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Have you been inspired by the pandemic to study science at university?

Rachel Hall
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Fredrick Kippe/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Fredrick Kippe/Alamy

One of the few positive stories to emerge from the pandemic has been the power of science to understand and shape our world. Epidemiologists have charted and predicted the virus’ progress, biochemists have developed the vaccine, doctors and nurses have diagnosed, cared for and cured the unwell – and these are just the highest profile scientific professions solving this century’s biggest problem.

It’s perhaps no surprise that growing numbers of young people are feeling inspired by the scientists they’ve watched on TV and read about online. A recent poll of 1,000 4-18 year-olds by the British Science Association found that 59% are more tempted by careers in science than they were prior to the pandemic. Celebrity scientist Brian Cox has even predicted that the pandemic will create “a new generation of scientists”.

For some, such as west London 17-year-old Anita Salihu, watching medics save lives swung her decision to apply for medical school. “I wrote in my personal statement that I’d been inspired by how doctors, even when they lacked PPE, would still go above and beyond, showing passion and trying to help. I felt like I would have done that, I would have loved to have been a part of it,” she says.

For others, such as Tanisha Lohia, a year 13 student from Essex, the pandemic has opened their eyes to the range of scientific careers on offer. “I have never wanted to be a doctor, but I wasn’t sure which career paths would be available to me. I knew I wanted to use science in my daily life, but I had no real understanding of what it meant to be a research scientist,” she says. “I now definitely want to research immune responses to different diseases, and maybe pre-empt any future diseases that could mutate the same way as Covid-19 has done.”

According to Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the British Science Association, the pandemic has thrown a much-needed spotlight on lesser-known career paths. “Young people see that there isn’t just one path to take in order to contribute their skills to fighting global crises.”

For students considering which degree to study, biology and healthcare will lead to careers that are most obviously related to the pandemic. But any science degree will enable you to develop a scientific mindset open to ideas and experimentation along with analytical, problem-solving and research skills. Mathieson notes that chemistry can lead to careers in drug research; physics graduates can find better ways to detect disease; and maths and computing is good preparation for building models of disease spread.

The pandemic effect has already led to increases in applications at some universities. Mike Nicholson, admissions director at the University of Bath, which specialises in science, says biochemistry applications are up by 30% on two years ago; biomedical science is up 50%; pharmacy and pharmacology are seeing increases between 10% and 20%; and natural sciences, which enables students to keep their options open, has grown by 30%. Computer science and maths applications have been growing steadily thanks to great job prospects for its graduates, he adds.

The pandemic has also made lots of young people anxious about the future of the economy and where their degrees will take them. Charlie Ball, head of higher education at Prospects, says that vocational healthcare degrees are a good way to ensure you will always find work. “There isn’t a single profession you can go into that has too many people, from radiologists to midwives,” he says.

While Ball says your choice shouldn’t be solely guided by career aspirations, as these can change, he recommends doing a little research to understand where opportunities are likely to lie. For instance, tech and engineering industries have skills shortages, whereas there is a surplus of biology graduates.

Ghislaine Dell, careers advisor at the University of Bath, adds that Covid-19 and Brexit have deepened skills shortages in some areas of science. “We are seeing increased demands for healthcare practice and clinical science, laboratory-based pharmaceutical research and development, software development, computer systems, coding and data science.”

So if you’ve decided you want to take the next step in science, what should you do? Nicholson says that choosing the right A-levels is the first step. For example, you’ll need both chemistry and biology for biochemistry or biomedical science, and maths for computer science. Another benefit is that these will give you “a good insight into the degree course content”, he says. Many universities also offer a broad-based science education in first year, enabling you to choose which subject you want to specialise in after that.

Nicholson also recommends choosing an extended project qualification in your proposed degree subject. If you do well, universities may give you a lower offer. Watching TED talks and doing online courses on platforms such as Futurelearn will also widen your subject knowledge, while visiting university open days and attending summer schools can help focus your aspirations.

If you’re wondering about what jobs these courses might lead to, Mathieson recommends seeking out work placements with hands-on practical experience when these become available again after the pandemic. In the meantime, students should work with teachers to find opportunities to run their own experiments and investigations, such as the BSA’s CREST awards programme, and if possible find a mentor in the industry, she says. Students who are soon to start university can ask their departments for preparatory reading lists, too.

Donald Campbell, a 16-year-old from Inverness, has used extra time under lockdown to explore his scientific interests. After completing two CREST awards, his work was noticed by a university professor who encouraged him to write an academic journal article. Working with academics “ignited my interest and has shown me that there are many opportunities to learn beyond what’s offered in schools”, he says.

But while job prospects matter, the important thing is to choose something you enjoy, says Dell. She advises opting for broader courses unless you have a set career path in mind, since lots of science techniques are widely transferable. Crucially, she recommends that you channel the scientific mindset and think laterally about your choices: “A career in science doesn’t have to mean a white coat.”