Volunteering—the path to postgraduate research

Volunteering—the path to postgraduate research

Volunteering in a psychology lab as an undergraduate student was one of the best decisions PhD student Michaela Pettie made, igniting her passion for neuroscience and setting her on her research career path.

PhD student Michaela Pettie (centre) works alongside and guides undergraduate volunteers, Luise (left) and Stephanie (right) on research projects within the research lab.

In 2014, when considering where my academic path would take me, I thought postgraduate research might be an option, but I wasn’t sure what was involved and whether I was suited to it. My tutors and lecturers suggested volunteering in a lab group to get a better sense of what scientific research is really like.

After reviewing different options and seeing the vast range of research conducted in the School of Psychology, I contacted a few academics and lab group leaders to see if there were opportunities for me to volunteer. It was a little daunting approaching people, but lecturers appreciate interest in their work and students that are willing to contribute to their projects.

In the end, I chose to volunteer with the Behavioural Neurogenetics lab. I was paired with a first-year Master’s student, and together we researched and established a behavioural test that measures social communication and interaction which, is still used in our lab today.

While volunteering with the lab group, I became acquainted with a range of different academics, staff, and postgraduate students. I was able to assist with research in lab, and learnt a whole new approach to study, time management, and interaction in academia.  Most importantly, volunteering ignited my passion for neuroscience and opened a world of research that looks at the interaction of genetics and other life events. I became fascinated by the questions asked by researchers in this field and the range of techniques used to answer them, like genetics and epigenetic expression, and behavioural and immunohistochemistry techniques.    

In 2015, I was given the opportunity to be an Honours student in the same lab group. As I was already familiar with how the group worked and the general running of the lab, I got a jump start on my research project. With the success of my Honours project, I returned to do my Master’s and became the student that undergraduate volunteers were paired with. Because I had been in their position, I understood what it was like to be the new kid on the block. I did what I could to help their transition and integration into the lab which helped them find their feet in a sometimes daunting situation.

In 2016, I embarked on my PhD, which allowed me to continue my research while mentoring and working with others. My research would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the volunteers and students that have since joined our group. Eight students have worked directly on my project or side projects and there have been a countless number of volunteers, interns, undergraduates, and postgraduate students I’ve worked alongside.

I would highly recommend volunteering to anyone, especially those who are thinking about postgraduate study. It provides an unexpected advantage in the competitive world of postgraduate research, helping students like myself become part of the scientific community.  

Michaela Pettie is a fourth-year PhD student in the Behavioural Neurogenetics lab in the School of Psychology. Michaela’s research examines genetic and environmental factors that underlie Autism Spectrum Disorders.

It’s Student Volunteer Week! We’re celebrating our student volunteer superheros who are making change in their community. Use the hashtag #SVW2019 to share your volunteer stories with us, and find out how you can get involved and volunteer.

Read more stories from our student volunteers from our #SVW2019 blog series:

From street collector to international English teacher
Zoe Dickens
Getting involved on campus and in the community gave commerce student Zoe Dickens the confidence to embark on a life-changing volunteer trip to Thailand.


Giving back with Victoria House Enviro Group
Ben Linstone and Nina Hogg
Second-year students Ben Linstone and Nina Hogg started the Victoria House Enviro Group in 2018 to promote environmental awareness and action among their hall community.


Become a student superhero now!
Nicole Chan
Commerce student and Disability Services volunteer Nicole Chan believes volunteering is for everyone, and encourages students to find volunteering opportunities they can get passionate about.


A plastic diet for the earth—the University’s Waste Watchers
Abbi Nevil, Camila Gonzales, Kathy Thomas, and Kate de Boer

We sat down with student volunteers Abbi, Camila, Kathy, and Kate from Vic Plastic Diet—a environmental club on campus­—to find out more about how they’re contributing to kaitiakitanga—the theme of this year’s Student Volunteer Week.