One of the biggest lessons I learned from my undergraduate degree was not non-linear dynamics, or even behavioural neuroscience, or 20th-century harmony. It was that within most degrees there is plenty of room for freedom – but to exercise it you need to read the fine print and know the right people.
The regulations for your degree are clearly outlined upon enrolment. You will need to make sure that you pass the relevant number of units within certain categories. However, what I discovered was that beyond the “standard” academic pathway within the degree, there is often a little room for movement. And all you really need are friends in high places – and by that I mean the administration team.
Never underestimate how influential administration staff are within the university. They are the ones with access to the relevant professors and those higher up the hierarchy who are often required to approve anything out of the ordinary. My undergraduate degree was not ordinary.
I was enrolled on a bachelor of science course in advanced maths. I had enjoyed some music subjects throughout my first and second year, but when third year came I wanted to do a specific third-year music unit – mainly because it looked interesting and I wasn’t that keen on any of my other options. From reading the regulations of my degree, I wasn’t sure if it was possible, so I made some enquiries with staff at both the faculty of science and the department of music; to add to my out-of-the-ordinariness, the unit I was choosing was usually for music majors who had completed prerequisites that I lacked. After getting some great advice from administration staff in both departments, and a morning of running around between each of them to get a single piece of paper signed off by several important people: hey presto – I was in.
It’s the admin staff in the faculty who know what form, procedure or approval you need to do whatever it is you want to do. They will also be the ones to let you know if what you are asking is not possible and save you wasting your time.
I think that they can sometimes have a bit of a bad reputation, but as someone who did a casual job within the faculty of science admin team over the enrolment period, I know that the administration staff want to see you succeed. They want to see students get through the system and do well. But they also have their own jobs to do – and regulations to adhere to.
So after all this, later in my third year when I was looking for potential supervisors and projects for an honours year, I wasn’t too nervous in approaching a potential supervisor from the department of physics (even though I had taken zero physics units) who was doing some mathematical modelling of brain dynamics. To cut a long story short: it turns out that, if the right people (in this case supervisors from both departments) are willing to negotiate on your behalf with the powers that be, you can do a thesis within theoretical physics when enrolled on an honours degree in advanced mathematics. You can even enrol in fourth-year physics subjects with no background in undergraduate physics
More recently, as a part-time PhD student, I’ve come to appreciate all over again the role that the administration staff play in the academic environment: namely, helping students sort out all kinds of issues with enrolment and scholarships. Supervisors and academics are also often willing to “go to bat” for you when needed.
It’s easy to feel lost in the bureaucracy of university life and the establishment, but one of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned over the years is the old cliché: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And having friends in high places really does open up endless opportunities.