Reflections – My Parliamentary Internship Experience

Daniel AmundFinding a placement can often be challenging however the opportunity to embark on a placement is one we always recommend. In our opinion, if you are a student or early career graduate seeking that dream job, if you get the chance to embark on a placement, grab it with both hands! In today’s post, Dr Daniel Amund, Academic Mentor at London Metropolitan University, London, UK shares his internship experience at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) highlighting the benefits of an internship.

During the third year of my PhD, I applied for and was awarded a POST fellowship. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) is the UK Parliament’s in-house source of scientific advice, providing parliamentarians with balanced and accessible analysis of policy issues related to science and technology. POST runs several fellowship schemes funded by various Research Councils, charities and learned societies, which allow PhD students to spend three months working as POST fellows. Most fellows research, write and publish POSTnotes, which are four-page briefing papers summarising public policy issues, based on reviews of literature and interviews with academic, government and industry stakeholders.

My experience of working in Parliament during my PhD was very enjoyable and rewarding. It was refreshing to be able to take a step back from my PhD research, and focus on researching a different topic, using different methods in a different environment. That ‘break’ was beneficial because when I went back to writing my thesis, I had a fresh perspective and was able to utilise the skills I had developed to improve my thesis. Having to condense a lot of information into a four-page document that had to be accessible to non-scientists helped me develop my writing and communication skills, which helped in communicating my ideas better in my doctoral thesis.

Aside from the renewed vigour, clarity and focus that can be derived from an internship, there are added benefits such as CV development and networking opportunities. These may sound like a cliché, but they are rather important. My fellowship at POST was the most significant piece of work experience I had on my CV while I was a student, as the other jobs on my CV had been mainly casual student jobs at University, as well as some voluntary work. I should mention that these were by no means a waste of time, as my interview for the POST fellowship demonstrated as some of the questions were focused around my casual and voluntary roles.

However, having the POST fellowship on my CV has meant that I can use the range of transferable skills I gained in demonstrating how I meet the person specification when applying for jobs. Furthermore, the POSTnote counts for me as a publication which is not only satisfying and something to be pleased about, it is also a good career plus! Keep in mind that internships also serve as a point of discussion in job interviews as my experience shows.

During my fellowship, I interacted with various people, including other POST fellows and staff, and got to take part in various events within and outside Parliament, all of which served to broaden my horizons and expand my networks. As a POST alumnus, I have been invited to attend POST events, and I get informed of job opportunities within the field of science policy. My experience at POST has also directly or indirectly availed me of opportunities to attend other events in Parliament, such as Parliamentary Links Day, Voice of the Future, and SET for Britain. Networking at one of such events has led to me being involved in an annual international youth science conference, as a speaker and as a poster judge!

The networks built during internships could turn out to be the most significant networks for the early stages of your career after graduation. Employers often write references for interns in support of job applications, or may inform interns of vacancies within their companies or in other companies. Networking is definitely not just about who you know, but about who knows you.

Internships provide opportunities for students to put themselves out there, in professional environments, so that they get noticed by those who matter, in addition to gaining valuable knowledge and experience. Doing an internship could also inform students of the various career options available to them in their subject disciplines. In my case, the POST fellowship revealed other career options for scientists, outside of academia and industry.

Internships and work placements are a great way to enhance employability upon graduation. I highly recommend students to take up such opportunities, be they short-term or year-long (sandwich) placements.

Finally, how did I find out about my internship? I got to know about the POST fellowship as a result of being a member of the society that sponsored my fellowship! Thus, membership of relevant professional bodies or learned societies can be useful in securing an internship or placement. This I highly recommend as professional bodies and learned societies are a great source of incredibly useful resources, information and support.

If you would like to find out more about internships and how to take advantage of them, please contact us. In addition, if you have questions for Dr Amund about the POST fellowship, you can email us for details or better still, find him on LinkedIn. If you enjoyed reading this article, please share and follow! We would love to share your stories in The Hub as well so do get in touch – info@aspiringprofessionalshub.com.  

CareerChat – Science careers; Thinking outside the lab coat!

MicroscopeFinal exams…check, dissertation and viva…check…graduation…loading! What’s your next step? For recent graduates and undergraduates, are you aware of the varied career options available to you? In today’s job market, it is important to know what employment ‘doors’ your degree can open for you. It isn’t always what you think though. In today’s article, Gabriele Butkute, discusses non-lab based career options for science graduates.

