Tips for picking a postgraduate project in biomedical sciences

Last week Monash Careers held their annual Science Industry Night, and as it was the second time I’d officially presented, I figured that it’s a good time to write a post about how to be a bit more savvy when it comes to sussing out good places to do an honours/PhD project in a biomedical research context.

Often, undergraduate students are told to just approach the lecturers they’ve had as undergraduates in order to start the search for an honours/masters project, and possibly even PhD projects. However, there’s a bit more to it than just approaching faculty staff, especially if you’re looking for a project that you’ll find fulfilling.

The three major pieces of information you need to know are that:

  1. The project is one that you’re interested in, and will be passionate about
  2. The project is in an area where there is research “buzz”
  3. The team you’ll be working with will support you

I would also argue that in going to all that effort to find out the above information, you’d also want to find out the following things (or ask the following questions) in as much detail as you can:

  1. Are there further opportunities in the lab, or are they running out of money and the Chief Investigator will lose their job when their grant runs out?
  2. What’s their funding situation like?
  3. Is the area of research they’re in considered to be cutting-edge?
  4. If it’s a lab not in a university, what’s the work environment and culture like?
  5. Do lab members collaborate with others? To what extent?

Most departments at universities, or private medical research organisations will list available projects on their website before the honours year commences. With other postgraduate research programs, they may not. However, I’d always advise that you attend information sessions that are hosted by various departments and organisations, as it really gives you a chance to speak to potential supervisors – engaging stakeholders in your research endeavours is more important that you think!! You may also find out about other projects not advertised – a curious student may often prompt a potential supervisor about other project ideas they may have kept at the back of their minds. Of course, if you’ve had a look at what their research interests are, this conversation becomes more feasible.

Stakeholder engagement also goes beyond your potential supervisor – it should extend out towards anyone working in the lab. Getting the “inside story” on what a lab is actually like can make a world of difference to your experience, should you find an opportunity to be there. Chatting with other students and research assistants is just as invaluable as finding out about the technical details of the project you’re interested in.

The issue of funding is certainly important, but in particular for postgraduate candidates. Working in a lab where a shrinking pool of funds isn’t pleasant, the associated stresses add layers of unnecessary complexity to the research project. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with chasing the money!

Gaining intelligence about which research groups have funds sounds difficult, but it’s easier than you think! Public funding bodies (such as the NH&MRC and ARC) publish the statistics on where their research expenditure has been allocated. These lists include the names of the principal investigators, and what organisation they are based at. As grants tend to run for 3 years, I’d advise potential candidates to look at funding outcomes for at least 2 years prior to the proposed commencement date of their project for honours, 5 years for PhD candidates. Knowing a group’s funding history gives insight to how successful the group is as seen by funding bodies, and also gives some insight as to where NH&MRC/ARC funding priority areas are. Clicking on the links I’ve provided in this paragraph will take you to those lists.

Let’s assume you find a project you like – my advice is to embrace the project for all it is, the good, the bad and the ugly. Every project will have its ups and downs. And what if you can’t find that “perfect project”? Frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s the experience that counts. A bad experience in a lab, a shoddy supervisor or anything else negative during your time there will teach you how to appreciate a good supervisor and a friendly workplace next time. If the project appeared perfect but turned out to be a real disaster, take stock! Work out what went wrong and why. Learn from the mistakes you and others made so that the same mistakes are not made again. If you’re going to fail (be it experimentally or in your interpersonal dealings), let it be in this environment where there are (generally) good supervisors and faculty staff looking out for you. The real world isn’t so forgiving. At least in honours, they know your project is short and prone to failure; these factors shouldn’t affect your marks if you are able to identify the issues as to why those outcomes were reached, and be able to articulate them in your thesis.

Whichever way, use your time in the lab to not only complete the required work to get the project handed in, but make efforts to grow within the lab, and/or the organisation. You’ll come away with an honours degree or PhD, just like everyone else, so expanding your networks, learning about what other groups are doing will be just as valuable, maybe even more valuable that the post-nominals you get at the end.

So hopefully you find these insights useful; if you feel I’ve missed some or have any comments, just tweet.

@ayftan

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2 thoughts on “Tips for picking a postgraduate project in biomedical sciences

  1. Great post Andre, I think it can be applied to all the scientists. Some of the postgrads that I see enjoy what they do the most are the ones who got up went where they wanted to work, instead of relying on a scholarship for first class honours guarantee when finishing honours and remaining within the same department they were in for undergrad.

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