Life Beyond The Degree

Posted: May 9, 2011 in Zoology
Tags: , , ,

If you we’re anything like me, you know what you want to do, you know what undergraduate course you need to take… but what next?

Every course has a variety of post-graduate options to undertake. For fields like Zoology, this is an almost mandatory step. It can be really really difficult to get a job straight out of a Bachelor degree. You lack one very important thing: experience.

You’ve learnt the theory, you’ve done some field work, but you’ve never run your own research project.

A post-graduate degree is a great way to get some hands on experience in your chosen field. You can of course choose a coursework post-graduate degree to further your expertise in your field. Or you can follow the research path and undertake a project researching something no one has ever looked at before. This can prepare you for doing your PhD, or it can give you the skills you require to enter your chosen field.

In the same way your undergraduate course (and indeed the 13 years of education prior to this) teach you not just the content, but how to learn – a post-graduate degree teaches you not only how to conduct a single research project, but will give you skills you will use for the rest of your life.

What does it involve?

Some science streams differ slightly, so I will talk predominantly of my experiences in Zoology.

If you go for the research stream, you will work with a supervisor (usually a lecturer from your department) on a research project. This can be both lab or field based (or both!).

Some science streams still offer Honours, which is a one year research project. But many are moving towards Masters instead: Zoology being one of them. I was originally a Masters skeptic, but I am now the converted!

Masters involves me doing a research project over two years alongside 125 points of coursework (subjects are usually worth 12.5 points – so this means 6 subjects) . This allows me to study relevant subjects to my fieldwork, as well as the opportunity to extend my knowledge into areas I haven’t been able to in my Zoology degree. In addition, you can utilise the connections the University has with other institutions in that field in a way you would be unable to independently. In my case, these are institutions like Museum Victoria, Zoos Victoria, Department of Sustainability and Environment and the Commonwealth Scientific Research Organisation, amongst others.

The greatest advantage I’ve found is that, by extending the research project over two years, you get so much more time to think about your project, rather than rushing headlong into it. This translates to a stronger experimental design, as well as a greater shot at a publication (yes, your research will in all likelihood be published in a scientific journal!). As well as that, you can also make time to work a day job during Masters unlike Honours – which for myself was what made the decision for me.

My Masters Experience

I am doing a Master of Science, Zoology stream. I am 3 months into my Masters degree, and I love it. It is extremely full on and requires a lot of dedication and careful time management – something your undergraduate degree will give you plenty of. The coursework is amazing: in one subject I spent every second Tuesday on a field trip to everywhere from Serendip Wildlife Sanctuary to Phillip Island Nature Park, going behind the scenes and hearing from the professional scientists and wildlife managers employed there all about what goes on there and the broader implications for managing wildlife. In another, we’re learning how to effectively communicate science to our colleagues and to members of the public alike. Later in the year I will get to refine my skills in statistics and learn animal ethics in more depth.

My research project involves understanding the ways in which brushtail possums use nest boxes. We don’t really know if animals use nest boxes out of desperation, or if they are actually suitable homes for wildlife. In some cases, they may be doing more damage than good! I will be using a combination of captive trials, field work and computer modelling to look at the ways temperature and the risk of predation influence a possum’s choice of nest box. If all goes well, the results will increase our understanding of brushtails’ biology, as well us helping us to understand what influences nest box choice across a variety of different animals. It will help us understand how brushtails may respond to climate change, as well as to deter possums from nesting in people’s rooftops. It’s all very exciting!

But the real goldmine lies in the fact that, after my Masters degree, I will be equipped with a whole new set of skills that I will be able to carry not only into my PhD, but into the rest of my professional life. I will make a network connections with academics and fellow students alike, many of whom will be my colleagues in future. I think that’s an endpoint worth striving for!

If you’re interested in finding out more about graduate opportunities, the entry requirements, and what is available in your favourite stream: check out the Melbourne Graduate School of Science page.

  1. Akira says:

    Love the blog guys!

    This was really insightful. I’ve been considering doing a Masters degree (in Biotechnology): it’s encouraging to hear you love it so much.

    How do you balance study and work?

    • Thanks Akira!

      It’s not easy – your personal life does take a big wallop, that’s for sure! I only work weekends, so the weekdays are dedicated to Uni. We were warned that in the induction not to work at all in second year, so we’ll see how that goes.

      There are a host of scholarships and bursaries that can help you out, though. I got one of each. The bursary I got was from applying for Graduate Access Melbourne (see this page for details of that one and several other bursaries), the second was a Master of Science National Scholarship (see here) – you will automatically get this one if you can get an 80+ average in your major. So working hard in undergrad pays off!

      There’s also lots else you can apply for to help you financially so you don’t have to balance work/study. Or, at least, not as much work as you would have to otherwise.

      — Rhiannon

  2. Akira says:

    Thanks for those links!

