If I was to study again: key tips

Allison Cartwright is web publication officer for our Early Career Scientists (ECS) group. Here, she shares the wisdom of experience for those who might be pondering their future

When choosing my degree, I was overcome with a desire to find a course I’d love. I couldn’t pursue anything that didn’t captivate my passion. The choice was simple – I love the natural world, animals and being underwater. The only option that seemed appropriate was Marine Sciences.

Approaching the end of this degree, naturally, there was a screaming voice in my head: ‘WHAT AM I GOING TO DO NOW?!!’ Thankfully, a number of my lecturers were there to help.

This blog is a reflection of my experiences, with 5 key points to hopefully help others, either on the path to becoming a graduate or for those stuck at a junction between job and further study. I’ve been there, done that, more than once.

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Meet your mentor

The most vital part of my development, was finding a mentor. I’m lucky to work with a few who boast strengths in different areas. Collectively, they’ve guided my progression into being the senior student I am today.

My mentors range from younger students, to my PhD supervisory team. Every person has unique strengths, so if there’s someone on your course or research team who you respect, chat to them.

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If they’re a lead author on your favourite journal (yes, you will eventually have one) – email them, they’ll be thrilled to hear from you. Ask them questions, share your love of the topic. Built up a rapport – and congrats, you may have a new mentor.

Having helped students with their own research projects, I’ve answered many questions. What modules did I do? Why carry out a masters? Why do a PhD? How does one write a project into a CV? Every question makes me smile, because I can help them, in the same way many people helped me.


Open your mind

I started university with dreams of being a professional diver – easy – I’ll work as that for the rest of my life and look at lots of cool critters underwater.

Sadly, the job mostly existed in my imagination. After graduating, I couldn’t find this career (certainly not in the UK or Ireland).

All I knew for certain was this – I would NEVER study AGAIN. I wanted a job. So, I got a short term position, which introduced me to a new mentor, who was adamant I needed to do a masters in Environmental Sciences (with a bit of Microbiology).

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It took a few weeks, but I applied for the Masters, thanks to his persistent nature and clear explanations of why the project was suitable. It matched my love of the water and animals, while introducing another aspect – being covered in muck.

On this project, I got to dabble into microbiology (reluctantly), which started a new obsession – bacteria are cool! I can’t go a day without talking about microbes now, but without this guidance, my narrow-minded attitude would have been limiting.

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Experience counts

Bacteria became cool, but when my master’s project was nearly over, panic set in.

‘What if I never see another agar plate?!’ Thankfully, a number of very helpful students taught me further microbiology skills – including magical polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

After adding more expertise to my CV,  this led to a microbiology/environmental science PhD. Nearing the end of this study, the experience will be an invaluable tool when seeking work.

So, I challenge you to find a student or staff member (even better if they’re in a different department) and offer to help with a project.

You’ll acquire another talent, or simply gain more knowledge. If you don’t love the work – don’t worry, it’s all useful.

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Network (or chat)

I don’t like the term networking, but I do chat to everyone. Find out what they’re doing. If people are familiar with your work, they’re more likely to help you.

If you’re stuck with an assignment and have exhausted the search returns on Google, find someone to talk to.

It doesn’t matter if they’re not studying the same topic, they may see a solution you never considered. People are usually helpful, you just need to ask (without exploiting their good will).

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Smile – you are unique

When all else fails, smile. You’ve become an amazing young scientist. You probably don’t see your own achievements. It doesn’t matter if others got higher marks- being passionate and willing to work hard can be more important and are often what employers are looking for.

Anything is possible –you just need to believe in yourself! Think of the ways you’re different from your class mates – find and harness these qualities and your future will be brighter. Identifying your uniqueness will probably also help to choose between work and further study.

Want to attend an SfAM meeting, visit a lab overseas, arrange for a student to gain work experience in your lab or organize a one-day meeting in your region? 

Then apply for a SfAM grant.

Categories: Feature Articles

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