limb, and the blood, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. I enjoyed learning about the heart in particular, as we only covered it in shallow detail at A-Level. I have also loved the full cadaveric dissection I have done across different body systems – QUB is excellent for anatomy teaching and being able to see the difference between a textbook diagram and an actual body is fascinating and very insightful. It also reminds you that whatever disease or injury you’re learning about happens to a real human being.

6. Oxford has a reputation for being incredibly competitive, and this is of course true! However, lots of people buy into the myth that they must have perfect A-Level grades or a Pulitzer winning personal statement – I promise this is not the case! Rather than focusing on ways to ‘stand out’ or set yourself apart from all the other applicants, the crucial thing is to show that you are truly passionate about your subject. In my conversations with tutors after getting in, they were much more interested in how your brain works and what excites you about the subject you’re applying for – remember that the people handling your application love the subject and they simply want to feel assured that you do too, and that you want to learn more.

The same is true for interviews. It’s much more important to show how you think and how you try and work things out than to get the ‘correct’ answers. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the terminology I was asked about in my interviews, and at the time I thought that meant I had no chance. What the tutors and admissions teams are really interested in is whether you can have a conversation about the subject matter and show how you approach tricky questions, texts, or problems, not whether you know what a Petrarchan sonnet is (spoiler alert, I did not).

7. There are a number of scholarships available at both institutions, and both universities also have good support when you’re there, including hardship awards for unforeseen expenses and prizes for academic achievement.

For Oxford, there are a bank of centralised, university-wide scholarships and bursaries, as well as support from individual colleges. This is especially true for postgraduate study, and I would recommend reaching out to different colleges to see what support is available. QUB, likewise, has some great financial support. As I’m a medical student, I am unfortunately not eligible for many of the larger scholarships, however I would highlight the Undergraduate Award for GB students in particular – this scholarship is available to students paying GB fees and will give half price accommodation as well as money towards flights home.

8. In Oxford, I chose to apply to a college that guaranteed accommodation for the full duration of my course. I was very lucky that I got to live in the middle of the city for 2 years, and in a house by the Natural History Museum with my friends in my final year, all owned by college. The whole process was very easy as accommodation was organised by my college, and so I didn’t have to hunt around for somewhere to live.

In QUB, I chose to live in university accommodation in my first year. It was easy to apply to, and quite affordable compared to living in Oxford. I had an ensuite and a large kitchen, as well as living in a modern building with a gym, a common room, and laundry in the city centre.

9. In Oxford, I was part of my college’s chapel choir and captain of the college netball team. I was also the Welfare Representative for the undergraduate common room in college (kind of a mini SU just for Lincoln students) for one year, which was quite busy but really fun! Being part of choir was one of my favourite parts of my degree, as we got to do lots of great singing and received free Sunday roast every week!

As for QUB, I was the social secretary of the Feminist and Equality Society last year and am a committee member for the Northern Ireland Healthcare Leadership Forum, an interdisciplinary, multi university student group advocating for healthcare improvement in NI. I would like to join a choir here too, and hopefully now that covid restrictions have eased, singing in big groups will be safer!

10. Both English and Medicine are very dynamic fields of study right now, with lots of interesting research being done all the time. I think a really big challenge facing the humanities is the decreasing number of students choosing to study English, History, and languages at A-Level, university, and beyond. I think literature is being seen more and more as a useless thing to study, and while it’s great to see women and minorities encouraged to study traditionally male-dominated STEM subjects, I think encouraging people to retain an interest in the arts is going to be a big challenge in the future.

11. I am hoping to have a future that involves what I have studied at both Oxford and at QUB. Ideally, I would like to have a career that allows some clinical medicine as well as medical humanities – basically the dream would be to work as a doctor and to do some lecturing in medical history and the history of women’s health as well! I currently am drawn to gynaecology or surgery, but I’m keeping an open mind as we get to try lots of specialties.



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