  3. Stacy says:

    Ah awesome! I’m a first year Science student and I had a talk on science careers last Friday, which was when I decided to major in zoology. That’s where I heard about this blog btw šŸ˜‰

    Anyway, I’m thinking I’ll want to do this master’s research, so thanks for all the info! It really helped! I know it’s still early days but this is definitely something I am interested in šŸ™‚


    • I am so excited that you’ve chosen a Zoology major, but I am clearly biased!

      It’s good that you’re considering Masters so early on, because now is a great time to start networking your way into it. You will need to do well grade-wise to get the project you want, but if you talk to lecturers about their field to get a feel for what they do and especially ask them about volunteering on their graduate students’ projects – this way you will not only get a feel of if the field (or lab!) work is for you, volunteering is the best way to get a serious foot in the door where Zoology is concerned. Even later on in your career they will look at whether or not you’ve done voluntary work or not! You won’t be judged entirely on it, but passion and the ability to be proactive is a huge bonus in their eyes.

      I didn’t know we were being plugged at the talk haha – did someone tell you guys about it? Awesome!

      Thanks for the comments!
      – Rhiannon

  4. Nubia says:

    Hi Rhiannon,

    I figured I would ask my question here rather than on the post regarding Dr. Andi. First, thank you for your reply. Second, I would like your opinion. I have obtained a Bachelor of Science in plain old Behavioral Sciences, with a concentration in Psychology. However, this has prepared me to earn about as much as a non-technically skilled person who graduated high school only. If I were working at something I loved, I would probably not be as miserable but maybe that is my fault. Right now I’m working at a place that has nothing whatsoever to do with behavior or health or anything related to science.

    I was considering pursuing a Ph.D in Applied Animal Behavior because there was no MS program in the field, until I came across your blog. How likely do you think it would be that I could gain admission into a MS Zoology program? I wouldn’t care if the school were in Australia, Kenya, or Hawaii. Can you ge tthe hint I’d like to be some place warm? I’m sure I would need to perform more research but just wanted your opinion.


    • Hi Nubia,
      I know how you feel: most students with a Bachelor Degree end up working a shitty day job they hate. In order to help you out though, I’m gonna have to know what your experience with experimental design is? Did you do much of it in your course? Was your course completely human oriented?

      It may be difficult for you to get straight into Masters if you’ve done no Zoology subjects and no experimental design: the latter is the most important as in Masters you have to come up with an experimental design for your project. The best way to get into Masters is through doing the associated Bachelor first. How would you feel about taking another 3 years to do a degree?

      Having said that, there are ALWAYS other ways around it. There’s always secondary pathways. The advantage with Masters is that there’s a coursework component, so if you DO have some experience in that area it may be enough with the Masters subjects top get you up to scratch with it all. You can also do a Masters coursework rather than another BSc, which would take 2 years and may give you the experience you need to do a Masters research.

      Once I get some details off of you as to your experiences with animals, I’ll ask my supervisor and some of the other academics around Zoology and see what I can find out for you.

  5. Nubia says:


    You’re so super-awesome for trying to help me! What I do have under my belt un undergrad is about less than 30 hours of science related courses ( animal nutrition, animal genetics& reproduction, microbiology, animal science, chemistry). This was way back in ’96-’99 when I started out as an Animal Science major. Through some twists&turns, Ihad to leave school and then cam eback some years later to finish online. Closest thing to match my foundation was Behavioral Sciences. So I’ve got some statistics courses and intro to research courses, learning theory, etc under my belt. My final project required some research via an interview using methods taught throughout the course, but I don’t know how closely that relates to what you’re referring to.

    I have worked in animal husbandry, caring for mice and rats housed in a lab (changing/cleaning cages, replenishing food, etc.), but have performed no studies…

    Hope this helps you to help me! :o)

    • Nubia,
      You are more than welcome. It sounds like you may have enough scientific grounding to at least be considered, but again I think it will be difficult for you without doing some form of Zoology studies. I had a quick word to my lecturer today, and she said she wouldn’t feel qualified enough to answer. She suggested the best thing to do would be to contact the faculty. If you were interested in Melbourne Uni, I could give you some contacts within the department. However, it is exam period now and so you will be best waiting a few weeks before trying to contact anyone. Everyone is flat out with their students’ questions and marking, so they will probably not be able to dedicate the time to you as you would otherwise find.

      I suggest getting in contact with places that offer a Masters in Zoology. Gaining a position in Masters can be just like a job interview: you need to sell yourself. Grades are important, but for many supervisors it is important for them to know that their student is proactive and passionate. You may be able to gain the necessary experience just be doing some volunteer work on projects. I know Nicole, who I did the latest interview with, is looking for volunteers for her fairy wren project soon.

      I will keep you informed if I find out more. But your best bet will be to contact people far more qualified than I am.

      • Nubia says:

        Many thanks, Rhiannon. You didn’t have to attempt to help me but you did–I appreciate your efforts! I hope exams went well for you.

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