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What I Wish I Knew In My First Year: Balancing Lab Courses

As first semester wraps up and finals season looms ominously in our futures, it is officially that time of year when we all start thinking critically about our winter schedules. For many folks, winter semester may feel like a continuation of fall...just another endless cycle of exams, assignments, labs, lab reports, and more exams. However, a new semester can be a new start... a new chance to look at how your previous semester went, make changes, and start 2020 off as prepared as possible.

Life as a first-year chemistry student can be daunting, and it may seem like there are just not enough hours in the day to get everything accomplished. While effective time management may alleviate some of this pressure, it is important to recognize your own limits and set yourself up for success. Most often, this involves building a class schedule around labs. But how many labs are too many? Here are some points to keep in mind...

Labs take just as much time as class work:

You are scheduled for 3 hours of lab per week, in addition to 3 hours of class. This adds up quickly and should not be ignored. Although it is very likely that first year chemistry labs (CHEM 101, CHEM 201, CHEM 261) may not take the entire 3 hours to finish the experiment, factoring in doing pre-labs, lab reports etc. will easily take you a few hours. Labs are challenging-they are time consuming, and they require effort. In terms

of commitment, a course with a lab component is easily the same as 2 courses without.

Labs require mental effort:

Although it may seem simple to just read through a procedure and follow it, labs, especially when you have several, are mentally draining. As you advance in your degree and complete more lab courses (I'm looking at you, CHEM 211, with several flasks of colorless liquids that need to be meticulously labeled), you will realize just how much critical thinking is required to be a successful chemist.

CHEM 101 and CHEM 261 Labs are VERY Different:

If you are planning on taking CHEM 261 in the winter of your first year, like several science students do, it is important to be aware of the differences in Organic Chemistry Labs. You are expected to come into the lab with a clear plan on what you are doing that day, having completed a comprehensive pre-lab assignment. The TAs typically expect a higher degree of independence, and the techniques and skills are completely different than what you would have used in CHEM 101. These labs may seem daunting to begin with, but if you are willing to give them the attention and preparation they deserve, they are a fun and rewarding experience that help build good lab skills for the future.

So, what does all of this mean? Labs are challenging. Labs are time consuming. Labs are not for everyone. Many first-year students find themselves overwhelmed by the commitment. So, how many labs should a first-year student be taking? No more than 2-3 per semester. Any less, and you will likely have to add a semester to your degree. Any more, and you may find yourself completely overwhelmed. Although this can be used as a 'tried and true' guideline for many students, it is by no means a firm rule and it depends on a multitude of factors including your own preference, abilities as a student, comfort level, and of course the nature of the labs themselves.

Take care this finals season, and good luck building your schedules for next semester!


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