Doing a media internship during her Ph.D. training confirmed for Michelle Reeve (left) that she wanted to go into science communication when she graduated—and helped her land a job.

Paul Wilkinson Photography

Through internships, Ph.D. students expand their skills and explore their options

Mark Richardson was one semester away from receiving his climate science Ph.D. at the University of Reading when he left the lab—temporarily—for a 3-month policy internship in 2014. His time at the U.K. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), during which he helped write a four-page brief about international efforts to reduce deforestation ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, was a tremendous learning experience, says Richardson, who is now a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “Every big experience has a chance to change how you see the world and how you feel about it and the skills you have.”

Through the internship, Richardson honed his ability to quickly home in on important information, which now allows him to make the most of the short time he has to connect with others at conferences, he says. He strengthened his writing skills and ability to deal with feedback. “Getting 30 different reviews from different backgrounds and then having to go through it with your supervisor line by line and defend everything you’ve done, it’s certainly changed how I write papers and how I communicate with co-authors,” Richardson says. Being exposed to different topics and a range of stakeholders—including company representatives, policymakers, and nongovernmental organizations—helped him become more well-rounded, he continues. And attending parliamentary sessions gave him “a real … appreciation for compromise and trying to listen to and understand people and where they might be coming from.”

The experience also helped him during his job search. When putting together a research proposal as part of an application, “everything I learned about formulating and planning and communicating in a non-science-nerd way helped,” he says. He also gained experience doing panel interviews as part of his internship application. And once he got offers, his experience working somewhere other than his Ph.D. lab put him in a better position to make informed decisions. Working at POST reinforced “my general interest in being able to do a variety of things,” he explains, adding that he chose his post at JPL because it offered more freedom to do that. Looking to the future, he feels that the range of skills that he developed during his internship make him a more attractive candidate for an industry or consulting job if he decides to go that route later in his career.

Richardson’s internship opportunity came through an optional program offered by his funding agency, the Natural Environment Research Council. This type of internship for doctoral students is still the exception rather than the rule, but it is becoming more common, particularly in Europe. The specifics vary, but participants’ reflections offer a common theme: The experiences are valuable and rewarding, whether the student plans to leave academia or not.

Internship enrichment

Michelle Reeve knew from the start that she was interested in doing an internship as part of her Ph.D. training in spider locomotion at the Royal Veterinary College. That’s one of the reasons she applied for a studentship funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which in 2012 began requiring funded students to do a 3-month internship unrelated to their research. According to Rob Hardwick, senior innovation and skills manager at BBSRC in Swindon, U.K., the BBSRC Professional Internships for PhD Students (PIPS) aim “to develop transferable skills in the students, which perhaps they wouldn’t develop as part of a normal Ph.D., and also to raise their awareness of other career opportunities outside the lab, outside research, recognizing that most students in the longer run will not stay in academia.” To date, approximately 1000 students have done a PIPS placement, with another 660 in the pipeline, Hardwick estimates.

Reeve spent her 2014 internship at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (Ri), where she helped produce the Christmas Lectures that are broadcast every year on national TV. “I wanted to know whether it was something that I would enjoy full time, and I came away knowing that it was,” says Reeve, who took a publications officer job at the Institution of Environmental Sciences in London after submitting her Ph.D. in October 2016. She believes that having one of her managers at the Ri as a reference and learning how to stick to brand publication guidelines helped her secure the position. “It is a difficult transition coming away from academia into a job because employers don’t necessarily know what skills you can bring, … so having that internship and kind of doing a normal job, I think that definitely helps,” Reeve says. The internship also taught her how to work across different teams and got her used to “having to get to work at 9 o’clock,” she adds.

Perhaps counterintuitively, completing the internship also put her in a better position to see her doctorate through. “When I started my Ph.D., I was having a few issues, and having the time away from it [allowed me] to work through them almost subconsciously, so when I went back, I had some fresh ideas on how to approach the problem,” Reeve says. Having clarified her career plans and gained the support of scientists who had made the same transition also helped her refocus, she adds.

