Break New Ground with a STEM Degree (Interview)

You have decided to pursue a STEM degree and specialise with a Masters programme in the field. Although you have made an important first step, there are now several more factors you need to consider if you wish to make the best choice for yourself and your future career.

Check out: The Wide Spectrum of STEM Masters Programmes

In this interview, Teodora Petrova (Bulgaria), who graduated with a Masters degree in Biomedicine from Karolinska Institutet (Sweden) – one of the most prestigious medical universities in the world – delves into her own student experience. From her decision making process before enrolling in the programme to the innovative and rewarding encounters during her studies – find out the true value of a Masters degree in STEM.

What is Biomedicine and how did you decide to specialise with a Masters degree in this field?

Biomedicine is a branch of science which uses biological knowledge with the purpose of applying it to clinical practice. In other words, we studied everything about scientific research which aims to understand, prevent, and manage human disease. I came from a more general Bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, but I was always interested in how knowledge is translated into practice to improve human health.

STEM is perceived as a field where innovation and new developments happen constantly. To what extent was this reflected in your Masters programme and the courses you took?

That is very true and that is why my programme put a huge focus on introducing us to the newest developments. One of our courses was even called “Frontiers of Translational Medicine”. Our lecturers were practising doctors and leading researchers in their fields who gave us first-hand information and perspectives. My university was next to a hospital, which itself is known for innovation and implementing the newest technologies. This strong focus on the latest science, medicine, and technology definitely made my educational experience superb, made me a competitive graduate, and motivated me to want to contribute with my professional skills after my Masters.

Can you tell us a bit more about the process of choosing a university and how the application process went?

I first sat down and thought carefully about where I saw myself in 5-10 years, to understand better what type of programme/university would best serve my professional path. There were a lot of Masters Programmes that I could apply to with my BSc in Biology, but I wanted one that could secure me good career prospects after graduation. But education is much more than a degree, so I also thought about what type of knowledge and values I was interested in getting exposed to before I ventured into my working life. Finally, I was ready to devote two years of my life to this, and I wanted to do it in a place where I felt comfortable with the culture and lifestyle, and of course, somewhere where life was affordable. This is how I narrowed it down to four programmes in Sweden and an Erasmus Mundus Masters programme. I would have been happy with any of those options.  Sweden has a centralised application system, whereby I sent only one application package to apply for four programmes. That was very convenient, in comparison to sending separate applications to each school, as it would be in some other countries.

What types of courses did the programme curriculum consist of? Was there a possibility for any further specialisations or optional electives that students could take?

Our courses could be divided into two types. A part introduced us to diseases, such as cancers, neurological disorders, etc. and the newest discoveries about them. The rest taught us the necessary tools in research – scientific communication, research ethics, biostatistics, working with animal models, etc. We only had one optional module in our programme. For me, optional courses can serve two purposes – either you can specialise in your preferred field, or as I did in this case, try something different to enrich your perspective. I chose a field, which was a hot topic in science, but one that I would not otherwise have learnt about in great detail – stem cell research. Now I know so much about growing every cell in the body in the lab.  

How practical was the programme and is that important to consider when choosing a STEM-related degree? Did you have internships or projects for real clients?

I believe it is very important. After all, the purpose of education is to prepare you for applying this knowledge effectively in your work. It is valuable to get a taste of what it really means to be a professional while still a student. Much of today’s world is not so much about knowledge, but instead, hard and soft skills.  I personally found out that research is so complex; the hard skills, or the laboratory techniques, are only 10% theory and 90% practice. I felt extremely unprepared in my first project, but it got better in time. But also, internships teach you the necessary soft skills, like team work, collaboration, effective communication, etc.

Half of my degree, or one year, was practical. We had three rotations, thus the opportunity to choose three projects. For me, these were totally different from each other, in terms of disease and the techniques used in the labs – from cells, to animals, to entirely computer-based projects. It was amazing to experience research from a few angles, and work with teams that were as different as the topics. I did all three in my university, but some of my classmates went abroad for one of the three. The possibility to go abroad might also be something to consider when you choose a programme.  

How valuable was your Masters in preparing you for your professional career?

It really helped me grow as a professional. In science, you cannot really do much with only a Bachelor’s degree. It is your Masters programme which sets your path as a professional. After I graduated, I sat down again and re-evaluated my plan for the next 5-10 years. I found out that it was different from what I had in mind two years before that. My educational experience, including the programme itself, as well as networking opportunities and extracurricular activities, had enriched my understanding of the field so much that I saw myself on a totally different career path. My programme prepared me not only for a career in academia, but I also had the option to go into any business or organisation where I could make use of my background in health and life sciences.  Personally, when I think about career prospects after graduation education, I put a large focus on learning transferable knowledge and skills. For me, to be flexible as a professional is an important consideration: industries evolve constantly, and I also grow and evolve my perspectives with each work experience. 

What about the international aspect of education – how important is this to you and did the Masters programme match your expectations when it comes to international exposure?

This is very important in our globalising world today. I am someone who feels very comfortable in highly international environments. I used all my chances to network and learn more about research culture and opportunities in various places around the world. Now I have professional contacts in many countries! In addition, people from different cultures come with diverse attitudes, so I learnt to be flexible and skilful in my communication. Luckily, a lot of universities today put a strong focus on enrolling students and employing people from as many countries as possible.

How have extracurricular activities and student life enriched your learning experience and did you take them into account when you selected the university for your Masters studies?

I did not take extracurricular activities into account when choosing the university but I was still planning to get involved in some. My university offered and sponsored many opportunities for students to get engaged and find people who share their interests. I personally went to tons of “random” seminars and events organised by student clubs, to learn about those viewpoints in science, which were beyond the scope of my programme.

If you could give one piece of advice to prospective Masters Applicants, what would it be?

Your Masters programme can truly be an unforgettable experience in your life. It opens a lot of doors for you in terms of contacts, opportunities, and personal perspectives. If you are going to invest in it, it better be the best education you can get. Above all, choose a place where you feel you belong. You will study hard, so you also need to feel comfortable in the school environment, the city, the country, and with your finances. But once you start the programme, it is still your responsibility to make the best use of everything it offers you. Good luck! 

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