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Life as one of The Data Lab’s MSc students

Our MSc students have now finished their year of study and are embarking on either placements or research projects. We asked three of them how they have been finding life as an MSc student and what advice they would give to others thinking about taking the same path. This is an exciting time to learn and work in data science! If you’re thinking about a career in data find out more about our MSc programme.

Meet our students

Cara Boyle: MSc Big Data Technologies at Glasgow Caledonian University
Placement: NHS Lothian
Mark Scott: MSc Advanced Computing at University of the West of Scotland
Research Project: Social gamification of exercise bikes using mobile virtual reality.
Penny Johnston: MSc in Big Data at University of Stirling
Research Project: Predicting Bitcoin trend from tweets

Describe your journey up to when you decided to work in data.

Cara: “My undergraduate course was a software development one and I found out while on that course that I am one of those people who absolutely love databases and using data to answer questions! My undergrad dissertation was the creation of a system, that by using historic F1 data I could predict the winner of the 2016 racing – Yes it worked but I sadly didn’t become a millionaire!”

Mark: “For over 9 years, I’ve worked as a technologist with the NHS for a national AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) assessment service, where we use technology to help people with communication difficulties overcome barriers to inclusion and independence. 5 years ago, I completed a BSc in Computing with the Open University. My studies with the OU gave me a strong grounding in programming and software development, but I always knew at some point I’d want to return to study, to extend my knowledge and skills in computing and learn how to apply them to solving problems. Data (and the methods we use to extract insights from that data) is going to drive so many of those solutions, it really seemed like the most interesting and pertinent field to study.”

Penny: “I have a wealth of expertise in analysing data and understanding it’s context. Gleaned over a decade within the manufacturing industry, as a Chartered Engineer with an MSc in Engineering Management. During my career break I was aware that the ways data can be collected, stored, analysed and consumed had altered, so going forward I wanted to have the latest skills and technologies. So, before re-entering the workplace I took the unique opportunity to condense all my learning into one year”

What has been your biggest challenge in your journey?

Cara: “The change in the work load for a Masters was for me a huge jump.”

Mark: “For me, returning to working and studying simultaneously has been a significant challenge. Although I had experience in this from my studies with the OU, there is significant demand for increased independent study at this level. It’s meant some late nights and early mornings but thankfully the material is so interesting it doesn’t seem like hard work.”


My [MSc] class encapsulates a magic diversity of age and nationality.


What is your favourite part of the MSc course?

Cara: “Being able to apply my knowledge to real life examples. Plus, the GCU fellow students on my course have made it amazing and I honestly couldn’t have done it without them.”

Mark: “Without a doubt, my favourite part has been the opportunity to learn to use so many new technologies and tools, and how to design solutions using them. Certainly, the course team at UWS seem to have a good grasp of the current and new technologies and encourage us to explore them when possible.”

Penny: “My class encapsulate a magic diversity of age and nationality. The support from students and lecturers is readily given when requested. The University has good dedicated computer labs. The subject knowledge is taught through a layered approach of lectures and labs, then built upon through assignments and tested in exams. Lecturers are happy to answer any questions.”

What has been the hardest/most difficult part, and how did you manage to get through it?

Cara: “The work load has been the most difficult part. Takes a lot of planning to get the work complete but it is all doable. I mean if I can do it anyone can!”

Mark: “Having left mathematics as a field of study behind some years ago, returning to statistics was quite daunting. I think it helped this time round being able to relate the statistics to real data science problems, and of course tapping into the experience of the course team at UWS.”

Penny: “The hardest part has been understanding artificial intelligence and machine learning but it has also been the most rewarding. My first trial of this will be in my project, which is to predict bitcoin trends from tweets using natural language processing techniques. It is a fascinating area, one that I want to continue investigating in the future, improving my understanding leading to improved training of models.”

Are you finding that the MSc course meets your expectations?

Cara: “100%. GCU have an excellent course which provides the students with the support they need.”

