Postgraduate Life - Frequently Asked Questions
Our online and on-campus students answer some of the most frequently asked questions about postgraduate life. Scroll through the questions below or watch some of our previous live Q&A recordings.
Postgraduate Live Stream Q&A Sessions
Our next live stream with a postgraduate student will be announced shortly.
We will upload recordings of each live stream to this page once they are over. In the meantime, browse our previous sessions below or chat to current students directly via the Unibuddy app.
Estefania Grados Porro - Live Stream, 15th October
Estefania is one of our MScR Biomedical Sciences students. She answered questions about her future career and why she chose Edinburgh for a Masters by Research.
- Video: Estefania - Instagram Live Q&A
- Estefania is one of our current Masters by Research in Biomedical Sciences students. Here she talks a little bit about the programme and answers questions about how the Masters will help her future career and why she chose to study at Edinburgh.
Fritz Oben - Live Stream, 8th October
Fritz is one of our MSc Critical Care students. He answered questions about working as a medical doctor and treating Covid-19 patients, as well as reflecting on his experience of online study so far.
- Video: Fritz Oben MSc Critical Care
- Instagram Live Q&A with Fritz Oben, an MSc Critical Care student. Recorded 8th October.
Athanasia Yiapanas - Live Stream, 1st October
Athanasia is one of our PhD Precision Medicine students. She answered questions about PhD life at the University of Edinburgh, including her thoughts on managing stress and her relationships with supervisors.
- Video: Athanasia Yiapanas Live Q&A
- Athanasia, PhD Precision Medicine student, talks about postgraduate life at Edinburgh Medical School.
Deb Baker - Live Stream, 14th May
Deb is a student on the MSc Science Communication and Public Engagement (online). She answered questions from her home in the US about what it's like to study online.
- Video: Deb Baker Live Q&A
- Live question and answer session with online student.
Anna Morgan - Live Stream, 30th May
Anna is a student on the MVetSci Conservation Medicine. She answered questions from her home in Canada about studying conservation online.
- Video: Anna Live Q&A
- Online student discusses her experience of postgraduate study.
How does the experience of online learning differ from your expectations before you started?
Since starting as an online student, my expectations have definitely been met. This was the first time I was going to be an online learner, and when I joined I expected my course to give access to digital practices and technologies, and in fact it did. Not only did it allow for the development of my study habits, but it also helped me with subject-specific practices like data analysis. Being able to have group discussions with people from different backgrounds really gave me a sense of support and allowed me to broaden my knowledge.
I honestly didn't know what to expect when I started my online programme. When I graduated with my Bachelors degree it was 15 years ago and online learning was just not a thing at that time. Plus for me I live in the United States, so this programme is overseas and I didn't know what to expect there either. So I was really pleasantly surprised as we got into the programme and started the first class in that yeah, there was quite a lot to study and there was stuff I had to do, but it wasn't as much as I was thinking it was going to be and I found myself really having the time to do stuff I wanted to do on top of my learning. Really I was pleasantly surprised that it was all a great experience for me.
How does online study differ from traditional class-based study?
It's more flexible in the sense that you can study the modules at any time, which is particularly convenient if you're working a full-time job. Although obviously the social element is different between the two modes of study, at times I think this can actually play in your favour, because in certain situations I actually find it easier to express my thoughts and opinions in writing rather than doing it face to face. This also means that when you are expressing your opinion, it has to be well-founded and based on the literature, which makes the learning experience and the quality of the entire experience of a similar standard to traditional class-based study.
How do you plan your studies?
What I did was set aside time during the week, after work, and also during the weekends. I tried to do it in a way that allowed me to have time for my studies, time for my work and time for my social life. I think one of the things that worried me most before I enrolled was the fact that I thought I might not have time to balance all of my commitments, but I do think having a good schedule and committing to it was the key to success. The fact that I could access course materials on my tablet and mobile phone also helped to ease my anxieties. I was able to keep on top of things at all times, anywhere I went I could easily log on to my computer, tablet or mobile phone and just check in with what other people were writing on the discussion boards.
Do you need to be an IT genius to study online? Is online study suitable for people with different levels of IT skills?
