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Doctoral placements are a thing!

Written by Naomi Howard – Doctoral Researcher (School of Science – Chemistry)

It may come as a surprise to some that doctoral researchers can go on industrial placements. It certainly wasn’t something I was aware of. In this blog post, I talk about my career journey to date, how the placement I undertook from January to March of 2019 has helped me think about my next steps and why it’s something I would recommend others consider.

My career journey so far

My final year undergraduate project is definitely where my passion for lab work and a quest for in depth knowledge really took hold. Upon completing my BSc, I decided to progress onto a research-based masters and after completing this, a PhD was the natural next step.  So it wasn’t until some 4 years later, in the second year of my PhD, when some leaflets from the Careers Network found their way to our office, that I even considered what it was that I wanted to do next. My doctorate research had occupied so much of my time that I had failed to expand my thought process to the next step. I am particularly goal orientated and benefit from solid action plans. But I had somehow gotten this far with no post doctorate goal. I had managed to forget that there’s a big wide world outside of my research project.  

After some light research into potential jobs, it seemed that I was approaching a fork in the road; my next career decision appeared to be one between academia or industry. It then dawned on me that since leaving school almost a decade ago, my only real work experience had been in academic, postgraduate environments – environments with a high level of camaraderie and a blind-eye turned on the days when you turn up in a tracksuit! This left me feeling grossly under qualified to make a decision on which direction to take.

For me, my PhD was ideal. Allowing me the flexibility I needed by enabling me to manage my own time, experiments and workflow. But was this bubble actually representative of real life? Was I nearing the end of working in this manner? Would I be best suited to stay in the familiar grounds of academia or to change things up for the more fast-paced, business focused environment of industry? I simply didn’t have the answers to all the questions in my mind. So when the opportunity arose to undertake an industrial placement it felt like the perfect chance to get the answer I needed.

My expectations 

I didn’t arrive at my chemistry PhD through the most traditional route, namely I didn’t study chemistry for my undergrad. So I’ve always felt like I’ve been playing catch up with my skill set and knowledge compared to both my peers and qualification level.

I had also only worked in academic labs and was yet to use my chemistry qualifications in a professional environment. Moreover, at the time the placement opportunity presented itself, and I hate to sound cliché, I was experiencing the Second Year Blues, and my research just wasn’t quite going to plan.

Going into my placement I had three goals in mind, firstly to gain some analytical skills and experience as I hoped this would be beneficial to bring back to my own research and would also bulk out my CV. Secondly, I wanted to see first-hand a typical working environment for professional, industry chemists while taking part in meaningful projects to see some real-world applications of the theories I’d learnt about. And lastly, I simply wanted a bit of a change of scene, hopefully to enable me to return to my own work refreshed and remotivated.

My suitability

When I spotted the advertisements for the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) funded Innovation Placements for doctoral researchers I was intrigued. The placements were fully funded to match stipend payments and could also cover travel expenses where required. This meant they could be undertaken without adding any financial pressure which to me was really important. They were also available all over the Midlands, with a variety of companies, in a range of fields. The placement I applied for was in Loughborough, which meant it didn’t involve a temporary relocation or long commute.

One reason that postgraduate placements aren’t commonplace, is that PhD schedules are relatively tight.  Many students find themselves extending their writing period beyond their initial funding dates, so the thought of leaving your lab and research for several months can seem daunting. To attend my placement I had to apply for a leave of absence, which paused my PhD. This allowed me to undertake the placement without using up my doctorate funding or time.

My experiences

During my placement I was trained on several pieces of lab equipment which gave me the opportunity to gain hands on experience and broaden my analytical skills. I was able to experience a professional working environment enabling me to grow in my understanding of workplace culture. I particularly enjoyed dressing smartly every day, I think it helped me feel like I was there to get the job done. I also enjoyed participating in casual Fridays and the weekly coffee mornings. It was refreshing to feel out of my comfort zone and having to revisit some latent communication skills such as explicitly asking for help and support or to have something explained to a second or even third time. I also experienced a new commercial awareness and the differences in atmosphere and expectations when you’re working towards a realised commercial goal.

The placement did give me some respite from the intense world that is PhD research. In turn, and almost counter intuitively it gave me the headspace to work through some issues with my own research and to clarify a few plans in my mind. I came away with an array of skills to add to my CV and the added bonus of some new friends too!

Ultimately, I still don’t have a clearly defined path or even career goals in mind for after my PhD. Several recent global events have forced me to consider more than ever which causes are close to my heart and where and what I can see myself contributing to and investing time in during the next stages of my life. I do however feel in a better place than before, and the additional experiences will certainly only be beneficial in helping me make future career-based decisions. My placement was a wholly positive experience, one that I will not forget quickly and would wholeheartedly recommend to others.

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