Who? Ben Excell (25), MSc student of Biotechnology
What? Research internship at Plant Sciences, University of Oxford
Where? Oxford, United Kingdom
‘The experience of working and living at Oxford University is quite surreal. It felt like I was working at Hogwarts for six months. In fact, several scenes of the Harry Potter movies were actually shot in the library where I went to study. Every day I would walk amongst grand buildings, of which some are almost a 1000 years old, while students strolled around in gowns.
Bow ties and butlers
Oxford is famed for its outlandish traditions and massive wealth, which often translates into over-the-top formality and expenses made for expenses sake. Full-time students are divided into social units called colleges. I attended several college dinners. You can only go there if you are invited by a member. Your name has to be on a list. And turning up in jeans and a hoodie is not an option. Without a full-on tuxedo plus bow tie, you’re not allowed in. All this, just to have dinner with friends. Another time, my lab threw an informal Christmas party. Butlers served us wine the whole night and there was a first edition Jane Austen novel standing casually on one of the bookshelves in the rented common room.
The university seems to own the city, as everywhere you go you’ll find some reminder of the institution. There is however a major clash of wealth in the city. Oxford has a big homeless problem. At the same time, Oxford University is one of the richest universities in the world. It’s painful to walk home past the many homeless people, all dressed up after a fancy dinner paid for out of university funds.
For my internship, I worked in a Plant Science laboratory. Getting to work alongside academic elites was inspiring, but it was a tough environment. The place was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I was given lots of independence to work on my project. In the end, I spent most of my days in the lab, sometimes working up to 20 hours per day. No one forced me to do that, the pressure in the lab was just so intense. Everyone else did the same. There also wasn’t really anyone who checked if I was doing okay. Ultimately, the schedule wasn’t great for my health, physically and mentally.
I’m lucky that I got the chance to study in a place of tremendous history and to tread in the footsteps of famous British people. However, looking back, I think I was too much drawn in by the prestige of the place. I was experiencing so many people’s dreams, but it became quite ordinary for me in the end.’