One of the first things that we learn when applying to college, university, or a job, is that gaining some sort of work experience is really important. I remember friends who planned on studying medicine frantically trying to find work experience within hospitals and those applying for law emailing law firms to ask for any sort of experience that they could offer. With traditional, vocational degrees, the type of experience that is typically offered is very much standard and has been in place for years. When looking to gain experience in a field of research, particularly neuroscience or psychology, this isn’t really the case.
Before applying to university for my undergraduate degree, I really struggled to gain any work experience. I wasn’t quite sure where to start and as I am a first generation student and have entered a completely different field to the one my parents work in, I didn’t have access to the right connections who could offer me exclusive opportunities like some of my peers did who were perhaps going into a similar field as their parents or who knew family friends from the time their parents spent at university. Upon speaking to people at university, I also realised that having gone to a state school, my school didn’t necessarily have access to some of the alumni or parents of pupils that private school networks did and therefore had fewer contacts to reach out to when looking to aid our search for experience. If I’m being totally honest, for a while I felt a bit lost and didn’t really know what I was supposed to be looking for, but I began to pick up as many opportunities as I could.
As I was applying for Psychology and Neuroscience for my undergrad, I tried to get as involved as possible with various charity committees and fundraising efforts in school and organised an Alzheimer’s Awareness week to raise money for Alzheimer Scotland. I also worked with children who had difficulty reading and helped them to develop their reading and writing skills in order to cope better with lessons in school. I luckily got involved in enough opportunities to gain entry to the course I wanted and I continued to stay as active in my fundraising efforts during my time at university.
While at university I started to find the areas of research that interested me. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t have many contacts within the field, and while this does make it more difficult to find experience, it meant that I learned to really put myself out there. I emailed countless people, from PhD students to lecturers and labs within the University of Glasgow and beyond. I definitely got over any fear of approaching people and in the end it started to pay off. I was offered two internships in the summer between my 2nd and 3rd year of university – one involved assisting a PhD student in the data collection for her research which gave me great experience in working with older adults in a research setting, and the other required me to complete the data extraction for a systematic review with a lecturer at a different university within the same city. Both were quite different and gave me a broad range of experience which has been really helpful when applying to jobs, further research experience, and my current Masters degree at UCL. The institute of Neurology actually sent me a personalised letter which referred to my research experience at the time of applying and I think it probably played a huge part in receiving my offer.
During the COVID-19 pandemic I had a brilliant summer research opportunity fall through and I know that many others were left in similar situations. If you are currently looking for research opportunities then it could be worth looking to see what there is advertised in an online or “work from home” format. Data analysis and systematic reviews can often be performed in a remote setting and in my experience I was able to fit this type of work around my schedule.
One major bug bear that I and many others have with the type of experience many students find while at school or university is that it is often unpaid work. I have never been paid for any of the research experience I have done and at times I was expected to work multiple days a week and no expenses were covered. This is one aspect of research that I feel is still lagging behind when it comes to inclusion as student’s from low income backgrounds and those that rely on paid, part-time or even full-time work often cannot afford to take on unpaid research experience while also earning enough to live. Student’s from more fortunate backgrounds are often able to take on unpaid work as they have enough support to do so and this creates a massive divide in the opportunities available to people from varying backgrounds. I personally had to work alongside any research experience I was given and it was not easy to meet the demands of both a paid job and unpaid work experience.
If you are in a position where you cannot afford to take on unpaid work experience then one piece of advice I have is to make the most of the opportunities you have at university. I have referred to various pieces of coursework I completed in applications to postgraduate degrees and often speak about my dissertation project. I spent time finding a dissertation supervisor that I worked well with and I created a project that I was truly passionate about. This resulted in a 1st class grade for my dissertation and this is something that helped my application to UCL and also helped me to secure an amazing research project with a great supervisor for my MSc research project this year. While some people dread the dissertation they face at the end of their degree I found that by choosing something I was passionate about I really enjoyed the research process and it paid off in the end.
My top tips
- If you don’t ask you don’t get
- People are much more willing to help you than you may think, and you are usually helping them in return
- Aim high – don’t be afraid to approach people or think that you are underqualified as everyone has to start somewhere and most researchers know and remember this feeling
- Be careful when choosing a dissertation or final research project supervisor and topic at university – this is probably going to be your first “independent” piece of research and gives you an opportunity to impress future employers and universities
- If you are struggling to find research experience, try to look for work within your area of interest in a different setting for example working with a charity or in a healthcare setting
Thank you for reading and listening and please stay tuned for another update on my progress in my MSc next month.
Morgan Daniel  is an MSc Student at University College London, studying the along the ‘Dementia: Causes, Treatments and Research (Neuroscience)’ track, Originally from Loch Lomond, Morgan completed her BSc in Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow in 2019, and she hates all forms of potato! Morgan is sharing her MSc journey during 2020 / 2021 with NIHR Dementia Researcher.
Over the next 12 months, NIHR Dementia Researcher is following Morgan Daniel  as she studies for her Dementia MSc at University College London . Morgan will be blogging, podcasting and occasionally taking over our twitter feed to share news from her studies and life, documenting the hi’s and lows’, with tips for others who are considering post-graduate studies.