I know that you currently have no idea what to do - don’t worry, you’re not alone. To be fair, I admire the people who know exactly what they want to do at your age. But think about it – you’re really enjoying your dissertation project. Why not carry on down this route? I know doing an MSc isn’t what you have in mind, but let me say a few things about that; I think it was definitely worth doing it, and it’s where you will realise that you enjoy research. You know which course you would do, so apply and prepare yourself for the course - it’s going to be very tough! The reward for getting through this tough year will be getting to do a PhD, which you will enjoy despite the ups and downs.
In contrast to the master's, the PhD is more of a marathon, usually when you’re expected to start taking control of your project. The start felt too slow after coming from a master's if I’m honest. There are things that need to be sorted, like who your supervisors and assessors are, what PG Skills courses you intend to do during the first year, doing all the health and safety stuff, other paperwork... And then there’s getting started in the lab; new place, new people, new equipment. You will be given more details of your project and what topics to start reading around; I think I spent most of the first month or so reading. You also have to get used to some sort of 9-to-5-ish schedule which is not what you are used to anymore, so prepare for that when you come to it! Once you get things set up and started, it’s just a matter of keeping things moving; making sure experiments are finished, maybe re-running certain samples, analysing the data…
At one point or another, it will feel like you have hit a wall. I spent months doing Western blots*; as you are only given a basic protocol, sometimes there are loads of things to tweak before things actually work! Then once you get it working, the results may not show what you want to show and so you may need to tweak things further. In the case of the Western, it meant taking samples at different time points. You know, that’s the reality of research – spending months working on one thing over and over again, before managing to get the results. Even then, the results may not be what you expect at all. I don’t know what it is, but despite all these things, I enjoy being a researcher and I believe that’s probably the main reason I keep going, despite not really getting anywhere for months at times.
One of the things that’s nice about a PhD is you have time to really work on a project. There is no rush to try and finish and you will expand from the initial experiments. I like that you are able to see things through! I know that someone will carry on what you have started in your dissertation project, but really, I like being able to carry things on myself.
So, you know what? Don’t panic! You are doing fine as you are. Keep working, keep learning – science being science, new discoveries are made all the time, remember that, eh?! Most importantly, don’t be disheartened when things aren’t going well. That’s the reality, and I can tell you now, I do not regret that I have chosen this path. I get up, and going to the lab doesn’t feel like a chore at all, that’s why I know that this is the right path for us, and that you will enjoy this journey despite all the bumps along the way. I can’t tell you where it will lead us beyond the PhD, but whatever happens, lets make sure we enjoy it, yeah? I think that’s the most important thing.
Although it may not feel like it, you ultimately make the right decisions. So don’t over think your future, it hasn’t happened yet!
All the best for your MSc (which you WILL apply for!)
Your future self.
*Western blotting is a technique for visualising a specific protein within a mix of proteins.