MSc by Research in Biomedical Sciences: My First Experiences…

…by Rory / from Scotland / MScR Biomedical Sciences / 1st Year

Thinking about applying to the MScR Biomedical Sciences course? Or been accepted and wondering what to expect?  I am going to tell you a little bit about a few of my first experiences and some things I wish I had known before starting the course. 

Why this course was right for me

First of all, one of my main aims in life is pursuing a career in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) research. With the vast complexity of the disease, it is important to hone in on a specific area which you find interesting and perhaps base a career on. I knew I wanted to apply to a Master’s degree (and eventually a PhD) but I hadn’t a clue where to start and what may aid in my search to find an area of MS on which to base my future career. After a short search online, I had found the MScR Biomedical Sciences course at the University of Edinburgh. The programme structure of two 20-week projects on different topics in areas of my choice was exactly the thing I needed and was looking for. I applied and was given an unconditional offer of which I spent little time considering before accepting!

Laboratories for Project 1

Before we had even set foot inside the university, we were emailed a list of the projects/laboratories available in which to base our first dissertation. The list was packed with a wide range of topics, with a brief background, the contact information of the supervisor and the skills and techniques that would be utilised throughout the project. This list was only to give us an idea of which project to pursue once the course had officially begun. I chose one topic I found somewhat interesting and researched it extensively – this was a mistake for a few reasons.

Firstly, on one of the first few introductory days, it was explained to us that we were supposed to contact the supervisors of each research project we were interested in and request/apply to join their laboratory. This is something I had not grasped beforehand and wrongly assumed that we would simply be given any project we wished to do! There may be competition for some of the advertised projects (although the list is quite extensive), so it would have been a good idea for me to do some light research on 3/4 of the projects.

Secondly, more and more projects were being added to the list by supervisors; some of which might have been more appealing and relevant to me and my future career prospects. After all the information of the introductory week had been digested, we were advised to come up with a shortlist of topics we had researched and were keen to base our project on. We would then have a 1-on-1 discussion with our programme director on our choices and be given the green light to contact the project supervisors. I was quite anxious for this meeting because, although there were some interesting topics on the list, none of them really related to my main goal and interest in MS. Despite my worry, the conversation we had was brief and nerve settling. I was advised that I may look into other projects not advertised on the list given and perhaps look for projects in the Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences (CDBS). I did exactly that and found several topics that really appealed to me – I did not hesitate to contact these supervisors about their availability to have me in their lab. 

Meeting Project Supervisors

After emailing a handful of supervisors from CDBS, a few responded requesting my CV, a meeting or both. Although I did have a CV, it was not scientific at all and was littered with part-time jobs I’ve had since I was in school. Creating a CV with all my relevant experience and undergraduate work was an extra stress I wish I had addressed prior to emailing supervisors. Before meeting the project supervisors, I knew I had to do a great deal more researching into the topic. These supervisors are experts in their fields with vast numbers of publications. It would be quite apparent if I hadn’t read up on their work and, therefore, obvious I wasn’t really interested in the topic! As well as increasing my knowledge of the field in order to have a fruitful discussion of the project, I also felt it was important to come up with some thought-provoking questions for each supervisor. 

My first meeting was for a project directly related to MS. Although the discussion went very well, the supervisor had decided I was not able to undertake this project because of the intricate techniques that would take up too much of the 20-weeks to learn and perfect. The project hadn’t been advertised for my course anyway, so I tried not to be too disappointed. My second meeting was with a supervisor researching spinal cord regeneration in zebrafish and, although not directly relating to MS, it could be indirectly related and was something that interested me greatly. This second meeting also went well and luckily there might be room for me!

I was given the email of a Post-doc who worked in the lab to discuss his specific research area and if he were able to act as my day-to-day supervisor. After arranging a time, we met in the lab where he explained what his main area of research was, where I could fit in and what would be required of me. We also discussed my availability for the lab and if I needed any particular time off or anything like that. I didn’t have fixed hours for my part-time job at the time, so I told him I’d like to be in the lab 3 days a week. However, I was quickly told that I was needed in the lab from 10am till at least 5pm Monday to Friday. This came as quite a shock to me because there was no chance that my part-time job was going to be able to give me enough shifts throughout the week after 5pm and at the weekends. This ultimately meant I had to quit my job and find something else a little more flexible and with better hours – another supplementary stress that I wish I had sorted out beforehand. Anyway, the meeting went well and I was given permission to start in the lab. The meetings also gave me my first insight into what real research laboratories looked like with real research scientists buzzing about their daily experiments – this was fascinating!  There was a mountain of learning to climb but I couldn’t wait! 

First thoughts of Lab Life

My first few weeks in the lab gave me a good insight into what my future career might look like. I had never worked in a lab before (other than undergraduate work) and did not expect there to be so many younger people! There were 3 PhD students not much older than me and, later in the year, some undergraduate and Master’s students also became part of daily lab life. 

Starting in the lab had been nerve-racking at first, but my day-to-day supervisor was very thorough with his explanations and demonstrations of experiments and would keep me right. He would be watching over me a lot of the time for the first weeks, showing me a multitude of techniques I was going to be using over the next few months. At first, it was easy to make errors with experiments but once techniques were improved and perfected it was very rewarding. I would ask questions often and, although at times I had felt as if I would be exasperating some of the PhD students and Post-Docs, they were always understanding and could not have been more helpful. It’s always better to ask if you’re unsure rather than make an avoidable mistake! The amount of information to take in every day for the first month caused many a headache by 5pm. The only thing I could really compare the feeling to is when you’re trying to cram study for an exam the following morning and your brain feels physically full! In hindsight, I wish I had taken more diligent note taking throughout my first few weeks as little details were very easy to forget.

Some take home messages…

  • Be prepared to meet with supervisors: do your homework and have an updated scientific CV.
  • Keep your options open when applying to projects; don’t fixate on just the one!
  • Know that this course is going to take up a lot of your time so my most important message would be to have your finances sorted before starting!! And if you plan on working part-time, make sure to have a job with very flexible hours.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions when starting off in the lab.
  • Don’t be disheartened when experiments don’t go to plan or you make a mistake!

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