MSc Neuroimaging for Clinical & Cognitive Neuroscience student hoping to (potentially) carve out a research career in the field of schizophrenia

About me

Olivia M.
Hong Kong

About this profile

Neuroimaging for Clinical & Cognitive Neuroscience
University of Manchester
United Kingdom

About the course

Why I continued studying

My decision to pursue postgraduate studies came about because of my curiosity about the brain but also an intrinsic love of learning. I think that education is a good way of developing yourself and gives you the tools to advance your knowledge and skills in your chosen field.

The other reason why I continued studying is because I've got a relative who suffers from schizophrenia and seeing the onset and progression of psychosis first-hand has made me want to study the underlying mechanisms and what is potentially happening in the brain to mediate those effects. I was further inspired to undertake a Master's after working with a British professor in the research unit of a psychiatric hospital in Barcelona. It was a great opportunity to gain research experience and gave me an insight into not only current 'lines of enquiry' in the field of psychiatry but also the research environment and the collaboration (and numerous meetings!) involved in progressing a research study.

What my course is like

Intense! The time pressures are incredible and you can't let up at any point without falling behind. In practical terms, you have 2 lecture days per week with 2 lectures on both days that are 2 hours long and the occasional session on a Friday, which doesn't sound like a lot but there are lots of assessments: weekly assignments, exams in the middle of the semester and a continuous flow of multiple, overlapping and ongoing assignments and exams. So there's a lot of independent work involved. Some of the lectures are practical sessions on the computers working with neuroimaging data and software.

In the first half of the Autumn semester, you take modules in neuroimaging techniques and functional neuroanatomy, which you then take mid-term exams for. The second half involves modules in image analysis (i.e. how you analyse an fMRI brain slice and map the functional BOLD activation onto a structural image) and also experimental design & optimisation. In the Spring Semester, you take modules in Cognitive Psychology for Clinical Neuroscience, Cognitive & Social Neuroscience, Advanced Image Analysis and Clinical & Behavioural Neuroscience. Following the May/June exams, you then have the chance to apply all of what you've learnt by joining a research programme across the faculty to conduct a 3-month long research project involving the use of imaging techniques. The whole study is written up in a 10,000-word report and you have to prepare a short poster presentation in September following the submission of the report. The research project is worth 60 out of the 180 credits for the Master's.

How I have funded my studies

Mainly through the government's new Postgraduate loan system, which offers up to £10,000 for Master's students. The tuition fees are £9,000 for this year (though I note that they have hiked them up to £9,500 for 2017 entry). Living at home means that I save on the rent (and meals!) and the Commuter Cost Fund that the university provides for students living at home to cover travel expenses offers £100 per semester to successful applicants - it's definitely worth doing your research and looking around to check the university's provision in terms of funds and scholarships. For course costs (i.e. printer ink cartridges, folders.....etc.) and other expenses such as days out, eating out....things like that, I can cover through what I've saved from a previous internship and part-time job, and will soon start doing some private tutoring which will top that up.

What I like most

So far, I've liked the functional neuroanatomy module which included a 'dissection lab'. Although this didn't actually involve dissecting anything ourselves, it really helped to ground what we'd been learning in the lectures by helping us to localise certain brain areas and sulci (grooves on the brain surface) and what functions they are involved in.

It's quite a small course too; there's only 18 of us and it's different to undergraduate courses where you might be competing against each other in terms of exams. I also like the fact that we get to put into practice everything we've learnt by conducting an original piece of research using neuroimaging.

What I like least

How technical it can be at times and the programming (MATLAB) that you have to learn, even though I've had some prior (though unrelated) coding experience which I enjoyed (more). Some of the stuff you learn, particularly in image analysis and about how the fMRI signal is generated, feels so abstract you might as well be studying philosophy! It can be hard to get your head around and you do get thrown in the deep end with certain things. They give you support but the guidance could be better, given how advanced some of the topics are and considering some of our undergraduate backgrounds. For example, you're expected to write a lab report analysing neuroimaging data with minimal instruction.

Also, I guess this is more of a personal preference but I somewhat dislike how intense the course is with mid-term exams and weekly assignments overlapping with bigger coursework pieces throughout the term. Although I'm used to having multiple commitments and managing my time from my experiences at York, my approach to learning and education has always been more laid-back.

What surprised me most

The step up from undergraduate to postgraduate level in terms of the workload and time pressure, and also how technical the course is in some parts - for example, learning about the physics of fMRI and some areas of image analysis (there's a lot of processing that goes into the image that you get at the end!).

Finding and applying for the course

How I looked for postgraduate options

Strangely enough, I can't remember! I received alerts from certain websites like 'Find a PhD' where they sent out alerts regarding postgraduate open days at different universities though it may have mainly been through departmental emails which signposted opportunities.

In any case, I stumbled across this particular course somewhat unconventionally. I asked the professor who I had been working with in Barcelona and he gave me the names of quite a few prominent contacts in the field of schizophrenia research across various countries. I emailed one or two of these people and also asked for his opinion on courses at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London but then decided that I wanted to study close to home for personal reasons, so he gave the name of a professor at Manchester who he knew quite well. After dropping this person an email, he introduced me to the neuroimaging Master's and invited me into the university to speak with him. We had a personal meeting where he talked about the research projects they were carrying out, including one exploring the effect of an antibiotic for neuroprotection in psychosis, and he also gave me a tour of some of the facilities. He said I could get involved in these projects through the MSc course. I left with a very good impression of both the professor and the research so it was then that I decided to apply.