I don't believe that online learning is based on having a high level of IT skills. In my case I had user-friendly IT skills which I would say were sufficient at the start of the course, and they definitely allowed me to access the modules and submit my assignments. There was a lot of support from our programme support officer and there are a lot of tutorials online which I found to be particularly useful. I believe my IT skills have definitely developed since the start of the course, particularly in regards to working with Microsoft Excel and with data and other software.
I think anybody can do an online learning study programme, whether they know how to use a computer or they have advanced IT skills or not. I'm over 40 and I grew up with old, slow, green screen computers that we all remember from when we were younger, to what it is now. I was able to figure out the online discussion boards and all of the interactive stuff that I have never had to work with before. Anyone can do it - it might mean that someone who is older like me, it may take you a little more time to figure out the specifics. But I really think that anyone can do it and there is support everywhere. You can ask questions, Google, the answer is there, it just may take a little bit of time to find it.
Is there a sense of community between you and your fellow students and how does this online interaction contribute to learning?
I felt there was a sense of community during my studies which was built upon the fact that all of us came from different backgrounds. Being able to share professional knowledge and professional experience through the discussion boards definitely allows us to engage more. So for example, with me being specifically nuclear medicine and having a discussion with someone who is a radiographer specialising in MRI, this really allows us to combine our knowledge and sometimes to come up with great essays to submit for the assignments. I also believe the case studies and local data prompted very constructive discussions.
How do you stay motivated?
I stay motivated in my studies with Edinburgh because I picked a topic that I'm interested in and that I'm somewhat passionate about, so I've never really hit a lull in that I'm not motivated to continue. I think it's important that you pick something in your postgraduate studies that you truly have an interest in and that you want to learn about.
Did you enjoy/are you enjoying the experience?
I did enjoy my time at Edinburgh, it's been wonderful meeting people from around the world and my supervisors and staff have been very supportive. It's been a great community and it's very enjoyable yet very much professional and it's something that is not easy but is really a great learning experience.
What is the best aspect of online learning?
My favourite aspect of online learning has been the ability to take my learning where I want to go. Although lectures are provided - and I learned a lot from them - the majority of my learning comes from the things I have to do with my online discussion boards, which are more loosely structured. We're given a topic and then we put out our views as supported by articles and current literature to the other students, and then they respond and we go back and learn from these responses too. I think that's been my favourite part of the online learning programme - the ability to figure out what I want to learn more about and then learn even more as I interact with the views of [other students].
The best aspect of online learning is that if you work, have family, then you can do the work around your schedule, attend classes - everything can be done at the best time for you. So if you're a morning person, evening, whatever, you can always log on and do your studies and attend lectures, whether they're recorded or live.
What is the most challenging aspect of online learning?
I think one of the most challenging things is co-ordinating my time and [how I want to use it] with those of the other members of my programme. I've learned after doing this for about a year that I like to get things going and get them started early so I have time to focus on what I want to say in my group discussions. But unfortunately a lot of people in my group like to wait until the last week until it's due, and that gets really difficult as I have seven kids and work full-time, so it's harder for me to do a lot of work within the space of a week.
The most challenging aspect of online study is time management. You tend to be at home, doing your studies, and so other things can enter in and take you away from that. So you want to make sure that you manage your time correctly and schedule because the worst thing is falling behind. And I think for the programme you get the most benefit out of it by participating and doing all the reading - you learn more and I think you feel like you get more out of it.
How has the programme helped your career?
The sentiment behind me doing the course in the first place was really personal development - I was just very interested in the material. But happily, as a consequence lots of doors at work have opened. I'm now much more heavily involved in teaching and training of my peers, upskilling my colleagues, and I expect that role to develop further. So the programme has been really beneficial from a personal point of view but also in terms of career progression too.
Do you have access to the necessary information and at the right time?
I've always had all the necessary information that I need in order to complete an assessment or to study further, mainly because the library helps you out if you can't find what you're looking for. They have a great staff, you can request information and if it's not in the library they will help you get it from a different source. I've never been in a place where I've not had the information I was looking for.
Are your tutors approachable and are you able to ask questions?
So for my particular course we always had guest tutors for each module. I always found the tutors to be really knowledgeable and approachable. And I think the thing I always appreciated most about the course was the flexibility . So mine was a distance learning course and I was working full-time, so I was often working at the weekends and after work, so I think whenever I had a query I was obviously posting outside of normal working hours but I was often answered within an hour or two and never had to wait very long for my query to be answered. It was really good and I was really pleased with the standard [of tutors].