If you are a final year student, you will be familiar with the question “so, what are you doing after you graduate?” You are getting frustrated just by reading that, aren’t you? Some people have known what they want to do since their first day at University and have never changed their minds. However, most of us aren’t that lucky (?) – we have a vague idea of our future career, but as our studies progress we see the picture in our head change, often causing a fair bit of anxiety because you had it ‘all figured out’ and now you feel lost.

It has been almost a year since I graduated. I might not be totally sure of what I am supposed to be or who I am supposed to become (which are very different things). Currently I am working as a Marketing and Student Enterprise intern within a Science Faculty at a University. Prior to that, I worked as an Events Assistant at a Learned Society. Both jobs have been very interesting and I believe that is the direction I would like to further my career in.

Occasionally, when I tell somebody that I studied Biomedical Science but I don’t fancy working in the lab, they look at me like I am crazy, or worse, they pity me, thinking that I am a failure (I did get a first class degree though!). These preconceptions hurt your confidence and create self-doubt, but also might tempt you to try and get a job in a setting that you don’t like, just to “fit in your degree title”. Not everybody will understand. It’s ok. Just move on and do your thing. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should do – it something feels off, it probably is.

Universities often also (subconsciously) contribute to the prejudice by not talking openly about all career options for science students. Many, or maybe even most, people enter a science degree hoping to work in a research environment, particularly medical and biological sciences. However, what often gets left out is the fact that the skills you have developed at university can be used in more than just one discipline.

Image courtesy of Gabriele Butkute
Image courtesy of Gabriele Butkute

Not all of us are made for lab work and it doesn’t mean we love science any less. Some people simply want to explore other career options where scientific knowledge and skills are crucial or at least desired, but doesn’t involve directly working in a lab. Even if you do love the hours pouring agar, counting bacterial colonies or running gel electrophoresis, you might want to look a bit broader, just in case. The job market is tough, data collected and published by Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU) makes this much clearer. The average science graduate unemployment in 2012/13 was 7.3%, which is higher than UK average, 6%. Biology graduates faced 9.4% unemployment, and 21.9% of those who did manage to get a job worked in retail, catering or as bar staff.

Thinking more broadly will stop you from limiting yourself and will help identify your true skills and strengths. How about a career in intellectual property law? This niche area of commercial law might be just right for people who want to pursue a science career in a more commercial, legal setting. Think of it as protecting creativity. All new biological inventions, such as therapies, assays or devices need patenting, licensing and commercialising and scientific knowledge comes into play.

For the ‘less commercial’ souls, it might be worth looking into teaching or science communication sector. Teachers themselves call it the best job in the world. It will surprise you how many educational charities there are that could use your enthusiasm alongside the knowledge of science. Science communication is such a broad field, that you can certainly find something that would make you want to get up in the morning and go to work: from outreach and policy to journalism and publishing (and many things in between).

You might be wondering how to get those jobs. From personal experience at an interview for an Events Assistant role at a Learned Society, they didn’t seem to concentrate on the grades I got (although I am sure if they had been bad, there would have been no interview to begin with). It’s the extra bits and pieces that count, now more than ever. Maybe you were a part of a student society, did some volunteering or wrote for a student newspaper. For example, in addition to my current job, I also started a blog for interns of my Faculty where I work. I love blogging. I get a kick out of checking out all the different layouts, colours and making it all look neat. I have also blogged about the Enterprise Educators UK conference I attended and they shared my blog posts on their webpage and social media. It’s great experience. And when I get asked about my writing and social media skills during an interview – here’s one more thing I can say.

The kind of competition that we have out there, just being good at your job and doing a nine-to-five probably won’t be enough. It’s just not the culture we have anymore. You are supposed to be passionate (just don’t use that word in a cover letter, huge cliché). Finding a job that is fulfilling, pays enough, has career prospects and ticks all other imaginary job requirement boxes might take a while. It probably won’t be your first, or second or even third job. But if you figure out what you want and systematically work towards it, it will come eventually (or at least that’s what I am telling myself).

You are a product and you need to sell your skills. One career pathway isn’t better than the other, it’s about finding what suits you and being open minded about changing your own preconceptions about yourself.

Gabriele B HeadshotAbout our writer – Gabriele graduated with a first class degree in Biomedical Science from London Metropolitan University. She previously worked as an Events Assistant for the Society of Biology. She currently works as a Marketing and Student Enterprise intern within the Faculty of Life Sciences, London Metropolitan University. She writes at gabrielebutkute.com.

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Reflections – My journey towards global relevance

Personal development? Professional development? – These are terms that we hear quite often but what do they really mean to you as an individual? Is it simply about developing your skills or does it entail something more? In this ‘Reflections’ piece, Blessing Obinaju expatiates on this topic by sharing her journey of personal and professional development.

Finding your feet in the murky waters of global relevance.’ I recently read this article again on The Aspiring Professionals’ Hub. I will refrain from rehashing the entire message of the article because I want to concentrate on these particular points;

Begin with the end in mind – This is our mantra on the Aspiring Professional’s hub. In your field of study, area of business interest or chosen career, is there anyone, business or role model in that position you aspire to be in worldwide? Knowing something about the journey to their attainment or achievement could be a starting guide for you to start a plan for your own global attainment. These days it is not so hard to learn about global figures when you have Google and in most cases these global stars are on social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter or have personal websites.

Have a plan – of your own for that career, design, business or idea BUT with a global audience in mind. For example, if you are choosing a course at University, think broadly about how relevant that course is another country or even worldwide before deciding. If creating a business plan, can that business service a need in another town, state, country, continent beyond your current location? So we suggest in whatever your goals or targets, THINK GLOBALLY.

Finally, personal development is catching fire within Africa. I do remember when I made the decision to pursue a career in academia; I was in my third year studying for an undergraduate degree. I remember the responses I received when I mentioned I was going into teaching. I also remember that to most of my peers at the time, it was the joke of the century.

What is my point?

I was perhaps fortunate to have found my first footing in the murky waters – deciding for myself what I wanted and who I wished to become. It would have been easy to have abandoned that footing simply because it was criticized. Why didn’t I? Well, I wasn’t looking at the immediate moment, I was looking at the end goal, as the article aptly stated, I was beginning with the end in mind.

So, how did I crack on?

I was privileged to have had close relatives who were already in the field. Thus, it was easy to research the steps required to attain the height I envisioned. I devised my plan (including options for any derailment or obstacles) and relentlessly followed it. Of course, nothing ever goes strictly according to a laid out plot – it wouldn’t be life if it did. However, what happens when you have a plan is, there is a calculated margin of what I love to call “happen-stance”: occurrences that take you by absolute surprise, frustrate and completely throw you off your path. I’ am sure that some of you are stomping your feet at this moment and screaming ‘Provide us with a detailed breakdown.’  I won’t tease you longer. For those of you who are Nigerians, you will be able to follow the path more closely. I wouldn’t be an academic if this piece had no schematics. So, here’s the plan and I am happy to say I am currently in the last phase.

Image courtesy of Blessing Obinaju.
Image courtesy of Blessing Obinaju.

So, how has this impacted me, re: global relevance? First, one of my most cited papers as an academic is the very first article I published shortly after my M.Sc. This and the various presentations at conferences during the Ph.D., have been quite relevant to placing my feet firmly on the cobbled stones that help us cross the waters which divide relevance and insignificance. As an academic or an aspiring academic, you can never attend enough conference, workshops or seminars in your field. More importantly, my academic experience and my ability to continuously adapt my plans to fit my goals – despite challenges that the world would always throw my way –  resulted in a book – The DANCE of Life: A guide to living your best life every day. It has also opened opportunities to share my experience as a STEM ambassador for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network as well as in several other forums.

There were some critical control steps in my plan;

Location, location, location – Even though I gained my Master’s degree from a country other than that where I currently hold lectureship position, there was no debate over whether or not I should return to my home country upon completion of the degree. It was more of a forgone conclusion because I knew I was aiming for a lectureship position in my home country and that position would pay for the Ph.D.

Think long term – Notice that my very first job was a volunteer opportunity (yes, it was in Nigeria!). The point of this was, while I was job hunting for academic positions, the volunteer position which was still an education role, ensured that there was no gap period on my CV and I gained additional work experience.

My candid recommendation

Never underestimate the value of internships and do not overlook volunteer opportunities either. Just be certain that they are related to or somewhat impact on your end goal. It is also important to state that the most invaluable tool to really finding one’s feet within those waters is, an ability to constantly increase your bank of knowledge and not just in your area of certification. Being well-versed and well-read isn’t just an attribute of the rich and affluent – thanks to technology – everyone can be. It only takes being proactive and of course, actually desiring to reach your envisioned peak, whatever that is.

Blessing Obinaju is an Academic Researcher, Career Counselor, Life Coach and Image consultant. She works in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Uyo, Nigeria. She is also the Principal consultant at La Belle Vie, providing life coaching services to individuals. You can find her on Twitter @ObinajuBE.

#UniAdvice – 7 things successful students do

Exam season is now upon us. While third year undergraduates swot over their dissertations and final exams revision (good luck!); prospective undergraduate students are also preparing to start a new phase in their academic journey. Going to University elicits a range of emotions – excitement, anticipation and sometimes anxiety. In this article, we will be discussing tips that can help you adjust to your new learning environment. We believe some of this information is also relevant to current students to enhance their academic experience.

Seek advice – This should start even before you make a final decision on what University to choose.Open days are a great place to start as you have an opportunity to meet students already enrolled on the courses you are interested in applying for. Current students are best suited to provide information not just about the University but advice on accommodation, living costs and social activities you can get involved with. Furthermore, academics are usually available at these events and can provide valuable information about the course; helping you understand the opportunities and potential challenges you may face. Some pertinent questions you can ask have been covered in our previous article –‘Before you choose a course to study at University.’

Embrace the ‘change’ – University is different. There is a reason why it is called ‘Higher Education.’ If you expect it to be different, then you can begin to prepare for it. It is normal for new students to severely underestimate the amount of work that is required at Univer sity. For every hour you spend in a lecture, you may need to invest another 2-3 hours in independent study. Your teacher tells you something in class but expects you to delve even deeper and tell him/her things they do not know. You are expected to think criticially, write more professionally, read academic journals etc. Look out for your University’s Learning support unit – they provide a whole array of support services that will help you embrace the change.

Get mentored – In recent years, we have been lucky to mentor undergraduate and postgraduate students who have gone on to develop exciting careers. Many Universities now have mentoring schemes providing peer mentor support for first years provided by second and third year students. It is unfortunate that many students do not utilise these even though they are of great value. For second year students, contact your Careers service and see if they have an employability mentoring scheme, where you can be mentored by a professional in your field. We have both benefited greatly from having mentors who invested time and effort to shape our careers and support us through some parts of our university experience. Lecturers can also be a valuable source in developing professional relationships especially if they have worked in the field.

Volunteer – It is great to see more students are starting to value volunteering as a way not only to develop their transferable skills but also as a way to make friends and have a social network whilst at University. Remember that having a degree, even a good one, simply is not enough to keep you ahead. Your experience and skills are things that will set you apart from other candidates when you go for jobs. The idea for this website was born at a volunteering event and we have made a lot of friends through volunteering too. Apart from what you get out of it, just think about the significant contribution you are making to the organisation you are volunteering for.

Apply for an internship – View internships as a valuable contribution to your education. Final year students tell us how they view life outside University with some anxiety as they do not understand how the ‘world of work’ works. An internship can help with that. I (Emmanuel) employed an intern last summer and the experience of carrying out innovative projects with my intern has given me the desire to employ more interns this year. If you would like to go into research, why not ask a research active lecturer if s/he will be taking on any interns. See your Careers adviser for more information. Apart from honing your skills, internships provide the opportunity to develop valuable contacts in your area.

Sign up for a sandwich degree – Should I study for 3 or 4 years? We get this question often from students and parents alike. While it seems like a silly question as 3 is obviously shorter than 4 years, the 4 year sandwich degree is definitely worth considering – taking cost implications into consideration. The sandwich degree offers you the opportunity to be placed at a company or organisation working (mostly paid) for a year. Students who take up these placements usually return better equipped for their final years due to all the experiential learning taking place. In a good number of cases, students are offered jobs by their work placement companies after their degrees provided they attain good grades (a very good incentive we think!!)

Join a professional society – Most courses are affiliated with a professional body.  Majority of them offer student membership at significantly reduced rates or even for free. We benefitted greatly from our membership of the Society for Applied Microbiology and Voice of Young Scientists. Attend events organised by your Society and use them as networking opportunities to develop relationships within your discipline.

Earlier we mentioned going to your Careers department, this is important even if you do not know what you want from them, just go in, say hello and ask what they do! Careers consultants are usually friendly and supportive and will shape up your CVs and guide you through applying for internships, work placements etc.

We would advise you ‘not to give up any extracurricular talents or skills you have before going to University.” A lot is usually said about Universities and employability and less about entrepreneurship. Universities should be the building grounds for you to blossom and let your creativity shine. Please check out our Entrepreneur’s Corner for more inspiration.

 

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