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cambridge alumni  young4stem

PETER KOSEC

attended: Cambridge - Trinity College , Cambridge, United Kingdom

Programs: Undergraduate degree - Natural Sciences,

                    Later on : Physics, Astrophysics

"I did not meet anyone who was there only for the university degree and would do only the bare minimum to pass."

How and why did you choose your university? 

PK: I knew for a while that I wanted to study STEM, and most likely Astronomy. Since my childhood, and especially during high school, I participated in many scientific Olympiads and competitions. Thanks to a great Physics teacher and support from my parents, I managed to achieve success in these competitions, took part in international Olympiads and won medals in them. I knew this success greatly increased my chances of getting accepted at an international university (these Olympiads are well renowned at top colleges). I also realized how straightforward it was to apply for university in the UK. As I did not want to move as far as the US at that time, I decided to try applying for the best universities in the UK and see if I could get accepted into one of these programs. University of Cambridge has long had the reputation of being the best university for natural sciences, and so I applied there. I was also convinced by the collegiate system of the University, which is split into 31 colleges. To my surprise, I was accepted at Trinity College, known for its focus on Natural Sciences and Mathematics – where Isaac Newton worked, for example. 

 

What did you major in, and what did you think of the program? 

PK: For my undergraduate degree, I studied Natural Sciences. This course began with very broad topics in the first year, when I studied Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science and Materials Science (other optional courses included Biology, which I did not take).

In the second year, I focused on Physics, and later focused even further on Astrophysics. I consider the program very good, and beneficial especially for those who want to do a STEM degree but are not certain in which field. A few of my classmates, who entered this program thinking they would focus on Physics, switched halfway through because thanks to the introductory courses they realized how much more they are fascinated by other STEM fields. 

 

How did you find your career path? 

PK: I have always thought about becoming a researcher in Astronomy but was not 100% certain. During my undergraduate studies, to learn how real research is done, I took part in summer internships. I was very fortunate to find one right after my first year, and that experience helped me to obtain internships during the following two summer breaks. These internships allowed me to see other top universities such as Stanford and Caltech, travel in the US, but also showed me how exciting the career in research is, and how much I like Astronomy. Therefore, after finishing my Masters in Natural Sciences, I continued with a Doctorate in Astrophysics, also at the University of Cambridge. In turn, these internship experiences helped me to get accepted into the graduate program as they made my CV much stronger. 

What was your favourite class? 

PK: It was probably one of the more advanced Astrophysics classes called Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics, which I took in the third year of my undergrad. The course contained many examples and problems related to how black holes swallow material that is unfortunate enough to find itself in their vicinity, and why this phenomenon is relevant and important in our Universe. Nowadays, this is exactly the topic I study in my professional research. 

Was it easy to build relationships with your professors, or were they not approachable? 

PK: Cambridge University has a unique system of teaching. It combines lectures, organized by an academic department and given by a professor to a large number of students, with supervisions, which occur in much smaller student groups, often at one of the 31 colleges. They are usually only two or three students in a supervision, taught by a PhD student or a more senior academic, which makes the teacher very approachable. It is during the supervisions where most of the learning happens, as the students can discuss the course with the professor in-depth, while focusing on the most difficult topics introduced in lectures. In these supervisions, I was able to interact closely with these academics, and begin to build work relationships with them.

 

What did you gain outside of the college classroom? 

PK: Extracurricular societies are a big part of the Cambridge experience. At the beginning of each school year, there is a society fair where the different clubs present themselves. You can probably find a society for any kind of activity – from various sports, through practically any kind of hobby or science, to various cultural and national societies. I took part in many society events, for example in the Cambridge University Astronomical Society which organized weekly lectures by professional astronomers as well as night sky observations. I also used to do archery at the Cambridge University Bowmen society. These societies of course have an important social function – it is where you meet and get to know other like-minded people. As I already mentioned before, I also participated in several summer internships, which are a popular way to gain work experience during undergraduate studies in the UK. 

Did you enjoy the dorm life?

PK: I had a really good experience. Students in Cambridge have great dorms and most of them live in college provided accommodation in single rooms without roommates. This allows sufficient calm for studying, which I enjoyed. At the same time, it was very easy to meet up with classmates who lived nearby. During one of the undergrad years, I was even able to live in the historical part of college, just a stone throw away from the 400 years old Trinity College Great Court. Cambridge is specifically known for its colleges, which form the social backbone for students, whereas much teaching (except supervisions) is done at academic departments. Colleges organize various societies, as well as regular social dinners called formals. 

What was the worst thing about your college experience? 

PK: The worst thing was the distance to Slovakia, home, and family. I was not able to go home weekly, or even monthly. Luckily, I had a number of Slovak and Czech friends, whom I got to know through numerous events of the Cambridge University Czech & Slovak Society. So, I was not as homesick as I would have been without them. 

What is your favourite memory of college? 

PK: That would be some of the social events. I cannot think of a specific one, but I had many great times at the formal dinners organized by Trinity, or at the social events organized by the CZ-SK Cambridge society. 

What was the greatest challenge you faced in college? 

PK: It was probably impostor syndrome. I was suddenly surrounded by many students who excelled at the courses we were taking, which were often quite challenging. Looking back, I am sure many of them struggled from time to time just as me, but back then, it did not feel that way to me. It felt like I was surrounded by people much smarter than me, and I did not belong. But ultimately, this was not true. If I did not belong, I would not have been admitted to such a university in the first place. At the same time, while this was difficult, it was also amazing to be surrounded only by people which are truly passionate about the subject they study. I did not meet anyone who was there only for the university degree and would do only the bare minimum to pass. 

What would you say is the most significant difference between college and the “real world”? 

PK: I think the college does a good job at teaching the student the theoretical background of their degree (assuming the student works hard enough). What it does not stress sufficiently, in my opinion, is the necessity of practical experience as well as the necessity of making connections in the field. It is crucial for the student not to only prepare for the classes during their studies, 

but also engage with career and networking events, and leverage all opportunities to gain job experience while the student is still at the university. For example, already in my first year of undergrad, I actively searched for a summer internship in my field. I was very fortunate to find one, but this experience opened many new doors to me and, ultimately, led to the career that I currently have. 

What do you wish you knew before starting college? 

PK: I wish I knew how quickly the undergraduate studies would go! I recommend everyone to make the best out of this incredible period of our lives.

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