The 600 or so completion reports that BBSRC has received so far echo Reeve’s experience. Students highlight teamwork and communication among the most important skills they gained, Hardwick says. And “there are signs that, yes, [doing an internship] does influence the way [that Ph.D. students] think about their careers and possibly even land them some jobs,” he adds.

In France, all Ph.D. candidates with a doctoral contract are entitled to take up to 32 days a year away from the lab to do paid work in teaching, science communication, technology transfer, or consulting—an option which Rym Boudjemaa took advantage of. Through her Ph.D. supervisor, Boudjemaa—a Ph.D. candidate in physical chemistry at the Institut des Sciences Moléculaires d’Orsay in Paris—heard about a bladder cancer diagnosis startup that needed a literature review about fluorescence. Doing the consulting work allowed her to become more familiar with industry culture, where the need to respect confidentiality and “get results very fast” is very important, she says. The project also taught her “how to communicate with people that are not necessarily aware of the specific details” of the science behind a company product, she adds. The experience helped her confirm her decision to work in industry once she completes her Ph.D. in September, and it boosted her CV and professional network, she adds.

The challenges of fitting an internship into a Ph.D. can also generate creative solutions to balancing lab and internship responsibilities, with potential mutual benefits. Boudjemaa decided to stay in the lab to have access to the library and continue with her experiments while doing her consulting work, which required her to sharpen her organization and time management skills, she says. The work also paid some direct dividends for her graduate research. “It gave me ideas for my own experiments,” she says.

Create your own opportunity

As these stories demonstrate, completing an internship as part of your research training can be a great career development opportunity. “Even if you want to stay in academia … it just adds a different dimension to the Ph.D.,” Reeve says. She recommends that all Ph.D. candidates do an internship, though she acknowledges that arranging a good time to leave the lab for several months can be stressful.

If your funder or institution doesn’t offer specific programs, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have options. Other funding agencies, institutions, charities, and professional bodies may offer the opportunities you’re looking for. To name just a few European examples, The Nuffield Foundation in the United Kingdom supports doctoral internships at POST, the British Science Association offers media fellowships, and the German Bundestag and three Berlin universities jointly run an International Parliamentary Scholarships scheme. And some nonprofit and industry employers have their own internship programs; Microsoft, for example, offers internships open to students all over the world. You can also try to create your own opportunity by asking your personal and professional networks, meeting employers at career fairs, or volunteering.

Interested students must consider how they will secure the necessary funding, which may be negotiated with the employer or in some cases provided by your university, funding body, or professional society. “The students would have to do their homework and understand what pots of money are available … to support these sorts of training activities,” Hardwick says. It is important to make sure that your doctoral contract or university agreement and research funding allow you to take the time away.

You must also talk with your supervisor about whether they are comfortable with you leaving the lab for a while. In places where there is no culture of internships, students are likely to encounter resistance from their supervisor. “It’d probably be an easier sell to start with if it was a research-relevant placement, so going to a company to do some research activity [or to] a policy setting perhaps where they can apply their research in different ways” can be good options, Hardwick says. Highlighting the opportunity for your supervisor to expand their network and collaborate with industry may also help convince them, Boudjemaa suggests.

For students who want to pursue nonresearch internships, “they’d have to really prepare a case as to why that is important to their development as an individual and … how it benefits their supervisor and the delivery of the Ph.D.,” Hardwick says. Students who want to do a teaching internship, for example, could emphasize how the experience will allow them to improve their communication and presentation skills, which will be valuable if they end up deciding to take the academic route, he says.

However excited a student is about an internship, it’s essential to never lose sight of the bottom line: their research. Richardson notes that his supervisor was supportive, but “I imagine that had I been in a situation where my Ph.D. was struggling, he would have legitimately told me to focus on the Ph.D.,” he adds. As a doctoral candidate, “that’s the number one thing” you have to do.

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