Teodora Petrova has a Masters in Biomedicine from Karolinska Institute (Sweden). In this interview, she talks about the right approach when choosing Masters electives and the pitfalls to avoid when you have the freedom to design your programme.

Some programmes also allow students to pick one of a number of predefined specialisations, or a combination of two or more specialisations, to focus on a specific area of your chosen field of study. For example, Computer Science Masters students usually can choose from specialisations such as Artificial Intelligence, Data Processing, Information Technology and Software Engineering etc.

Typically, following an initial period of one or two terms dedicated to core courses, Masters students can also choose elective modules in line with their personal preferences and career plans. The range of optional courses varies across different programmes and universities. Some universities allow you to pick electives from any discipline, while others give you a list of courses in specific fields to choose from.  

Read: The Wide Spectrum of STEM Masters Programmes

So, here is some advice from someone with hands-on experience on what to consider when you are choosing the university and programme for your Masters studies if you want to have freedom and assume responsibility for shaping your own academic journey.

Was your Bachelor’s degree in the same field as your Masters?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, so they are similar to a great extent. Biomedicine is concerned with human biology. It deals with the application of the biological sciences to the treatment of disease.

How far were you able to shape your own Masters programme?

Over 60% of my Masters degree was up to me to design, so to a great extent. I had to pick one advanced course and three rotations in different science laboratories.

What was your approach to choosing electives?

What mattered to me most at the time was to explore various fields of biomedicine, to find out which one I preferred to dedicate my future career to. So I picked the most diverse set of topics and techniques, with very little connection to one another.

Who can help students choose their electives?

There are many experts who can help you make the right choice. You can enquire about advisory resources available at your university to assist you in planning your programme. You can also contact the Careers Service, where you can receive professional guidance about any issue relating to your career. Mentors are also a source of advice and guidance.

Depending on your career plans then, how did you balance between theoretical and more practical electives?

The focus of the whole programme was to give us opportunities to practise, so we were obliged to choose just one theoretical elective and three practical ones. This was a good thing, I believe, because you never really know how you would fit into a certain environment, role, or job. Neither do you become a great professional until you get your hands on something. Especially in science, just by learning about scientific discovery, you can never imagine how challenging it is actually being in the lab. There are so many other soft and hard skills you need to learn, that you can only grasp in practice. I guess it is the same in many other areas of study, including business and marketing, etc.   

Looking back, are you happy with the selection of your electives? What would you do differently if you had the chance?

Not really. If I had another opportunity, I would choose four more similar rotations and courses. This would help me establish myself as an experienced professional in one area, rather than having some scattered experience and knowledge in many areas.  

In addition, each elective was much more than learning; it was a networking opportunity. It was almost impossible to get a job position as a Doctoral Student, without working for a lab first. After I explored three different opportunities, I found out that I liked only one of them. This considerably limited my career options and opportunities. The best way to know if something is for you, is to try it, but at the same time we should be careful about committing months of effort to something.

What advice would you give to future Masters students who need to choose electives?

Do not choose your electives just by superficial criteria. Really take the time to evaluate the benefits of each elective from many points of view: content and curriculum, networking opportunities, experience, teachers and how it helps you achieve your goals. Sometimes, especially when you are young, you don’t yet realise that your professional and personal goals may drastically change over time, so think not only about what you need at the moment, but about what you may potentially need in the future. Electives are one of the many ways we get the power to shape and decide our own careers, and as the famous saying goes: “With great power comes great responsibility”.