How I found out about the postgraduate place

Personal contacts

The application process

This was quite straightforward. It was all done through their application system. So you have to register online and then complete all the sections of this application form including personal details and education history, including transcripts. You also have to provide contact details for 2 referees and submit a personal statement of no more than 300 words detailing why you're interested in the course and how it fits with your long-term career goals.

My career

My career goals when I graduated

I had a broad goal to go into schizophrenia research but I also wanted to develop my coding skills to 'future-proof' my career in case I decided it wasn't for me after all. At some point in the future, I also want to learn about cyber security as I think that this is an increasingly important area and also very interesting, even for someone from a non-technical background. The other career goal/ ambition of mine is to go and live and work in another European country for a while and acquire at least a conversational level in the language.

My career history

Prior to starting university, I took a gap year and gained experience in data entry with the Royal Mail and in a data administrator role working in the Estate Settlement Unit of a bank (basically dealing with the accounts of customers who had recently passed away). At university, I had a part-time job throughout my degree, working as a housekeeping assistant at a guest house, and an additional part-time job in my first year as a contracts-proofreader for an events, conferencing and travel management company. In the second and third years, I was involved in a society committee, a schools-based team project (through York Students in Schools) and mentoring for York Mind. I was also very lucky to be invited to the IDM Creative Data Academy over 3 days in Easter, which offered a great insight into the increasingly data-driven marketing industry.

What has helped my career to progress

Establishing contacts through voluntary work, employment or extra-curricular activities has helped, as well as the nature of all of those things themselves in developing my skills or myself as a person. Leveraging your social network can help but even if you don't anyone who knows someone else who works in your desired industry, just using your own initiative to reach out to people can be fruitful; you have to strike lucky but if you persevere enough, you never know who will be kind enough to lend you a helping hand.

The personal touch probably helps as well. I didn't know - neither personally nor through my contacts - the professor I worked with in Barcelona but after sending around 30 emails to the lead authors of research papers on areas of schizophrenia that I had searched and was interested in, commenting on what I found interesting about their study or offering my own interpretations or insights about their results, I was very fortunate to finally receive a reply that was promising.

Courses taken since graduation

Following graduation, I started a charity data analysis internship for an accountancy and advisory firm in York, which I did alongside a beginners' software development course in Leeds on Wednesday evenings. The course was run by Sky as part of their 'Get into Tech' initiative to encourage more women into technology roles. It covered front-end development (e.g. HTML & CSS) as well as more back-end languages in the form of PHP. There is also a beginners' coding course for female students called 'Code First: Girls' that is being rolled out across many universities nationwide, which I took part in.

How my studies have helped my career

Above all, I think my studies at York have helped me to see disappointments with exam or coursework results in a more positive light and to use feedback or criticism constructively in order to improve my next piece of coursework or exam performance, rather than seeing them as indications of my failure in some way. It's developed my ability to see 'failures' as learning opportunities. This is probably the most useful thing I have taken from my degree.

Where I hope to be in 5 years


My advice to students

My advice to students considering further study

Do your research early, even as early as the summer at the end of your second year, and if you need to take out a loan from Student Finance, be aware that in some (or even most?) cases, the loan will mostly only cover the tuition fees and contribute very little to living/maintenance expenses. So you'll need to consider how to make up the shortfall if you don't have enough savings to see you through the course. PhD projects - especially the funded ones - have particularly early deadlines and applications for postgraduate financial help (in the form of bursaries or scholarships) can have quite early deadlines. When you're caught up in the hectic life of third year, it's easy to forget about these things or to put them to one side and only return to them when it's too late and deadlines have already passed! Apply early otherwise be prepared to change your plans at very short notice. Applying early is particularly important if - as was the case for my course - they process applications and allocate on a first-come-first served basis until the course is full (I applied around the start of April).

Other advice

I would say that it's useful to know your strengths, preferences and weaknesses. If you don't know what these are, take some time to think about them and/or ask family and friends. This is also why it's really beneficial to get involved in the many, diverse opportunities available to you at York to help you develop a sense of what might want to do in your career. Choosing what you want to do for a living is hard enough and it helps if you can narrow down the plethora of options out there by knowing what kind of job you want to do and what skills you want to use in that job.

Some other general advice from what my experiences have taught me: if you're willing to help people out with no expectation of anything in return, people will generally also want to offer you help if/when you need it. Be prepared to stick with things even when you perceive that they're not going well at the start and appreciate that you have the choice to work hard and make the most out of any less-than-ideal or otherwise challenging situation. Also, as Steve Jobs once said: follow your heart and listen to your intuition as they know what's best for you.

Contacting me

Would be happy to both mentor someone and answer questions. If I can help with anything at all, please don't hesitate to ask me! I know how daunting it can be when you're approaching or in your final year of your degree and are unsure of what direction to take your life next. So I'll be glad to ease that process and all the uncertainty associated with it. My employment and voluntary work history is quite varied so I'm happy to answer questions on practically anything, whether you're looking for feedback on your CV or how to gain experience in a certain field. I don't claim to be an expert on anything but if I can impart any wisdom (or otherwise) that I've gleaned from my experiences, let me know.

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