MSc / Postgraduate Diploma in the Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants
An informed understanding of plant diversity and resources has never been more important. Environmental surveys and effective conservation strategies depend upon detailed knowledge of plants and fungi in their habitats. To communicate such knowledge accurately and effectively, hands-on training is required in plant taxonomy, the discipline devoted to plant diversity, relationships and nomenclature.
This programme is run jointly by the University and the world-renowned Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). The RBGE is home to one of the world’s best living collections of plants (15,000 species across four sites, amounting to five per cent of known world species), a herbarium of three million preserved specimens, including bryophytes, fungi and lichens and one of the UK’s most comprehensive botanical libraries.
RBGE offers collections-based biodiversity research opportunities across a wide spectrum of organisms and geographical regions. This diversity, coupled with the RBGE’s world-leading research in different continents, provides an unrivalled masters programme in plant biodiversity.
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Demand for taxonomic expertise arises from many professional fields, other than systematics research itself. These include among others:
- survey and conservation work in threatened ecosystems
- assessment of plant resources and genetic diversity
- medical and pharmaceutical research and applications
- ethnobotanical research
- agricultural and ecosystem research
- geology and soil sciences
- landscape assessment and design
- conservation policy
- forensic science
- basic research
- management of institutes and curation of collections
- university and college teaching
Currently this market is served by a number of providers on various levels:
- specialist consultants
- expert scientists in taxonomic research institutions
- in-house specialists
There are few dedicated training courses that equip future experts to address the problems of taxonomy using a methodology that satisfies the demand identified above. A diversity of approaches exists to provide teaching and training in plant systematics and classification, with some universities offering undergraduate courses in plant systematics.
These are mostly academic rather than practical in emphasis. Where post-graduate courses are on offer, access to either teaching staff or well-documented collections is restricted by imperfect infrastructure (e.g. distance between teaching establishment and collections).
The Edinburgh MSc programme in the Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants, organised jointly by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh, has successfully provided such training since 1992. It can accommodate 16 MSc students per year. The programme has been rated world class and the very best of its kind by a recent education review of the garden.
Aims and Scope of the Edinburgh Programme
Forming a bridge between traditional and modern approaches, this programme equips students with a wide knowledge of plant diversity and its investigation, combined with instruction in the methods of pure and applied taxonomy. The programme consists of formal instruction, practical work, essays, research projects and tutorials covering the following major areas:
- functions and philosophy of taxonomy
- evolution and biodiversity of the major plant groups, fungi and lichens
- plant geography
- conservation strategies and monitoring
- cladistics and phylogenetic analysis
- morphology and evolutionary developmental genetics
- use and scope of molecular taxonomic methods
- production and use of floras and monographs
- use of computers in handling and processing data
- population genetics and conservation
- field research and plant collecting
- curation of living collections, herbaria and libraries
- managing and funding taxonomic institutes
There are also workshops or training sessions on the practical aspects of the following: identification, cytology, plant-parasite interactions, pollination ecology, molecular methods, herbarium techniques, and bibliographic methodology. Visits to other plant research institutions are arranged.
Fieldwork is carried out during a 14-day field course in a tropical country, currently Colombia in January. The field trip, together with supporting training, and a short practical exam qualifies students for the RBGE Certificate in Practical Field Botany.
This field course is a unique opportunity for students to encounter a tropical flora and to get experience in the tropical plant families in a pragmatic way.
The programme lasts 12 months and involves two terms of lectures, practicals, workshops and investigations, ending with examinations at the end of term (December) and during the first week of the summer term (April).
On the basis of these exams and other programme-work, students then either embark on a four-month research project to qualify for the MSc, or proceed to a third term of taxonomic study and essay-writing to be awarded the Diploma.
Most of the lectures and practicals take place at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Some teaching also takes place at the University science campus around three miles to the south.
The programme is continually reviewed. Full details on the programme and all the modules within each year can be found in the Applicant's Handbook which is downloadable form the 'Downloads' box on the right.
Countries of origin of students to date
Whilst a large proportion of applicants come from the United Kingdom, the programme has instructed students from 22 overseas countries including biodiversity-rich countries.
Many students have to find their own sources of funding. Overseas students have obtained funding, amongst others, through the British Council, overseas development programmes, such as the Darwin Initiative, the Shell Centenary award, the Alban Programme for Latin American students and the Rotary Club. The Friends of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Sibbald Trust support the programme financially. The University of Edinburgh also offers scholarships to EU/UK students.
Careers of past students
To date over 150 students have completed the programme. Of these, the majority found medium or long term employment in taxonomy, and many have continued to PhD studies. Although the programme is not a guarantee for future employment, it has facilitated access to various jobs in the past - at research institutions, councils, conservation agencies etc.
Applicants should have a university degree, or its equivalent, in a biological or environmental science. Relevant work experience is desirable. Evidence of proficiency in English must be provided if this is not the applicant's first language.
Further information and application forms can be obtained here.
For further information, also see the webpage for the programme on the University of Edinburgh website.
How to Apply
You will need to complete an online application which includes references, transcripts and other supporting documents.
Applications must be submitted through the University's online application service, EUCLID. The application does not have to be completed in one session - you can save your progress and return to complete the application at another time.
Your application will require supporting information, with translations where applicable, including: a curriculum vitae (CV) detailing your relevant professional experience, including email addresses of your previous employers a transcript of your degree certificate, or an interim transcript if you are yet to graduate, which provides details of degree examinations passed and the marks and grades awarded transcripts of professional qualifications, if applicable two academic references on headed paper including both the referee's address and email address (the referee can also choose to send this separately to the University) an English language certificate from within the last two years, if applicable Personal statement.
We also advise you to include a personal statement. You should aim to include the following information:
What is your motivation for undertaking this programme and what information can you provide in support of this?
What skills and experience do you have relevant to this programme, what contribution can you make?
How will this programme benefit your future career plans?