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Beginner’s guide to surviving postgraduate research in biological science (written by a beginner)

Please Note: The views expressed are based on the author’s personal experience and thoughts. Advice should be taken with caution (or not at all) as it’s subjective to individual circumstances. Should you choose to partake in postgraduate research of a related field based on the information contained within this blog, the author may not be held liable for any potential suffering as a consequence of one’s own decision. (⌐■_■)

Should you bother with research?

As a fourth year biomedical student a little over halfway through his honours project, this is still a question that I frequently contemplate.  Whether it is to continue my studies next year as a PhD student, which is absolutely crucial in becoming an academic and a leader in the chosen field, or to try to make my way into the industries. Here I could explore the scope of my degree in real life settings beyond theoretical implications, gain experiences that will allow me to stay competitive in the job market and to cash in my four years of studies. Compared to BTech and MBioEnt students whose degrees are more career oriented in nature, BSc students are more likely to find themselves struggling between these options. A decision which, in my opinion, is just as difficult and impacting as the one made when choosing the degree in the first place. 
Having said that, I would still absolutely endorse completing an Honours or Master’s degree where you will get to spend most of your final year in a laboratory labouring through a project under a chosen topic. This first-hand experience is irreplaceable, transferable and hard to get elsewhere. Furthermore, it will help you, to a much greater extent, make informed decisions later on compared to what any undergraduate courses can offer. I have come to believe that success is very much cumulative as it is opportunistic, and regardless of what you want to or end up doing, having some research skills under your belt will not harm you in the long run. In terms of reaching your goals, “smart” decisions are a by-product of your ability to consistently work hard no matter how difficult, as opposed to relying on them as a means to make your path easier.

How to choose the right supervisor/project

By the end of your Bachelors or PGDipSci, you will hopefully have a good idea of which areas of research you would like to be in. However you will still likely end up with a moderate list of projects and supervisors to select from. 
To be honest, I think it’s impossible to know beforehand whether a particular project will be the best for you. Even after talking directly with the supervisors and doing background research, the gap in the knowledge and experience are just too wide for you to properly envision where the project would lead to, which will quite possibly surprise you (there will be A LOT of failures and stumbles, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing). While you may also chose a project based upon its supervisor (e.g. great lecturer or prestige), do note that they are extremely busy and you’ll spend majority of the time in the lab guided by more senior students or doctors within the lab group. 
Research laboratories are highly collaborative environments. Most of the equipment is very expensive and is shared/managed by different lab groups, therefore compromise and help from other lab groups are needed in order to efficiently complete your experiments. It definitely helps when everyone is relaxed and friendly (most people certainly are).
Keep these in mind and make sure to ask extra questions when meeting with your potential supervisors. Choose wisely, as it can affect your feelings about further research

Life as an academic

As mentioned earlier, lab supervisors are extremely busy people, their days are spent almost entirely in their offices bogged down by things including lectures, grants, publishing, presentations etc… It’s rare to see them do any lab work at all (I’m talking shiny Pokémon rare). Pretty hard to imagine as an undergraduate student that this is where your studies will eventually take you. PhD students don’t have it much easier, having to spend extra long days (up to 12 hours or more) and weekends depending on the nature of the experiments, knowing that many of their efforts won’t be paid off. It’s not my intention discourage people from pursuing an academic career. Countless before us have risen to the challenge and succeeded, displaying impressive feats of determination. If you are considering this pathway but find yourself disheartened by what I have written, then please give it some more thought and re-evaluate your mind set.

For now I will leave you with a simple quote by Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”