How is feedback provided?
We received feedback after each of our assignments, but we were also receiving feedback constantly in the form of discussion boards. We had a topic to discuss each week and we were directed to post on message boards, with the idea being that we could have some interactive chat with our peers and also with the tutors. So the tutors would feedback on your comments and leave their own comments to direct the flow of conversation. So feedback was pretty much constant really.
How did you find the technology used during the programme? Did everything work OK?
So with a distance learning degree you are heavily reliant on technology and everything working. It almost always did, I can only think of the odd isolated incident where something didn't go quite right with some of the software for the interactive lectures, but there was always a workaround. That meant you never missed out on any material and it was always done in a timely manner, so there was really no issue with any of the systems in place really. Another amazing resource is the library - it's so comprehensive and the support on offer is really really useful. Again for the odd isolated incident where you couldn't find the text you wanted, the librarians were always on hand and there were systems in place to get any texts that they don't have.
Why did you choose the University of Edinburgh for your online degree?
I knew I wanted to do a distance learning degree because I knew I needed the flexibility to be able to work full-time and balance family life as well. I initially searched online for the programme content and the University of Edinburgh had the most suitable content for what I wanted. The flexibility, structure of the course really suited me, and finally the reputation of the University - it's a red brick institution, and seemed to tick all the boxes.
1. What makes a great PhD applicant?
This is a very good question and one that comes up time and again. The PhD application process can be daunting and if you're applying to a competitive field then you'll probably come up against a few rejections before managing to land an interview. Even then, success isn't always guaranteed...so what qualities does a PhD applicant need in order to earn that coveted research post?
First of all, your application letter should radiate enthusiasm about your area of study. Supervisors want to see that you'll be committed enough to finish the PhD after 3-4 years of intensive research, so if they don't see any kind of passion about the science in your application letter, then you probably won't be shortlisted for interview.
A great PhD applicant should also be proactive enough to contact someone at the university before beginning their application. Whether you e-mail, make a phone call or even knock on their office door, introducing yourself to a potential supervisor before applying will make you stand out from the crowd.
Finally, when you get that interview...don't be afraid to sell yourself! Most people struggle at telling others what they're really good at. But in a PhD interview you should be able to confidently highlight your key skills and achievements.
Don't just tell someone you did something. You have to say you did it well!
For more tips on how to get a PhD, visit our blog post below which contains plenty more helpful tips and advice from our staff and PhD students here at the University of Edinburgh's College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.
2. What would a PhD graduate advise a new PhD student?
If you're just getting started with your research and want to hear from someone who has already been there, done it and submitted the thesis, then we have plenty of student bloggers who have shared their wisdom with our readers over the years.
There are definitely some recurring themes that come up time and again, particularly around time management. Plan carefully for deadlines and don't force yourself to work endless hours just for the sake of it - you won't produce anything worthwhile. On the other hand, if you find yourself with a little less work to do than usual, why not use this time to start your literature review or maybe think about a conference paper?
A break is well-deserved, especially after particularly hectic weeks, but trust me, future you will be eternally grateful for any little bit of work that you do now that will help you out in the future. Regular meetings with your supervisor will also help keep you on schedule.
Many of our graduates also appreciate the importance of having a good support system - keeping in close contact with friends and family is key, as well as attending events that will help you to meet fellow PhD students going through the same things that you are.
And finally - exercise! Whether you enjoy walking, running or mountain climbing, make sure that you give yourself a break every once in a while and get those endorphins going.
For more excellent advice, Katherine's blog post below contains further tips for new PhD students who are just starting out on their journey.
3. What's the quality of life like for a PhD candidate?
Many people want to know how many hours a week PhD students really work. We often assume that researchers must be studying every day for 10 hours straight, without taking a break, and hiding away in the lab or library without ever seeing the sun! And to be honest, this is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make, especially when society usually talks about PhDs as though students have to 'survive' them.
In reality, most PhD students will balance their hours in the lab or office with a nice variety of extra-curricular activities. These could be related to their research in some way e.g. socials with fellow lab members, conferences, poster days and other academic events. Or they'll be using their free time to go travelling, visiting family/friends, pursuing hobbies, and generally just getting some much-needed time away from research.
