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Internship insights: how to find and get one as a PhD student.

guest blogger6 September 2018

Internships are increasingly being seen as a valuable addition to PhD training. In fact a report commissioned by the Government recommended that, “All full‐time PhD students should have an opportunity to experience at least one 8 to 12 week internship during their period of study” (Wilson Review, 2012, p.8). But how do you go about getting one? And how do you convince your supervisors if they’re not so keen? Fran Harkness, PhD student at the MRC Unit of Lifelong Health and Ageing lets us in on her insights.  

I did an internship in the MRC External Affairs team March-June this year. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve since been asked if I’m being paid to persuade other students to go on one by demonic internship overlords? Anyway, as I had to do the hard work of understanding how to get one, I hope that I’ve managed to clarify the process a bit for you. Good luck!

Research it. Think about what you want to get out of this time. I was interested in science policy so it made sense to apply to the Academy of Medical Sciences policy internship scheme. Research councils have links with many organisations. You could intern with the Royal Institution to plan their Christmas lecture. The UKRI scheme sponsors students to get insight into areas as diverse as the civil service, Age UK, and Public Health England. Alternatively you could apply for funding to work in a research unit abroad to pick up new skills and ideas in your own field.

Take time over your application. You need to collate your CV, a statement of interest, and often a fresh piece of work, plus signature from your supervisor. I’d broach the latter first. Don’t do what I did once and stall asking your primary supervisor for so long that it’s now the day of admission and she surprisingly isn’t looking at her emails in Chamonix. That was after I’d spent, I mean wasted, five days writing a government POST note far out of my subject area for the application. On my second application I’d mortifyingly left in a note to myself in blank space after my essay. Proofreading doesn’t take that long.

Convince your supervisors part 1. My stalling behaviour was partly fuelled by anxiety that mine would say no. Your supervisors want to support you to finish on time and may believe that an internship will derail this ambition. Many schemes include a funded extension but their worry is that any absence breaks your flow and delays finish time. Reassuringly, researchers from the University of California found that interns don’t take any longer to graduate, despite halting their programme entirely during the three months. My experience has been that my internship returned me to a mental state helpful for finishing: professional, confident and newly reminded of the point of my research.

Convince your supervisors part 2. Like being asked by my parents to plan how I was going to take the bus into town by myself for the first time, my panel had kindly reservations for me to consider. They requested that I talk to previous interns about the benefits and challenges and how I would overcome the latter. They also asked that I continue to work on my thesis during my internship and that I take it up towards the end of my PhD so that there wasn’t too much write-up hanging over my head. Those last two things didn’t end up happening, but by this time I’m already on the bus into town and nobody minds.

Apply! With your head stuck in a stats problem or down a microscope you may forget that you have time for an internship. Look up and remember that your PhD is a training opportunity for the real world. You can gain new skills, meet contacts, and learn of roles you didn’t realise existed. It can help you get a job afterwards. At the Academy of Medical Sciences every single policy advisor I spoke to had done an internship there during their PhD. I know someone whose internship was so successful she’s now working part time for that organisation whilst finishing her PhD. On top of all this they’re great fun. Go on!