Advice For New Online Students
Bex Sandey is one of our MSc Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health students. She gives some fantastic advice for new online students who are just starting out on their programme.
I chose to do the MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health in 2018 when I was at a turning point in my life – I was hoping to find a way out of the unfulfilling 9-5 office admin roles that I’d somehow found myself in, and into something that I would consider a “career”, with the aim of one day finding myself within the conservation sector.
The whole thing seemed like a faraway dream at the time, but within the last two years I’ve managed to get myself a job as an assistant ecologist with a local consultancy firm, meaning that my dream is becoming a reality!
Alongside the MSc, I’ve made a point of volunteering with as many conservation organisations and individuals as possible, and never pass up the opportunity to network within the sector or try out a new training course.
However I credit the Masters as one of the biggest life-changing factors to my career-changing success.
Advice for new students
1. Start a glossary of new words and phrases
The first couple of courses are long (10 weeks) and give you the chance to really deep-dive into and around a subject. The readings can be a little tough at times, especially the biology-heavy stuff, but the course organisers understand that there are many of us who may not be au fait with all the information, and will be patient with you.
I found it really useful to start a book of words and phrases that were new to me, and explaining them to myself in my own words to help me remember them for next time. I alphabetised them so that I can flick back through this notebook at all the new words I've learned over the courses.
2. Get to know your coursemates and don't be overwhelmed by meeting new people
Your coursemates are just people, and in my experience they have all been utterly wonderful people!
It's unclear whether the summer schools will run over the next few years due to Covid-19. But if they are, I cannot recommend them enough as a safe space to meet your coursemates in person and get to know them on a human level as well as a professional one.
It was a truly life-changing experience for me.
3. Have fun on the discussion boards
I found that, as someone who felt as though I didn't have a clue what I was doing throughout the first semester, the graded discussion boards enabled me to discover new ways of thinking and to put myself across in a more professional way.
I found the whole experience to be positive - I would also say that you should engage with these as much as possible rather than leaving it until the last couple of days as they tend to move quite fast and you may miss some really important or interesting posts from your coursemates.
If you're nervous about scientific writing, the discussion boards can also act as a way of increasing your unit mark if you engage with them properly.
4. Challenge yourself
I ended up choosing a few units in year 2 which were out of my comfort zone just so that I could challenge myself and get the most out of the course - you're paying money for knowledge after all!
As I don't have a definite career path set out after this degree I thought it would be best to undertake units that were more biology-based seeing as that's where my weak spots are (rather than focusing purely on the human side of conservation, which I think I could have got through with a lot less effort).
It was super tough but I've learned a hell of a lot and can understand all sorts of things that I see and read in my normal life now, so it was definitely the right decision.
5. Be prepared for the Masters to take up a lot of your time
My poor husband has pretty much done all the cooking in our house for the last two years in order that I can focus on readings, assignments, having crises of confidence etc. Have a strong support network of people you can rely on when it all feels a bit much.
6. Expect the unexpected
Since starting this MSc, my confidence in myself and my ability has grown so much that I've ended up already switching career from a generic and unfulfilling admin job to an assistant ecological consultant.
I've also volunteered more than I ever did before, and have used knowledge that I have gained both from the programme and my coursemates to help me understand what I'm doing.
I've also performed better in this programme than I ever did on my undergraduate degree and have found myself constantly surprised by my ability to get high marks.
The progression from being an overwhelmed and timid student to confident and constantly excited by the new opportunities I'm finding has been unexpected, but I credit this entirely to the course. It really has changed my life and I honestly cannot wait to see where the next year takes me.
7. Don't worry if you don't have the obvious academic background for your chosen programme
And finally...remember that you do not have to come from an already well-seasoned ecology or conservation background (although I'm sure that really does help) to thrive on this course.
Having done my undergraduate degree in Psychology (for interest rather than for future job prospects) and then not really knowing where to go career-wise, I started this course in 2018, not knowing whether I'd even be able to complete the first semester.
However I'm now about to start my third year having had one of the best and most fulfilling experiences of my life. Not only have I met some of the most amazing and interesting people, but I've finally found and confirmed my interests, and know that this is the direction I want to head in future.