Although we do have to accept that the average PhD student will probably experience more stress during their studies than an undergraduate student, many PhDs today are aware of cultivating good mental health. If you're still not convinced, the blog posts below have been written by some of our PhD students who believe that work-life balance is simply about managing your time - you can enjoy your weekends and still produce a high-quality thesis from a top university.
4. What qualities characterise a great PhD student?
Hard working, enthusiastic and curious are probably some of the best qualities a PhD student can have. Keep asking questions and accept that you're always still learning, even when you hand in that thesis! As we've stated above, good time management is another quality that most postgrads will need to try and develop if you want to submit on time and without driving yourself up the wall!
5. How do you come up with an original idea as a PhD student?
Read all of the most important papers, books and journals around the subject area you're interested in - then try and identify what hasn't been said. Think critically about the literature that's already out there and assess how useful it is in approaching sub-topics related to your area of interest. What would you do differently?
For PhD students in life sciences and medicine, this issue is sometimes less of a problem, especially when you're applying to a post within a specific lab. But it's still a good idea to have an excellent grasp of how you can start to bring your own ideas (backed up by rigorous research) into the field and challenge pre-existing thought.
1. What is life like as a Masters student?
Life as an on-campus Masters student partly depends on whether you decide to go for a taught Masters or a research Masters. Basically you'll either learn through a mixture of taught classes followed up by a research project at the end, or you'll find yourself doing more intensive research part of the way through your degree. For more information on the difference between a taught Masters (MSc) and a Masters by Research (MScR), visit our blog post below:
When it comes to your free time, life as a postgraduate student provides you with plenty of opportunities to meet new people or take up a hobby. At the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, we have thriving postgraduate societies, regular public lectures, socials, fundraising events...and that's not including the many activities that the University as a whole provides.
If you want to get a real insight into life as a Masters student here in Edinburgh, our student blogs are a great place to start. Click on some of the links below to read more about what our students have to say:
2. How difficult is a Masters degree?
A Masters degree is obviously a big step up from undergraduate study, but how 'difficult' it really is can be hard to say. As long as you work hard when you need to and stick to your deadlines, you should find the experience an extremely rewarding one!
However, if you do happen to come up against some problems during your MSc, then you'll have plenty of support to help you along the way. Your supervisors and tutors will be very understanding, and remember you can always chat to one of them if you're having a hard time. There are also various student support services which you will be introduced to when you first start your programme, just in case you find yourself struggling.
The Introduction to Systematic Reviews is actually one of my most challenging courses because I don't have a strong background in research. Thankfully, we have helpful professors teaching this course who regularly offer extra help workshops to teach us how to properly use search platforms such as PubMed/Medline, Osiris, WHO IRIS and many other helpful databases. This course will be beneficial going forward with gaining background information for my dissertation.
3. Is a Masters degree worth it?
As well as developing key skills, a Masters degree is an excellent way to extend your professional network. You will likely find that your MSc has provided you with lifelong contacts in science and medicine. This is mainly down to the fact that conferences, poster days and society events all provide plenty of opportunities for Masters students to make important connections with people working in their field. These kinds of networks could prove invaluable, even if you decide to make the switch to a more industry-based role, rather than staying in academia.
Furthermore, many studies suggest that earning a Masters qualification will increase your earning potential. Although it’s not a guarantee, having a Masters degree on your CV makes it more likely that you’ll earn a higher salary. Statistics show that full-time employed, working-age postgraduates in the UK had an average salary of £39,000 in 2017, compared with £33,000 for working-age undergraduates.*
4. How many years does a Masters degree take?
An on-campus Masters degree typically takes a year to complete, with the exception of some dentistry courses which can take slightly longer (around two to three years). This gives you the opportunity to live in a new place for a year and experience a different culture, all while earning a degree from a respected university.
For more information on on-campus Masters options at the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, visit the website below:
5. How old are Masters students?
That really all depends! This question comes up a lot, and it seems to stem from worries that mature students might have about joining higher education in later life. Everyone is welcome to apply for an on-campus Masters as long as they meet the correct entry requirements.
However, if you're slightly older than the average Masters student and want to earn a postgraduate degree without the need for 'campus life' too, you might want to consider studying for an online Masters degree. We offer a wide range of online Masters programmes which are completely flexible, allowing you to continue working full-time or looking after family while earning an MSc from a respected university.
For more information on our full range of online programmes, visit the link below: