Should you get work experience during the PhD?

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September 30, 2012 by researchertransitions

(Ok, I’m cheating a bit already and posting a blog I wrote for work with a few revisions to make it suitable for a wider audience. I think its relevant here!)

Getting some sort of internship or work experience during your postgraduate studies could be really useful, especially if you are thinking of moving outside of academia.  It can be a way of:

– developing additional skills that will make you more competitive for both academic or non-academic jobs

– getting a taste of different work environments in order to help you decide what your next step will be

– building/expanding your professional networks

– building your confidence

If you have looked into getting an internship, you may have discovered that many formal placements are during the summer for a block period of time. As a PhD student this is often difficult: depending on your supervisor, you might be expected to be in the lab or office on a daily basis. Even if you work from home or the library, there will likely be deadlines to meet throughout the long vacation.

One research council has decided that non-academic work experience should be an integral part of the PhD.From October 2012, BBSRC funded PhDs will take part in the Professional Internships for DPhil Students (PIPS) Programme.  At the University of Oxford, the Careers Service is involved with piloting this scheme – more information here.

It may be that more research councils decide they want to build work experience into the PhD programme and opportunities for internships increase. To give you an idea of whether it might be worth looking out for opportunities, or creating your own opportunities, I’ll tell you a bit about my own experience as an intern during my PhD. I have to admit, I was lucky enough to be at a university where several internships specifically for Humanities postgraduates were arranged and supported by graduate school staff, but there are ways of getting experience without this set-up – I offer some advice on this towards the end of the blog.

My internship was at Nottingham Contemporary, which had recently opened.  My role was to assist with public programming for an exhibition called Uneven Geographies, adding a final event to the programme and assisting with other events. With another intern, I produced a pamphlet and blog of responses to the exhibition with the assistance of local school children, teenagers, an artist, a poet and an academic, and held an interactive event on the theme of ‘Towards an Even Geography.’ In addition to this project, I was asked to lead a Q&A with an academic speaker at a different event.

So what did I get out of my internship?

–           It gave me practice in writing a CV and cover letter and in performing at a job interview (to get the internship I had to develop an event idea, give a short presentation about my ideas and answer questions from a three person panel). Prior to the internship, it had been four years since I’d applied for a job or had an interview.

–           My confidence grew during the internship. For example, whilst I was terrified at the prospect of interviewing the academic speaker in front of the public, it went really well.

–           I improved my organisational, team-working, problem solving, interpersonal and networking skills.

–           It helped me to see the relevance of my PhD in a wider context and in that way gave me new energy for the final year of putting together my thesis.

–           It gave me a passion for public engagement, motivating me to initiate an AHRC Beyond Text project that involved public engagement and, more recently, run some workshops related to my PhD research for a local charity.

–           It gave me an idea of what else I could do as an alternative to academia. Following my internship I explored events management and arts administration career possibilities. Ultimately my enjoyment of engaging with diverse individuals and groups led me to my current career choice as a Careers Adviser.

–           It provided me with a recent non-academic referee.

There is no way of proving that my internship helped me to get my first interview after the PhD but it was certainly prominent on my CV alongside the AHRC project that partly stemmed from it, and my previous teaching and volunteer youth work experience. Also, I feel it started me on the path towards my current job – it helped me to realise I was good at networking and engaging people.

These skills and benefits can be accrued in many different ways, not just through formal internships.  Indeed, it will likely look good to employers if you have proactively sought out and organised your own work experience opportunities during the PhD.

So where should you start?

–           Search your Careers Service job board for internships, work experience, part-time or temporary roles. There are sometimes shorter internships that you might be able to fit around your studies. There will likely be part-time opportunities like editing or tutoring.

–           Use your own contacts (or contacts of contacts) or see if your alumni/development office can help you get in touch with alumni in the sectors that interest you. Get in touch with a clear statement of your shared interests; once you’re in conversation, explore work experience opportunities.

–           Think about what you can do, and for whom you can do something. For instance, could you use your research expertise to offer freelance consulting to another business or organisation? Be proactive and find out who could benefit from your insight. Or, could you organise an event for a local museum, gallery or community centre? They might not be able to pay you, but you could inquire if there was any possibility of a small budget if they like the idea and it fits well with the rest of their programme.

–           Consider applying for small academic grants (from your department, a research council or professional association) to fund a seminar series, public engagement initiative, network or resource. These projects could enhance your skills and confidence in a similar way to an internship.

–           Look out for paid work opportunities in your department and elsewhere in the university: can you be a research assistant to one of the lecturers? Are any of the academic staff developing their own networks/conferences/seminar series and do they need some help? Could you provide training for peers or undergrads? Could the administrative staff use an extra pair of hands at busy times of year? Occasional work like this could be a way of earning pocket money, new skills and a broader understanding of what its like to be an academic or work in academic administration.

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