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Studying at MUNI will get you ready for Oxford

Roman Kučera transferred from the MU Faculty of Science to one of the best universities in the world.

Contrary to common practice in the Czech Republic, Roman’s duties do not include teaching younger students. Although he is sorry that he cannot share his enthusiasm for science and improve his teaching skills, the upside is that he can focus solely on research.

Buildings straight from the Harry Potter films, cutting-edge labs, and a university that currently sits at the very top of the international rankings. While the University of Oxford certainly has a lot to offer, getting in is far from impossible for Masaryk University graduates.

The PhD admission process differs between countries. In the Czech Republic, students first find their future supervisor and then apply to the university while in other countries, it is often the other way round.

As Roman says, his studies at the MU Faculty of Science have prepared him well for his time at Oxford, as he has much more experience of working in the lab and on research projects compared to students from other countries. “Chemistry students in bachelor’s programmes in the UK spend at least one semester working on a project, and in master’s programmes you normally just work in the lab the whole time. Programmes in other countries only include one or two semesters of working in the lab.”

As Roman was a chemistry enthusiast at grammar school and participated in various projects and competitions, he acquired much more knowledge and experience than regular students. This helped him get into a lab as soon as he enrolled at MUNI.

“I wanted to use everything that I’ve learnt and a friend suggested that I contact Dr Jakub Švenda, who at that time had just returned from abroad and was establishing his research group at MU. After meeting, he agreed that I could join his team.” And so Roman started working in a lab that synthesises natural biologically active substances that could potentially be used in medicine.

“The great thing about MUNI was that I could plan my schedule around my other activities, so I made sure I had two free days a week to work on research. I also completed several courses from the master’s programme as an undergraduate so I could then go for a semester on an Erasmus stay in Regensburg in Germany without extending my studies.”

Master’s at MU; PhD at the best university in the world

Roman enrolled as a PhD student in organic chemistry at the University of Oxford nine months ago. While his favourite subject at primary school was informatics, his chemistry teacher at grammar school fired up his passion for chemistry and after graduating from secondary school, he decided to enrol in a chemistry programme at university. “When I finished my master’s, it still felt like I didn’t know enough about the field. I wanted to get better and have more flexibility in my research,” says Roman, explaining his decision to enrol in a PhD programme.

He applied for a post at several European institutions, but as he says, “I started applying too late, so in the end, I was ‘only’ accepted at Oxford. There aren’t that many positions for PhD students, so you need to start looking for your research group as much as one year in advance.”

To make matters more complicated, the PhD admission process differs between countries. In the Czech Republic, students first find their future supervisor and then apply to the university while in other countries, it is often the other way round: students have to be accepted to the university of their choice first and they make arrangements with their supervisor during the admission procedure.

“It was surprisingly easy to get into Oxford. I submitted the application, which included my academic records, a cover letter and letters of recommendation from my thesis supervisor and the supervisors I worked with during my stays at other institutions. In the second round, I had a Skype interview where I presented my research and was asked to solve a problem in organic chemistry,” says Roman when describing the admission procedure to the university that is currently the best in the world.

Roman was accepted to Synthesis for Biology and Medicine, which is a four-year PhD programme at the Centre for Doctoral Training. During their first year, students complete three 16-week teaching blocks, each focusing on different content. The first of these was a taught course where the students attended lectures, worked on projects and presentations and competed in developing syntheses of organic compounds.

When describing his study programme at Oxford, the young chemist says: “At the end of this first block, we received a booklet with information on 66 different projects from which we picked the two projects that we’ll be working on for the next 32 weeks. Essentially, the first 16-week block was training in teamwork and the projects will help us to become acquainted with the individual research groups. At the end of the third block, we will select the team and the project that will become the focus of our PhD studies.”