Reflections of a final year Master’s student

Many of you who are about to enter their third year, will be faced with the decision whether to do a Bachelor’s degree or a Master’s.  There are many factors which will influence your decision and many questions you should ask yourself, such as am I interested in research?  Do I want to study for three or four years?  What do I have to gain from a Master’s?  Is an extra year worth the extra money?  Do I want to prolong the work-hard-play-hard student life of balancing exams and assignments with a busy social life and extracurricular activities?  Or do I want a proper salary and be able to buy avocados and fancy coffee without a shred of guilt?

These are all important questions that should be addressed.  I’m a fourth year Physics student doing a Master’s year, and by no means an expert on whether or not a Master’s is the right choice for you, but perhaps by explaining what my Master’s is like, what I’ve gained from my Master’s and why I chose to do it, it will help you make a more informed decision on whether or not this is the right path for you.

When I first applied to The University of Manchester as spotty 17 year old, I knew very little about what I wanted in terms of my career.  I didn’t even know that I liked Physics that much, but my A-level science grades were good, I knew that Physics degrees were very well respected and gave you a broad skillset, and at the time Brian Cox was making Physics cool with his BBC documentaries full of pretty computer-generated spiral galaxies.

So I applied for an MPhys Physics degree, without really even knowing what an MPhys was and whether it was a good idea, but I knew that it was easier to transfer from the 4 year MPhys to the 3 year BSc, so it seemed sensible.

Fast forward four years later and I’m now sat in the library of the Physics building (pretty much my second home), in the midst of my MPhys research, reflecting on my choice.  The biggest and brightest thing that comes to mind is that the past few years being a student have been the best of my life.  I’ve made the most out of the huge amount of amazing opportunities available to students in this city, such as the awesome student societies, charities, cultural activities and nights out.  I’ve met many marvellous people and have made fantastic friends for life.  I studied abroad in Canada, got a job blogging for the University, learnt loads of new skills, and had a great time along the way.

However, don’t think that time was fun only.  It addition to experiencing the most fun years of my life, my Master’s years have also been the most stressful, sometimes demanding 12 hour work days to stay on top of multiple deadlines, long spells sat in a lonely lab, and evenings spent pulling my hair out over a tricky assignment.  But despite all this, I feel that the huge amount I’ve gained from studying my degree and being a student at UoM has made the blood, sweat and tears all worth it.

Currently I spend two days a week on research, on top of four courses.  My MPhys in Biological Physics investigates how graphene affects bacteria, which contributes to other research efforts aiming to produce new antibacterial materials and ways to kill bacteria.  Most of my time is spent taking data in the lab and analysing this on a computer to try and draw meaningful conclusions.  I regularly talk to world-leaders in this field, have weekly meetings with my supervisor, and even had a terrifying assessment by Sir Novoselov (the graphene Nobel Prize winner guy!).

Despite the cool sounding name of my research (well, cool in my opinion) and amazing opportunities I have to pursue a career in Biological Physics, I’ve learnt that at this stage in my life research isn’t for me, as my passion does not lie in spending long hours alone taking measurements and trying to get various programs to work.  I’ve also started to reconsider my relationship with academia and other ways I could be using my degree, like science communication, enterprise or teaching.  Many of my contemporaries are now considering PhD’s, but 3 or 4 years is a long time for me to commit to something that I’ve learnt that my heart isn’t fully in.

This change of heart is by no means a reason for me to say that my Master’s was a mistake.  On the contrary, I’ve learnt an enormous amount about myself, my likes and dislikes, and some really cool stuff about science, and I can always return to academia in future.  I’ve also learnt that I love being surrounded by bright, enthusiastic and dynamic young people, and I love the flexibility of academia and student life in Manchester.  I’ve picked up loads of transferable skills, amazing friends, new hobbies (like blog writing and climbing), and fantastic memories, all of which I wouldn’t have gained without committing to my 4 year Master’s degree.  I now believe that my experiences, good and bad, have all been opportunities to learn and improve myself, and that sometimes it’s worth taking a risk and trying something new even if you’re not sure about the outcome.  If I’d never have taken the jump and done my MPhys, I never would have learnt these invaluable lessons.

To wrap up, for me, my Master’s has been a great choice and I have no regrets, but this doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for everybody.  It depends hugely on your personality, how you like to live your life, how you like to work, and how you feel about dizzying fluctuations in workload.  But if you have the time and energy to spend another year experiencing the student life in this fun, youthful and exciting university, why not give it a shot and carry on making the most of student life and learn more about yourself?

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