Understanding the fabric of life

Student profile: Susan Garrett, studying Material Sciences at the University of Manchester
Nineteen-year-old Susan Garrett from Birmingham chose her course in the field of science and engineering because she believes it will enable her to establish a career very quickly.

"I'm studying a course called Material Sciences at the University of Manchester, and in the third year, the university helps you to find a job. You then do a year's work experience for which you're paid - either abroad or in this country. Then you return to university to take a fourth year to complete the degree," she says.

Susan, who took maths, physics, chemistry and general studies A-levels, at a girls' grammar school in Birmingham, chose the course because she didn't want to choose between her A-level subjects.

"I enjoyed all three," she says, "So I didn't want to specialise in just one. In this course all the subjects are covered, and this first year has been like a continuation of my A-level course."

At A-level, Susan got a B in her general studies, two Ds in maths and chemistry, and an E in physics. "I didn't actually get the grades I needed for the course - they were asking for two Cs and a D. But I managed to convince them at interview that I was really keen!" she says.

The course itself, as the name suggests, is the study of metals, plastics and polymers. "What we do is analyse the physical and chemical contents of these materials, to find out exactly how they're made up," says Susan.

The course is divided up into twelve hours of lectures each week, and three three-hour tutorials and lab sessions in the afternoons. "I enjoy these most, because it's a chance to test out what you've been hearing about in the lectures," she says. "It's also quite a sociable occasion, because we work in groups of four, which are constantly changing. There are fifty-five people on my course, and I know nearly all of them. I know students on arts courses who don't know half of the people on their course, because they only meet in small tutorial groups."

The course is modular, with four exams at Christmas and four in the summer. All practical work is also assessed, and lab reports have to be written up each week, which are then marked and count towards the final year mark.

"We've had to achieve 40 per cent overall to pass this year," says Susan. "It means that you can afford to get only 30 per cent in one subject, as long as you do really well in another."

She says she has found the course in polymers quite difficult, but the lecturers are always willing to help and give some extra tuition. This year the students have also been expected to complete a project as part of their year mark.

"We were each given either a metal or a plastic object, like a padlock, or a toy car, and told to analyse its contents. So we had to slice it up, and then take high magnitude photographs to see exactly what it was made up of.

"Physically we could tell from the pictures what structure it was, and we also took chemical reactions from the samples - for example, if it was a polymer it would burn with a bright green flame."

Socially. Susan has found Manchester a great place to be. "There are lots of students, from UMIST and Manchester Metropolitan just down the road," she says. "It means there are always loads of events going on at all the different unions, and it's a chance to meet students from the other universities."

This last year she's been living in hall, but next year will be renting with friends in the Fallowfield area - one of the most popular with students.

"Finding a flat has been hard work, because some are really grotty, but we've managed to find one which is okay," she says.

Like most students money is a problem. "I get a grant to cover my accommodation, but Mum has to give me money each week to live on," she says.

This summer she's working in a video shop to make extra money and is looking for a Saturday job in Manchester next year.

Career-wise, she believes the course will stand her in good stead.

"There are lots of adverts up in my department looking for students on this course," she says. "Employers seem to like this degree because it is so broadly-based, and has the year's practical experience."