Things To Do Before You Graduate

In which The Author offers some advice to prospective students

Looking at a What’s On in Cardiff-style website on Saturday, I noticed a section called Things to do before you graduate. I didn’t look at it, as we were searching for something else, but I can imagine it being a predictable list of tourist traps. There’s no point adding to it. Neither am I going to suggest the obvious things, like:
  • Join all the societies going during Freshers’ Week, only to realise at the end of the first year that you haven’t been to a single event;
  • Snog a different person every week, so that your friends completely lose track of your love life, then crap yourself when the news announces a meningitis outbreak on campus (see Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 3));
  • Buy every single book on the reading list, and spend your second year trying to sell the ones you’ve never opened to equally-gullible first years;
  • Get pissed during a drinks promotion, fall into the nearest body of water, and spend the next day in hospital after having your stomach pumped;
  • Make a friend of another ethnic group and/or religion just to be ‘cool’, or date someone of the same sex simply to shock people;
  • Blow all your remaining money on a ticket for the Summer Ball, only to listen to some has-been singing his greatest hits in a tent in the middle of a thunderstorm.
Instead, here’s my own list of suggestions, aimed specifically at anyone heading for our little corner of the world this coming Autumn…

Have your photo taken by Torchwood’s invisible lift.

Head to Cardiff Bay by train or bus. For a real adventure, catch the big blue bendy-bus from the city centre – it’s much more fun. Follow the signs for the Millennium Centre, which looks like a topped-and-tailed bronze armadillo (or, if you’re on the bus, jump off right outside it.) You’ll see the water tower in the middle of Roald Dahl Plass, about fifty metres or so away. The paving slab which conceals Torchwood’s invisible lift is at the foot of the water tower. Don’t make the mistake which my cousin Mary did on a visit from London, and assume that the ‘water’ was CGI painted in by The Mill during post-production. Not only is the water real: it’s also wet and cold. (Actually, it’s Wales we’re talking about – the water’s always wet and cold. Sometimes it’s cold, wet, and frozen. Just ask my friend Jamila!)
While you’re in the area, why not catch the motorboat from Mermaid Quay and travel via Penarth Harbour to emerge near Cardiff Castle? It’s a great ride up the River Taff, skirting the Millennium Stadium, and disembarking on the riverside in Bute Park. Admission to the Castle is rather expensive, but the guided tour is worth taking. You never know who you might meet. My friends from work and I once bumped (quite literally!) into Jimmy Page at a book launch in the castle one evening. He was on his way into the room when we were leaving. You might bump into other famous people when you’re on your travels. Why not go up and say ‘hello’? Most of them don’t bite (apart from the ones in Being Human, of course.)

Find out how the Learning Resource Centre works

It’s never too soon to find your way around the stacks and come to terms with the arcane system that is the Dewey Decimal Classification. Similarly, get to know how the online journals work. Best of all, talk to your subject librarian. At least in a university library there’s a good chance you’ll find someone who knows about books.
Another useful tip: if you’ve got overdue library books, ask a mate if he can take them back for you. Pretend you didn’t know they were overdue, and don’t pay back the fine he had to fork out on their return.
On the subject of books, always remember to take your reading list with a large pinch of salt. At least a third of the information will be hopelessly outdated and/or completely wrong. Make friends with your local booksellers. (Remember, if one of them asks you out for a drink, it’s rude to refuse.) When they tell you the current state of play with a particular book, feed the information back to your lecturers. Communication is a two-way channel – they can learn stuff from you as well!

Marshal your forces early

There’s a load of great free software out there, so don’t go spending a big chunk of your first loan instalment on Microsoft products. You just don’t need them, if you know where to look. LibreOffice runs across platforms and does everything MS Office does (and more) without costing you a single penny. Similarly, Ubuntu One gives you 5Gb of free online storage and runs across platforms. You might lose a memory stick on your way from the Student Union Library, but there’s always a Cloud in the virtual sky. Don’t fork out £600 for Adobe Photoshop when GIMP is just as good, and doesn’t cost anything either. While you’re at it, have a look online for free tools to organise your reference lists, to save you doing all the hard work right at the end.
Check out the charity shops and second-hand shops nearby for used textbooks. Use the library for the brand-new ones if you need to. Keep your cash for beer food.
You don’t need to spend a fortune on a new laptop either. I currently use a Netbook, which was £100 second-hand, which runs the latest release of Ubuntu Linux and gives me all the software I need totally free. While we’re on the subject, make sure you’re at least (and preferably more) tech-savvy than your lecturer. Nothing gives an undergraduate more satisfaction than showing someone how to save his/her PhD work to a memory stick.

Get to know the short-cuts around campus

This might sound obvious, but you can cut down your travelling between lectures by exploring in your spare time. I was able to get my friends from a lecture to a seminar in a fraction of the time it took everyone else. Nicky H. and Siân D. were able to have a smoke as well, as we were outside the buildings at the time.

Invite your lecturers for a drink at the end of term

Not on an individual basis, of course – that could get very expensive, not to mention looking a tad suspicious. If there’s a group of you heading to the bar after the last lecture of term, why not invite the lecturer along? We’ve come a long way since academics and students kept a very proper distance from each other. Things are a lot less formal these days. Just remember not to make a play for the gorgeous dark-haired Psychology PhD student in the chunky poloneck sweater who’s joined you for the session. She’ll only turn out to have a boyfriend anyway. (Or so I’m told!)

Explore the Valleys

As I once wrote in a long-abandoned screenplay, ‘If it hadn’t been for the Valleys, Cardiff would still be a backwater.’ Take time out to visit some of the historic towns and villages, but make sure you’ve got a friend in the area to accompany you. It’s always handy to have an interpreter, someone familiar with the local customs and mores, who can interact with the natives on your behalf. Always remember to head back to civilisation before nightfall, when most public transport vanishes without trace.

Panic at the last possible moment

Even if you don’t follow any of the above advice during your three, four, or five years at university, this one is absolutely vital. The key is preparation. You’ve spent the entire two terms working on your final dissertation, and it’s complete (in your own head, anyway.) All you need to do is to complete the Bibliography, make a few last-minute tweaks, get it proofread, print it out, have it bound, and submit it to the exam board before noon on Friday.
This deadline, of course, has crept up on you while you’ve been celebrating the end of lectures, watching TV, playing video games, driving around with your mates, meeting your girlfriend, going to the pub, eating, and sleeping. In the words of the late great Douglas Adams: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’
Oh, how you laughed when you read that quote on a mate’s Facebook back in your first year. It’s not so funny any more, is it? It’s Tuesday night. Time’s arrow has fallen to earth, you know not where, and you’ve got three sleeps left before the product of your labours is due in. At this point, remember to tell your parents the situation, so that they can panic on your behalf instead. After all, that’s what they’re there for. Tell them you ‘thrive under pressure’, and let them have kittens while they wonder where in Cardiff you can get the damn thing bound. Email the finished version to a friendly proofreader at 1.30 on the Wednesday lunchtime, and pray he doesn’t get run over on the way home from the library.

And relax…

It’s all over. However, do make a mental note to turn up for your graduation ceremony. Unless you’re a mature student (or got married very young) it’ll be the biggest day of your life so far. Don’t just call into the bar for a couple of pints afterwards. That’s missing the point entirely.