Some advice for Masters students.

headimg This year I’ve supervised seven Masters student projects, and second marked several more (amusingly I’m now at a non-teaching institution but doing more project supervision than at a university…). They’ve all been lovely to work with and hopefully they enjoyed working with me too! I realised through this process that there are a couple of things I’ve said to each one of my students at some point this year. In the interests of sharing I thought it’d be good to put them down here! This is aimed at students on courses here at NHM, but may be relevant to other folk too!

  1. First a plea! If you’re stuck with R, please send the code you were using and all the data needed to reproduce the error, not just an error message. Sometimes I can work out what is wrong from the error message alone, but usually I can’t. Help me to help you!

  2. We (academics) are not evil. I’m not sure where we have acquired this reputation, but I’ve found myself reassuring students repeatedly that we don’t want them to fail. We aren’t reading their theses looking for typos so we can give them lower grades, or fussing over arcane formatting rules (although I’ll give some formatting tips below). We genuinely want you to do well. So try not to panic about the small stuff, instead focus on doing the best project you can.

  3. Don’t worry about who is marking your project. Related to the point above, I promise no-one is trying to give you a lower mark. Yes some people are harsher markers than others, but that is why we have marking schemes and second markers. The marking schemes are pretty good at removing the subjectivity introduced by differing expectations. Second markers make sure that the marking is consistent. For every thesis I’ve graded in the last few years my mark has been really close to that of the second marker. If the marks aren’t the same, we discuss and either take an average or the higher grade. If they’re really different or we can’t agree we get a third marker (this is really rare). There are systems in place to make sure that differences in marking style won’t influence your final grade.

  4. Formatting rules are generally pretty flexible. Unlike grants where you can be rejected for using the wrong font(!), no-one marking your thesis is going to be that petty. A few rules are important:
    • word count (though no-one is going to fail you if you’re a few hundred words over) or page counts (with the associated rules on margin widths and font sizes) should be stuck to. This is partly to save people having to grade mountains of text, but is also designed to help you condense your ideas and to write better science. Most academic papers have low word/page counts so it’s a useful skill. If you’re struggling, ask your supervisor or labmates to show you what you can cut.
    • Increasingly students are told to write their thesis in the style of a journal. Choose a journal you like and go with that. It doesn’t really matter what you choose, no-one is going to check the exact details. This is mainly so you have a consistent style for your references and so you know what section headings to include.
    • Note that journal instructions to authors will suggest you put Figures and Tables at the very end of your paper. Don’t do this for the thesis, have them at the appropriate points in your text. They can have a separate page if needed. Don’t wrap them in the text.
    • Proper nouns are capitalised. This seems to be a big issue when dealing with Latin names of species. If it’s the proper Latin scientific name of a taxonomic group use a capital letter, if it’s an anglicised version of this then don’t. For example: Dinosauria but dinosaur. Odontoceti but odontocete. Homo sapiens but homonid.
    • Check the formatting of your references. The most important thing is to be consistent. For example either abbreviate all journal titles, or none of them, don’t do a mixture of the two.
    • Results sections need text. You must explain your results, and how they fit together. Don’t just show figures and tables. Make sure figures and tables have legends (usually these go below figures and above tables). Don’t use colour for no reason. Pretty doesn’t mean good.
  5. Use your initiative and develop your independence. Masters projects should help you to become independent researchers, and the amount of independence you display will contribute to your grade, and probably to your enjoyment of the project. Independence can be hard to quantify, but you’ll probably hear people referring to “taking ownership of the project”. For me this means students going away and reading papers, and coming back to me with suggestions and ideas for further analyses, even if they’re unsure exactly how to run them. It’s about giving things a go and exploring new angles, without needing to ask if it’s OK to do so. Act like this is your project and you’re leading it, rather than a project where you need to be told what to do at each stage.

  6. Having said the above, if you’re stuck, please come and talk to your supervisor. Try and solve problems yourself, but don’t sit there for days/weeks/months making no progress. Asking for help is not a bad thing, and won’t mean you get a worse grade. Better to ask for help and make progress than to be completely self sufficient but achieve very little. The best students are independent thinkers, but work through their problems with their supervisors in the same way as professional scientists do (i.e. we collaborate).

  7. Also don’t be afraid to speak to your supervisor if you’re having problems in your personal life that are affecting your studies. We aren’t monsters, we understand that life is messy and complicated and sometimes you’ll need a bit of slack/extra help. We don’t need to know the details, but it’s good to get a heads up about problems as they arise, rather than vanishing off to deal with them and neglecting your project (or trying to keep going and burning out). Equally we’d love the same compassion from you - our lives are also complicated and busy so we aren’t always as on top of things as we’d like.

  8. Finally, enjoy your project. It’s a great chance to do a real research project, and get a real idea of what research is like. Even if it’s the last piece of scientific research you ever do, try and appreciate and enjoy the opportunity to focus on just one thing for a few months. Go to seminars, interact with people in the lab, take advantage of all the opportunities you can. You’ll be back to the real world soon enough! :)



Picture credit: Wikipedia

Written on October 7, 2017