It is rather impossible for me to describe to you what an average week is like for a Zoology student. This is particularly so at the Masters level, where there is very little structure. But before I talk to you about my postgraduate life, let’s talk about life before I had a shiny Bachelor degree plaque on my wall (or truthfully, hidden away in the cupboard out of embarrassment).
Like most other university students, you attend formal classes: your year level determines the frequency of these. Most subjects have a lecture, practical and tutorial component. The lecture gives you the background theory, the tutorial gives you the chance to test your knowledge with questions and flesh out any ideas you’ve got locked away in your mind, and then the prac lets you get hands on. But it’s not all sitting behind a microscope in your lab coat looking at cells all day. Zoology pracs are much more fun than that!
Straight up: if you can’t handle dissection, then Zoology is not for you. But you will surprise yourself at how into it you will become: the insight you will get into the workings of the body will be invaluable. We even isolated a cane toad heart in an organ bath, and kept it alive and beating while we treated it with different hormones to see the effect on the heart rate – you have not lived until you’ve experienced a heart beating in isolation from the body!
Then there’s the live pracs. You’ll start out with the basics: rats and cane toads. If that sounds yucky to you, wait until you work up and close with these live creatures. They are endearing and even cute (trust me, even a cane toad can be cute!). I’ve had a gorgeous, cuddly white rat who we named Kayla snuggle into my arm and sleep whilst I drew the cell diagrams from the swabs we’d taken from her. Another time we got to watch the effect of oxytocin (a hormone) on the rate milk ejection from a female rat: seeing the tiny baby rats wag their tails in excitement at the sudden flow of milk was an awesome way to spend an afternoon.
Your degree will be full of field excursions, so embrace what is a wonderful opportunity to get out there in the real world doing real experiments. One week you’ll be at Phillip Island, the next in the Strathbogie Ranges. In second year, my every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon was spent sitting at Albert Park lake studying the behaviour of black swans in an experiment on mate guarding. We studied magpie larks and brushtail possums. We went spotlighting for sugar gliders and were lucky enough to see a greater glider glide from one tree to the next.We caught all manner of animals and were taught how to appropriately treat and handle a wild animal. We learnt how to trap, track and trace the movements of animals. We learnt how to design experiments, a skill I now definitely do not take for granted. Above all, we learnt the hard way to respect that wild animals will not cooperate just because you have a deadline and an experimental question that needs answering.
There are endless opportunities to volunteer (with food and accommodation paid for) on a variety of postgrad and staff projects that will not only give you skills you won’t get in class and expand your knowledge, but will allow you to see places of the country you otherwise would never get access to. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in Zoology, volunteering will also aid you in securing a postgraduate project for yourself, as being proactive and passionate is the best way to make an impression.
While it can be easy to get bogged down by assignments and the thought of another 8am class, my Zoology degree reminded me at every turn how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing. In high school, a class in which I could sit and listen to lecturers talk about animals, a class where my task was to learn that which I was already passionate enough about to pursue in my spare time, was a dream come true.
Allow me now to share with you a few of my favourite happy snaps I took on just one of my field trips to the Strathbogie Ranges.