Tips for prospective Honours and Masters students

While this discussion is targeted at students studying Biomedical Sciences at The University of Melbourne, most of the general tips listed below should apply across the board for Australian Universities.

As an undergraduate student slowly approaching the end of your degree, you are hopefully thinking about your future beyond this year. Perhaps you’ve already lined up a job, or have plans to start a new degree (medicine, physiotherapy, dentistry etc), or perhaps you are just focused on graduating and you’ll worry about next year, next year. With over 8,000 students expected to complete their undergraduate degrees this year from The University of Melbourne alone, and an Australian unemployment rate of 6.3% (at time of writing), it is essential that you differentiate yourself from all of the other undergraduates. One way to do this is to complete an additional ‘Honours’ year, or a Masters degree. Additionally, my Honours year was the most rewarding and enjoyable year of my undergraduate degree, and I believe that this should be the norm – not the exception.

So lets assume that you are interested in completing an Honours year (or Masters degree), how do you go about ensuring that it is a successful year? Here is my cheat sheet for how to decide upon a supervisor/project to maximise your chances of having a successful year.

1.DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Start thinking about topics early. Think back to first semester, which lectures did you find the most interesting? Did lecturers present original research from their labs (this can give you an idea of the type of research they do)? Search online to see if your potential supervisor has a lab webpage (this often has links to ongoing research and projects available). Do a literature search to find out what your potential supervisor has published recently.

2.ATTEND AS MANY INFORMATION SESSIONS AS YOU CAN

At The University of Melbourne, you’ll see posters advertising for Honours (and Masters) information sessions for each of the different departments and research centres during August-October. Attend as many of these as you can, it will give you a chance to meet many of the supervisors, and you’ll also be able to find out more regarding the specifics of certain projects. These sessions are also an opportunity to meet existing honours, masters and PhD students. Talk to these people! Ask them about their supervisors, ask them about other supervisors, ask them about their projects, ask them if they are enjoying their research. This is where you will get your first real information about your preferred supervisors. I cannot stress how important this is (see point 5 below).

At the very least, most of these information sessions also have free pizza….

3.CONTACT YOUR PREFERRED SUPERVISORS

Now that you have done your homework, you know which supervisors and which projects are of interest, it is time to contact your preferred supervisors. Do not send out a mass proforma email, your supervisors will likely get a dozen of these, Instead, think about why you want to do honours (or masters) in this lab, and communicate that in a short email. You will hopefully have met this person at one of the information sessions, and you can state that in the email. At the end of the email you should request a time to meet with the supervisor in person to discuss the project and honours in more detail. While it’s not essential, you can also state your average grade (keep in mind, your supervisor will probably look this up before they agree to meet with you).

4.INTERVIEWING WITH YOUR POTENTIAL SUPERVISOR

This may be your only chance to meet with your prospective supervisor before they decide which students to take, so you need to make a good impression. More importantly though, this may be your only chance to determine what sort of mentor/supervisor this person is going to be. You should be broadly familiar with the research the lab does, and you should have a clear idea as to why you want to do honours. Don’t be suprised if you are asked what your long term plans are (I accept that the majority of students I interview want to do Medicine after doing Honours, I see that as a challenge to try and convince you to stick around and do a PhD!).

Here are a list of questions that I feel are important for you (as a potential student) to ask your potential supervisor:

  • How many people are currently in your lab? (great question to determine whether there are postdocs/PhDs/research assistants that will be available to help you out when your supervisor isn’t around) 
  • How many Honours/Masters students have come through your lab in the last two years? What grade did they get? (This is an important question, if a supervisor um’s and ah’s in response to this – run for the hills!)
  • How often do you meet with your students? (This will be different for every supervisors, some will have set meetings, others will have an open door policy. Make sure that you will get regular access to your potential supervisor)
  • How many students are you likely to supervise next year? (Be careful with any supervisor who is planning on supervising several [4+] students, this may be a warning sign of someone who just wants cheap labor)
  • What sort of techniques will I learn throughout my project? (Many supervisors won’t have decided upon a specific project, but they should be able to give you a rough idea of the different techniques you’ll get to learn. Make sure it sounds like you’ll get to try several different techniques)
  • Where does the funding for my research project come from? (This is a good question to ask to find out how successful the lab has been in terms of getting funding, but tread carefully here, some supervisors will not want to talk about grant successes/failures with students).
  • Can I meet with some of your current students? (If you only ask one question, make sure it is this one. Any supervisor who will not let you talk to current students should be immediately crossed off your list).

5.MEETING WITH EXISTING STUDENTS

 This is so important, and yet so many prospective students fail to do this. You should aim to meet with as many students as possible (hopefully all of them from your preferred labs). Ask them directly about their mentor (your soon to be supervisor). Ask them whether they get along with their mentor, do they get enough supervision (or too much). Ask them about their research (are they excited about the project? are they enjoying research?). Ask them what it’s like working in the lab? Is it a good environment? Do people get along with each other? Ask them what they know about other labs and other supervisors. Current students are like gold, offer to take them out for a coffee and pick their brains.

6. COME AND SEE ME

Once you have done all of the above, come and see me. I’m happy to meet with prospective students, and I am always on the look out for new students who want to study stem cell metabolism and change the world!