Case study

Neuroscience research assistant — Annabel Macfarlane

Annabel's undergraduate dissertation gave her experience of the specific scientific techniques used in neuroscience research, and made her job application stand out to employers

How did you get your job?

My undergraduate dissertation was on a neuroscience topic and helped me decide that I wanted to be a neuroscientist. I applied to lots of research assistant positions, even ones that I didn't think I had much chance of getting.

When I finally got an interview with the University of Cambridge, I was disappointed not to get a job offer, so I emailed the professor to ask for feedback. I was told I had been their second choice, and to keep an eye out for more positions coming available soon. Then I got a call from them to ask if I was still looking as the other person had pulled out and they offered me the job. I had a month to relocate from Plymouth to Cambridge, which was stressful.

Was your psychology degree essential for the job?

I used neuro-scanning technology in my dissertation, which impressed my interviewers and has helped me a lot to understand the research project. The knowledge from the rest of my studies has helped me to understand why we use the techniques we do. The research methods and statistical modules have also been critical for this work.

What does a typical day look like?

My days vary a lot. The project I'm working on currently involves working with children and carrying out MEG and MRI scans. I work with 3-4 families per day, gathering neuroimaging data. I also get to go into schools and carry out behavioural testing.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I like that I can inspire children - several have asked me about working in neuroscience. On a personal level, I know that working on this project is a really strong foundation for a PhD and a career in academic research.

What are the challenges?

It can be hard work organising research, particularly working with families who sometimes must change their plans and can't attend their appointments. This means that the scanning equipment is booked but with no one to scan. When families can't make their slots, the project is losing out on valuable data, so I work hard to avoid this happening.

There's also pressure associated with being successful in getting a competitive job. I really want to impress and show that I'm the right choice.

What are your career plans?

I'd love to see this project making scientific breakthroughs. In the longer term I'd like to do a PhD and become a professor.

Any words of advice for aspiring research assistants?

  • Don't be afraid to apply if you find a research project that really excites you, even if it seems like a longshot.
  • You'll need a passion for neuroscience as there's a lot of learning involved. The interviewers might be willing to overlook a few shortcomings if you can show your enthusiasm.
  • Make sure you really understand the research project - find out about the research techniques they're using. There were some methodologies in the research project that I wasn't familiar with, so I asked my dissertation supervisor to teach them to me before I applied. I think this really helped me stand out and showed how interested I was in both neuroscience and in research.

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