Mark: “The course has absolutely met my expectations. I have been able to build on my undergraduate studies by learning how to apply my programming and development skills to design solutions using data. With the diverse backgrounds people have come to Data Science from, I’ve also learned a lot from my peers on the course.”

Penny: “I chose the MSc in Big Data because it was a perfect vehicle to enable a structured year of learning. Monday 10th May I applied for the course and received an offer 2 days later, a great first impression. The course has exceeded my expectation and delivered a breath of knowledge, which enables me to pinpoint where my interests are. I have gained an updated skillset and vocabulary, essential for this emerging industry. On completion of the course, I will have achieved a recognisable, credible qualification.”

How did you find the support from your university and The Data Lab during your course?

Cara: “I always felt supported. Our programme leader was supportive and made sure to keep in contact with myself and other students to see if there was anything he could to help us. The Data Lab has given me a lot of support when it comes to learning new skills and I will be forever grateful for it.”

Mark: “The support from both UWS and The Data Lab has been second to none. The events organised by The Data Lab as part of the MSc programme are excellent. Each has a different focus and is very well organised. I found the course team at UWS to be extremely supportive, with regular two-way updates on progress and a willingness to go the extra mile to help students reach their potential.”

What are your experiences of the Scottish data community? (do you feel a part of it?)

Mark: “My experience has been that the Scottish data community is very welcoming indeed, and everyone seems very encouraging and willing to help each other. I think it helps that people have come to data science from so many different backgrounds. I’m a person
who tends to speak up when I have something to say, so I’ve been very much a
lurker on social media channels so far, but hopefully that will change as I
begin to tackle new projects and have something to contribute to the

What do you think it takes to become a data scientist?

I think the ability to listen and empathise is important; when you are designing a solution for a field which is not your own, it is crucial to be able to understand what is important to the people who are experts in that field.


Cara: “Being able to think outside the box. By using the computing skills you have and use your imagination to come up with amazing (and sometimes crazy) ideas to solve problems that some people have no idea even exist. This is what I think makes you a Data Scientist.”

Mark: “One of my Data Science lecturers said something that has stuck with me; that one of the things that can make a good data scientist is a bit of a hacker mentality, being willing to take different parts of technologies and tools and bolt them together to get the job done. You don’t necessarily have to be an expert in everything, so long as you know how to use the right bits in the right way. Beyond that, I think the ability to listen and empathise is important; when you are designing a solution for a field which is not your own, it is crucial to be able to understand what is important to the people who are experts in that field.”

Penny: “An attention to detail, good listening and questioning skills
to understand what the problem is. Ideas, creativity and ability to create beautiful
solutions. A sense of humour to deal with a diverse set of stakeholders and
finally, communication skills, ownership and patience to see your vision


The Data Lab has been a fantastic thing to be apart of. They give so much information and support to students and make you feel like you can achieve anything and everything.


What advice would you give for others considering doing The Data Lab MSc?

Cara: “DO IT! The Data Lab has been a fantastic thing to be apart of. They give so much information and support to students and make you feel like you can achieve anything and everything. So please if you are ever considering do it. I was an undergraduate with no idea what she was going to do and then The Data Lab appeared and I do not regret it one bit.”

Mark: “I would thoroughly recommend participating in as many of the Data Lab events as you can. They are excellent opportunities to begin to participate in the data science community, and to learn about all the different areas in which data science is making a difference. Some people can be daunted by the ‘soft’ skills which are such a crucial part of data science, but they are skills which can be learned and practiced like any other, and I would advise anyone not to be deterred by that aspect of the programme!”

Penny: “Taken directly from, ‘The Agents of Shield’, “The steps you take don’t need to be big. They just need to take you in the right direction.” I’ve no regrets, it’s lots of hard work, my class are amazing and I’m excited about discovering my next challenge. Your first step is to sign up!”

We have 155 fully funded MSc’s available with 11 Scottish Universities for the 2018/19 academic year. Find out more about our MSc courses.


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