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My Experience - Andrew Gillis

I entered the MSc Palaeobiology program at Bristol University because I wanted to diversify my academic background before beginning my PhD at the University of Chicago. I wanted to pursue a course of advanced study that integrated developmental genetics and embryology with palaeontology and provide me with the training and skills that I needed to pursue advanced studies in integrative and evolutionary developmental biology. It is becoming increasingly difficult, however, to find terminal MSc programs in North America, and it is flat out impossible to find one in the field of palaeontology!

The MSc program at Bristol is unique in this regard. It is recognized around the world as a first-rate, intensive academic program that provides students with an opportunity to build a strong foundation in palaeontology, evolutionary biology and geology via a rigorous, engaging and comprehensive set of lecture- and discussion-based courses. In addition, the thesis component of the course encourages students to interact regularly with expert faculty members and research associates to produce publishable science. Masters students are treated as peers by faculty, and are clearly valued by the department and the university.

All students are required to complete a unit called "current controversies in palaeobiology". This was, by far, a class favourite! At the beginning of each week, a "hot topic" was introduced by an expert in that field. During the week, students reviewed the literature related to the topic, and some presented their findings to the group at the end of each week. This was always followed by lively discussion and debate between the presenters and the rest of the class (we all then wrote a short review of the topic). The course load overall was always intense, and time management skills were of utmost importance. However, the first (taught) half of the program ensured that by the time each student began independent dissertation research, they were highly skilled and well read.

The second "half" of the program is the thesis component - though truthfully, students are encouraged to begin work on their projects from the very start of the course. Students have the option of choosing a research project offered by the supervisors (i.e. faculty members and postdoctoral fellows/research associates), or they may approach a faculty member with their own research ideas. Once again, this is encouraged! For the remainder of the course, students conduct independent research, under the supervision of an expert. MSc students have access to all the resources available to PhD students and faculty members (e.g. computing facilities, microscopy laboratories, fossil collections, etc.), are encouraged to present their research at departmental seminars and conferences, and are ultimately expected to produce a high-quality dissertation that can be converted into a manuscript for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. I can assure you that, by the end of your year at Bristol, you will have made the jump from undergraduate student to postgraduate researcher!

I have now completed my PhD in the anatomy department at the University of Chicago, and I can honestly say that I drew upon what I learned during my MSc on a regular basis. Furthermore, as an international student at the University of Bristol, I felt welcomed and comfortable at all times. The University of Bristol is one of the top academic institutions in the U.K. (which says a lot, given the exceptionally high standard against which academic institutions are measured in that country). Furthermore, the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol is one of only three such departments in the UK to obtain the top (5*) research rating. In summary, the MSc in Palaeobiology program at Bristol is unique, world class, and a wonderful opportunity to pursue advance studies in palaeontology, regardless of your previous academic background. It turned out to be the perfect program for me, and is no doubt well suited for anyone with a curious mind and a desire to understand the history of life on Earth.

Andrew refers to publication of his MSc thesis, and indeed his first paper appeared in Journal of Morphology in 2007. He has also published further papers from his PhD work, and he is now the holder of a prestigious Newton International Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, working on the development of the vertebrate head with Dr Clare Baker in the Department of Physiology, Development, and Neuroscience.

Gillis, J.A. and Donoghue, P.C.J. 2007. The homology and phylogeny of chondrichthyan tooth enameloid. Journal of Morphology 268, 33-49.

School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Wills Memorial Building, Queen's Road, Bristol, UK BS8 1RJ
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