I am done with my thesis. This should be a liberating thought. However, my thesis deadline happened to be the last hurdle before my entry into the professional world. Therefore it is liberating in a ‘falling off a cliff’ kind of way. This is why I am dedicating this post to the art of thesis-ing. I’m already overcome with nostalgia for the good old days of academic safety.
Disclaimer: This is from my experience working on my master thesis in biomedicine so it may only be relevant for those who will pursue/are pursuing this degree. There are a number of useful blog posts about the thesis process for other programs. Here are the links below:
I’ll start with this. Working in the lab is a great experience. It’s a deserved break from long lecture-packed days. It is nothing like practical lab work in school since it doesn’t involve 10 of you huddled around a microscope (or any other similar situation). You get to work on your own individual project and often in your own time. In addition to learning all sorts of new techniques, you will also meet and form bonds with all sorts of new people working at different levels of science. You will partake in meetings, occasional conferences, and parties (there is nothing like seeing all your work colleagues dressed up as James Bond characters with pipette guns as weapons). You will become part of the academic research world. And yes, free food is always around the corner!
What is the master thesis project?
In your last semester of school (semester 4), you will embark upon a 20-week long project in a research laboratory of your choice. This laboratory may be located within KI campus or could belong to another school (eg. Stockholm University or KTH). It could also be located in a different country (three of our classmates went to Oxford!). During these 20 weeks you will carry out a scientific project, analyze the results and present them in both written and oral form. Prior to this, you will have completed a 10 week project: the junior project (semester 3). Your junior project and master project cannot be done in the same research laboratory. A lot of students have complained that this breaking up of the second year into different short projects is restrictive and limits time spent in either lab. Actually, it provides a great opportunity to ‘shop around’. These projects play a dual role: they teach you and evaluate your skills but also, more importantly, they offer you a glimpse into your future career. They will allow you to try out various techniques and experience different group dynamics. They’ll help you figure out what you want in your professional life. People don’t often marry the first person they date. Likewise, you may not want to spend 20 years in the first lab that opened its doors to you.
How do you find the right group?
I found the right group for me, which seems like a success story. However, if truth be told, mine is more of a cautionary tale with a surprise twist happy ending. The deadline to submit your project plan, which must include the group and agreed-upon project, is in the December period of second year. I emailed my group less than a month before that. Don’t follow my example!
This brings me to my first piece of advice – Start early! You can already gather inspiration in first year during the ‘Frontiers in Translational Medicine’. In this course, researchers from within and outside the school will lecture you in the areas of neuroscience, cardiovascular disease, immunology and cancer. They will spend a chunk (often large and brain-numbing) of that hour talking about their own research. Hopefully this will leave you with some notion of what area you want to work in. Remember, you have the opportunity to do three projects during the two years at KI. Thus, it’s okay to try something new and a little outside the box, especially for the earlier projects. For the master project, a lot of my friends started researching and emailing PIs from August onward. This sensible approach allows them time to answer (some will take weeks only to say no), to meet with you and to come up with a feasible and interesting project. This process takes time!
This leads me to my second piece of advice – Keep your options open! This master project is important; you want it to be a good fit. Look around the KI website, check out the project database on PingPong (though a lot of the time these are outdated) or talk to schoolmates (especially those in the year above). Then, don’t just email one. Email the labs that pique your interest and visit all of them. Don’t be afraid to reject a lab if it doesn’t feel right.
What should you look for in a lab?
The most important aspect is, of course, is the project itself. You will spend 20 weeks with it so your interest ought to be sparked. What techniques will you learn? It is always good to learn something new. In my first project, I focused mainly on tissue histology and microscopy. I wanted to do something different for my master. So I ended up with a project that involved more molecular-level biology with cloning and transfection-based techniques. Whilst the PI is important, the most important person in your life will be your direct supervisor: either a postdoc or a PhD. Being able to meet the person you will often work side by side with is a definite plus. The size of the group is also relevant. I did both of my projects in smaller groups because I felt the PI had more time for me, and it was easier to build close relationships with colleagues. Lab meetings with smaller groups may also be less daunting when you present your results or a paper of choice (and you have a higher chance to even present at these meetings). Of course, a larger group might offer more teaching and networking opportunities considering the different skill repertoires of those you work with.
How are you evaluated?
The master thesis must be between 10 and 15 pages long (at least this year). This includes everything. EVERYTHING! Figures, legends, references. REFERENCES! So the skill you should work on from here on out is EDITING! Remember in high school, when you would be adding random words here and there, or double spacing, just to reach the minimum page limit? And now, we are all here begging for extra pages in order to cover all our experiments, mildly interesting results, and long list of references. Is this what defines adulthood? When you stop waffling on and cut to the chase. What I am trying to say is that the writing will not be so difficult. If you are light on results, focus on the methods. If you are light on discussion, why not write a nice long well researched introduction. Your approach may be flexible because the organizers know science better than all of us, and how it’s always trying to make us look bad.
You will also present your results in a 20-minute presentation followed by 10 minutes of questioning. This will not be scary. Trust me; at this point you will know 15-pages worth of your stuff by heart. The biggest challenge might be going through two whole days of non-stop presentations. Luckily, there are free sandwiches to help you cope. This is one last gift from KI to you before you enter adulthood, where it seems that you may have to actually pay for sandwiches.