Navigating Your Way Through a Masters Degree in Science: My Experience

Oct 25 / Kayinat Ahmed
Like myself, you have decided to continue your academic journey and progress as a scientist (or avoid adulthood) by choosing to study a masters degree. But as cool as the title may sound, you realise that a masters, especially in science, is a whole different journey. For me, this was in Molecular Genetics and Diagnostics.

I chose this degree because I became increasingly interested in the role of genetics and everything beyond genetics (epigenetics), in disease and how changes in genetic code can be detected with the use of molecular technologies before people actually start to develop symptoms. However, as with anything you choose to pursue, there are challenges you need to overcome. I will be talking about some of my challenges in this degree and tips on how to navigate through them.

Intensity of the course

Compared to your undergraduate degree, you’ll find that the content in masters becomes more intense with lectures, assignments, exams and practicals coming at you left, right and centre – almost feeling impossible to catch a break because you’ll fall behind. Overtime this can become pretty overwhelming and now studying your favourite subject becomes a chore. 

This is where your time management and organisation skills come into play. As cliché as this may sound, you need to plan, plan, plan! The only way I managed to go through the fast-paced semesters was through planning. Knowing what you need to do, when you need to do it and then progressively working on it is what will ensure you’re on track rather than waiting for that last minute burst of motivation. This means setting yourself a minimum word limit for the week for your assignments, number of lectures to get through each week and any readings you need to do. More importantly, read about your practicals beforehand to ensure you understand the purpose of the practicals rather than just ‘doing’ the practical. At the same time, I made sure to plan for breaks too where I spent my time doing things unrelated to science. 

Secondly, as fascinating as genetics or any other science subject is, it is also hard to grasp key concepts straightaway. This will require using different methods of studying to fully understand the content such as watching YouTube videos, asking your lecturers and peers. Personally, I found that using various resources that explain the same topic in their own way helped me to understand. You will also have to study modules that you do not find as interesting. For me these were microbial genetics and statistics. In this instance you need to stay motivated and remind yourself that it is only for a semester!

Imposter syndrome

You have been accepted to study a masters degree in one of the best universities in the UK for research and have an opportunity to study with like-minded students from all over the world, yet once you attend your lectures and practical sessions, everyone seems to understand everything so quick and know what they’re doing. You feel like you don’t belong here and maybe you being accepted here was a mistake. This is what I felt at the beginning of the course.

However, as the saying goes: “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room”. If anything, this should motivate you to work harder until eventually your results prove you are definitely not in the wrong place. You will surprise yourself when you find yourself explaining to your peers how to align your DNA sequences, how to set up an RT-PCR experiment or achieving an amazing grade on the bioinformatics module that everyone else found difficult. All of this comes down to believing in yourself and strive to keep learning.

Research project 

The best and the hardest part of the degree: your research project! This is where your degree becomes fully personalised for you and you get to research in an area you’re most interested in, as well as spend time in the lab doing what you love most. For me this was identifying variations in Alzheimer’s disease risk genes by amplifying and sequencing the target genes from patient samples. However, as exciting as this may seem, it is 100% unlikely that your project will go smoothly. There will be times when your experiments will go wrong, and you have to constantly repeat them like I had to with my PCR reaction to finally amplify my target gene. This took me two weeks! At times this will become demotivating, but you have to remember that this is what science is all about.

This is where you need to develop a good relationship with your project supervisor and not be afraid to ask them questions. During my undergraduate project, I communicated with my supervisor once throughout the entire project while for my masters, I am constantly communicating and asking questions. The difference I have observed from both projects is that I have been less stressed and more on track with my masters project. 
Once you overcome these challenges and continue to stay motivated and focused, you will find how rewarding this master’s degree will become for you. You will gain such extensive and specific knowledge on your subject and skills, making you ready to apply for your dream job – something you don’t feel so much after finishing your undergraduate degree. 

Kayinat Ahmed

Kayinat is a MSc student studying Molecular Genetics and Diagnostics at the University of Nottingham in the UK and is currently working on her research project for her dissertation, which involves detecting for mutations associated with Alzheimer's disease.
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