Pain and Honours

Is an Honours year the right choice?

After 13 years of school and at least three years of university you could be forgiven for longing to throw your graduation cap in the air, march through the gates, and never look back. Despite this, many of us contemplate adding Honours to our list of qualifications, often without really knowing what it involves and how useful it is. So what is Honours actually like?

Honours can be the worst or the best year of your life but it will definitely be the most challenging. I am only a little way into Honours in biology and I am finding the program as intense as it is rewarding. Great things are expected of you in Honours – you are essentially invited backstage by the academic community and given the privilege of participating in the production of new knowledge. But with this privilege comes the expectation that you take your role seriously and work hard. Along the way you receive more guidance, help, and support than at any other point in your degree from experts in your field.

Honours is indispensable if you want to do research but outside this area employers are apparently undecided about the worth of this extra qualification

It’s a pretty sweet deal but opinions are divided. Sam Jenkins, who dropped out of physiology Honours to pursue his acting career, told me he has, “discontinued Honours, because it’s only valuable if I want to go into research or do a PhD”. Benjamin Pope, who won the University Medal and a number of prizes last year for his work on kernel-phase interferometry, agrees: “Honours is very much about taking in green recruits, putting them through boot camp and sending them to the front lines – it’s not a relaxing or pleasant experience and you don’t learn anything you wouldn’t learn much better … with vastly less pressure.”

Honours is indispensable if you want to do research but outside this area employers are apparently undecided about the worth of this extra qualification. Chloe Paul, who received first class Honours in biochemistry last year, told me, “I haven’t found my Honours degree helpful at finding a job outside of lab work. I’ve actually found it to be more of a point of friction.” However, another Honours graduate, Alexander Clubb, who came first in chemistry last year, found the exact opposite. “I remember applying for graduate jobs and almost all of my answers to the selection criteria were examples from Honours. If you want to answer the question ‘Give an example of a time you showed leadership/initiative’ then do Honours,” he said.

It is clear that Honours calls on an entirely different set of skills than a bachelor’s degree and will suit some people more than others. Alexander was surprised at how well he took to research. “I never expected that I would work so hard for so long and be so pleased about doing it … while I was pretty ambivalent about undergrad classes, I absolutely loved research. It’s all about initiative, imagination and hard work,” he explained.

That being said, Honours can also come as a shock to some students. Charles Foster, who was awarded the University Medal and the Ilma Brewer Prize for his project on plant biology last year, told Honi, “I didn’t expect to be thrown into the deep end so quickly … There is a lot less spoon-feeding of answers.”

Benjamin admits he went a little nutty towards the end. “I was convinced for a great deal of the time that I was going to fail. I submitted my thesis three minutes late and I was on the verge of total hysteria by that point.”

If you are wondering about whether to do Honours, the best thing you can do is talk to past students. If you can get beyond the horror stories, you’ll discover that practically everyone takes something away from this year, whether it be a set of new skills, lessons about time management or, if nothing else, the knowledge that they never want to become a researcher. The value of undertaking a year of independent research with one-on-one mentoring shouldn’t be underestimated. You just can’t get this sort of experience in the rest of your degree.



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