Studies during first semester

While there were a range of events happening in the last months, from a reception with the University President, a night market on campus with lots of food  and music, Homecoming weekend (which seems to involve a lot of drinking and a football game) to ice skating and several Christmas parties, including a fancy dinner with performances, I want to finally write a bit about my classes and actual studying at McMaster.

Interestingly, the university seems to automatically register exchange students as 3rd year students, even though I, for instance, am in my fourth year right now. However, this is not a problem, as one can choose courses from basically all levels, as long as the course prerequisites are fulfilled.

Although I had chosen courses already before my arrival in Hamilton, once there I still had to work on my curriculum in order to receive waivers for the online registration of all my classes.

For a Chinese course I wanted to take (and probably other non-beginner language courses), for example, I needed to take a placement test which, although sounding serious, was simply to determine whether I would fit better in the beginners or the intermediate course. For another two courses from a different programme (Engineering Physics) I had to convince my study advisor that I had the prerequisites which, unfortunately, only worked out for one of the two classes.

So in the end I only took four instead of five courses for the first semester: Intermediate Mandarin, Lasers and Optoelectronics (my Engineering Physics course), Soft Condensed Matter (a Biophysics course) and a research project on theoretical aspects of quantum physics. In order to choose the latter, I had to contact McMaster physics staff and find a supervisor before my arrival.

With my four courses I have been well within the full time study load and busy enough. Nonetheless, the number of courses other students take varies a lot from 5-7 classes per semester for Engineering students to around 4-5 courses for exchange as well as, at least in physics, fourth-year students who do a final project.

Regarding the individual courses, my Chinese class was a straight-forward language class with regular quizzes, hand-in homeworks and marks for class participation. I had two tests and a final exam with a speaking component for each. As McMaster offers a wide range of languages (e.g. Japanese, Greek, Hebrew, native American languages), I would assume most of their courses are based on a similar concept, although I know that at least beginner French courses are aimed at less practical aspects focusing mostly on a writing-only university-specific computer program.

For my physics and engineering physics classes, it was a bit different and more work, since I had three assignments / three class tests plus an oral presentation and an exam at the end of the semester in each class. Nonetheless, these classes were very interesting and organized rather practically. In my Biophysics course for example, we did quite a few experiments in class as well as at home (as part of the assignments), while at the same time also going through all the mathematical aspects in detail. The Engineering Physics class, on the other hand, was more focused on the concepts than calculations.

With exams the university is relatively strict as, for example, only a specific calculator model is allowed and, especially in larger exams where not only the lecturer invigilates, any unnecessary items (water bottles, calculator lids, etc.) have to be placed under the table.

Nonetheless, my first semester went well and I am now – after a brief, but amazing winter break – already a few days into the second semester, this time with rather theoretical courses, such as 4th year quantum mechanics, general relativity and stellar evolution.

Finally, as a little extra, some pictures of Hamilton in the autumn and winter seasons (which includes the hockey season):