Al graduated in 2017, and is about to embark on further MSc studies in Scotland. Read about his journey here:
Why did you choose Biology at Oxford?
I have been interested in animals for as long as I can remember, and had only ever seen myself wanting to take that passion further with my selected degree. Considering those two facts, there was an argument to suggest that Zoology would’ve been the most appropriate choice, but no such option existed at Oxford. However, my wish for a top education prevailed, and my assumption that future specialisation in natural-world-focused modules would be possible turned out to be correct.
What did you enjoy most about your degree?
The opportunity to take in some incredible wildlife hotspots much earlier in my life than I expected. My undergraduate project took me to Skomer for data collection, and the third-year lecture option “Tropical Forest Ecology” allowed me to visit Borneo. Even though I went to both places with the primary duty of doing academic work, I was very glad that spending time with the amazing wildlife was never discouraged. Skomer in particular allowed me to indulge in my main passion of birding, but thankfully the nature of my project left me with plenty of free time to help the wardens and researchers with their work too, in effect acting as an extra volunteer alongside those already there. In this way, my involvement was enough for me to record it on my CV, which undoubtedly helped me to apply successfully for the placements that I completed later on in life. Birding was much harder in the thick vegetation and tall trees of the jungle, but setting eyes on wild Bornean orang-utans before turning 21 was way more than an adequate form of compensation.
What was your final project on?
I looked at diving behaviour in the Manx shearwater, supervised by Professor Tim Guilford (who was also my Director of Studies at Merton College). Tim had the idea for me to investigate whether diving activity that would normally be logged by a TDR (time-depth recorder) could be inferred just from the immersion data provided by a geolocator. For this, we needed some birds that were wearing both devices simultaneously. The standard imperfections of fieldwork meant that my final sample size was very small, so the discovery that the aforementioned inferences may not be impossible to make carried little weight. As is always the case in science, there was an emphasis on the need for further research.
What skill sets did you gain during your degree that have equipped you for where you are today?
I sourced the papers for my first few undergraduate essays just from general Google searches and looking through the references on each relevant Wikipedia page. I suppose this method was fine in the beginning, but my life did become much easier when a fellow student introduced me to Web of Science. Going into a master’s now, I can see myself relying on that database almost every day.
What did you do after Oxford?
Two weeks after the end of my last term, I was lucky enough to go to the Isle of May to take part in the annual Young Birders’ Training Course, run by the SOC. As well as being my first ever visit to a bird observatory, the trip was also my first time in Scotland. Provisioning watches, colour-ring resighting, assisting with the daily wildlife census and helping ringers to catch gull chicks were familiar to me from my time on Skomer, but building tern nest-boxes and having a go at ringing myself were pleasant novelties. Just over a month later, a previously secured YBOVF grant from the BTO allowed me to spend time on Skokholm, thus ticking off my second British bird observatory very soon after the first. Lying roughly between the long-term volunteers and paying guests in terms of status, my main occupation was contributing to the daily wildlife census, a task that was second nature to me by that point (I attained delightful island fame by frequently getting the highest counts of grey seals).
After Skokholm, my plan was to get a job for at least a year in order to earn money, with the following four reasons in mind:
- I wanted to buy a good camera + lens combination and a telescope for improving my wildlife encounters;
- I was after a way of funding driving lessons, as a resultant licence had the power to give me increased freedom and employability;
- I knew that paid work by itself would be great for the CV;
- I saw membership of the national workforce as a way of generating more self-respect.
Unfortunately, the quest for a job was not a successful one, and I spent nine unhappy months doing applications that never bore the desired fruit. Further rejections from long-term volunteering posts on the Farne Islands and Lundy added extra disappointment, but I was rescued from my unwanted position by an offer to be a residential volunteer for the RSPB in Dorset. Three colleagues and I lived in a flat on Portland for just over 12 weeks, from which we journeyed to Chesil Beach to protect the summer breeding population of little terns. My main duty was night wardening, which was intense but rewarding, as I felt that the colony’s continued existence really was somewhat due to my efforts.
What do you currently do, and what do you enjoy most about it?
I have just enrolled on an MSc in Conservation Studies at the University of St Andrews. At the time of writing, I have yet to begin proper classes because it is still Induction Week, but I’m looking forward to learning about one of my favourite areas of biology in greater depth, especially in an interdisciplinary manner. In terms of what I’m currently enjoying, the coastal location is definitely hard to beat.
What advice do you have for prospective students looking to apply for Biology at Oxford?
I would say that the first task is to ensure that you want straight Biology right from the start, rather than maybe mixing it up a bit by doing Natural Sciences (the Oxford-Cambridge conundrum, for which factors besides course structure may also be at play). Next, you should decide whether you want to specify a preferred college or make an open application — it’s not supposed to matter which of these two paths you choose, but it is crucial to be aware that Biology isn’t offered at all colleges, so check the list in the prospectus first. Tutors will be looking for a genuine interest in the subject that goes beyond the school curriculum, so doing extra reading is a must, and any named titles on the personal statement must be known inside out in case you’re called to interview and heavy grilling ensues.
On the contrary, little or nothing might be said about your personal statement in an interview, so if you get that far it’s best (within reason) to expect the unexpected. Any subject-related volunteering might also be good to mention, provided that you use it specifically to demonstrate your dedication to biology. I chose to apply to Merton — and was thrilled to get in — partly because Tim’s main interests are somewhat similar to mine, but ending up with a Director of Studies whose main interests don’t resemble yours wouldn’t be the end of the world, as specialisation and the associated self-booking of tutorials begin in second year, which is also when the final degree starts being assessed. That said, getting a distinction in first year’s preliminary exams (~70% average across the three, with a score of at least 40% in each one) has its perks, including discounted accommodation and priority consideration for the Borneo field trip, so doing very well from the off is anything but a bad idea. Finally, by far the most important thing to do is not to let anyone put you off applying, as listening to them may prevent you from realising your full potential.
Get in touch with Al: @FindMeARareBird