Leesa Lertsumitkul, Honours Student
Confessions of an Honours student: What is Honours really like and should I do it?
4 weeks left of Honours and a 70-page thesis to write. In following the wise words of our very own Beth Stout, I decided to procrastinate (productively) and write a blog post.
Hi, my name is Leesa and I’m a current honours student in the Crossley lab. I recently went to the BABS Honours Info night to chat to prospective students looking to do honours. For me, this was quite a surreal experience. Just one year ago I was in their shoes – an unsure 3rd year student nervous about talking to academics and finding a lab. This year the tables were turned and suddenly people were asking me the questions!
“How have you liked honours?”. As silly as it might sound, this question stumped me. Amongst all the mad rush of finishing experiments, preparing for our final seminar and now writing our thesis, I felt like I hadn’t actually taken the time to stop and appreciate the experience.
Before I started honours, I had no clue about what this year was going to entail. But now with just a month left, I can say that it’s been a big year with so much more than I had expected. Maybe you’re reading this because you’re having to make the decision between another year of being a broke student or moving on into the real world. Maybe you (like me) don’t have a choice but at least want some idea about what you’re getting yourself into. So here’s a bit of insight from someone that’s right in the heat of it that’ll hopefully make your decision a little easier.
- Honours is actually pretty chill… until it’s not.
When I first started this year I was pleasantly surprised by how unstressed I was. I had expected this year to very intense from the get-go but in fact, I’d say the first few months go by fairly slowly. This is mainly because you’ll likely be getting familiar with your project and research area. You’ll be doing a lot of reading (and re-reading as most of it won’t make any sense the first time) and you might not actually start experiments in the lab until you are a couple of months into your project. Don’t worry – the last thing you want to do is stress about not stressing. Enjoy the fact that it’s “pretty chill”. You’ll want to make sure you are enjoying the year as it goes by. Once you reach these last few months, it’ll definitely pick up and you’ll surprisingly feel like there just isn’t enough time.
- You will feel quite dumb in the first few weeks
Or even months. Now this is fairly ironic as you are now only one step away from being in that 1.3% of the population with a PhD. Sure, you might feel like the smartest one in your family because you know the difference between DNA and RNA, but you are now in a whole new playing field. I’ll admit it can be very overwhelming and slightly intimidating when lab mates talk in complicated terms and your lab meetings feel like they’re in a completely different language. But stick through it and slowly but surely it’ll start to become easier. And remember that it is ok to feel like this because really, you are the newest (and therefore dumbest) person in the lab and it is normal if nothing makes sense at first. Scientists work in incredibly niche fields, and only people within that field speak that language. Put simply – you are the baby of the group – and that’s ok.
- You may not get a ‘result’ until the very end… or you may get none at all
This is one of the major things I did not expect. I had the very naïve impression that being in the lab this many hours would surely give you plenty of results and data. Maybe that was a false hope I had been given from our highly optimised undergrad lab classes. Yes, you will spend many hours in the lab, and you’ll get to do some really cool experiments. But much of that time may be optimising methods or setting up a multi-step experiment. And sometimes you may not even get to that final result. This is something I had been told, but deep inside me I thought that if I just worked hard enough that it surely wouldn’t happen to me. You come to realise that 9 months is actually very little time in the ‘research world’ and by the time you finish tweaking your methods so that they’re ready to give you some amazing result, you’ve just about run out of time. Whilst this can be disheartening, it’s comforting to know that almost every research scientist you come across will have a very similar story. It’s simply the way that research works. If you surround yourself with people that can lift you up, you’ll get through the tough times and learn to just roll with whatever comes your way.
- You (hopefully) become more preserving and positive
On the flip side, when you do get an exciting result or outcome, it can really make your day. You learn to celebrate the little successes that motivate you to keep going. I’ve found this year to be a character building experience – something I really didn’t expect. You learn to preserve and continue until you find the answer. You learn to adapt fast when things don’t go to plan. In the end, you learn to find the positives. In the wise words of my supervisor Kate, you can always turn a negative result into an interesting story. And for honours at least, getting the data isn’t actually as important as telling a good story.
- You become an expert by the end
Once you pass the stage of being completely overwhelmed, you actually realise how much you are learning and absorbing as you go along. Whilst my undergrad classes gave me a great foundation in learning basic concepts, cramming for an exam definitely does not lead to long-term memory (an essay topic I once wrote for a psychology course and have now proven true). Suddenly in less than a year, I’ve picked up so many skills that will stick with me for many years to come. As a wet lab student, I have been trained in numerous molecular biology techniques and have even started offering small bits of advice about my infamous overlap PCR technique to other lab members. Something new I’ve found that I enjoy is communicating my research – in lab meetings to people within my field, and in my final seminar to a broader audience. Becoming ‘the expert’ of your project seems quite surreal but also makes you feel really proud of the hard work you’ve put in.
Now it may seem like I’ve just painted my honours experience as fairly overwhelming and difficult – I’m not going to sugar-coat it – it can be at times. But now that I’m really reflecting on it, I can genuinely say that I’ve enjoyed this year and have found that research is something that I can see myself doing in the future. If you are considering a career in research, or even just curious about what it is like, I would 100% recommend doing honours as it gives you a really good taste of what being a research scientist is like. If it’s not for you, then you’ll know after one year. But if it is, you might finally be able to answer that dreaded question – so what do you want to do after you graduate?