To internship, or not internship? That is the question

By Sarah Madden, The Royal Institution & University of Cambridge

Picture this. You’re in the lab. You have too many experiments/ too much writing/too much reading to do (delete as appropriate!). You can feel the panic rise through your body.  Your palms begin to feel sweaty and you can feel your heart beating in your chest. Odds are if you’re a PhD student you’ve been there.

At the start of my PhD, I found that this panic was stopping me from pursuing all the cool opportunities that were coming my way. Surely only working even harder on the PhD would make the panic go away? But as I have progressed in my studies I have realised that the more I strive to work smarter rather than just harder, the more I achieve and the more time I have for all these exciting opportunities! This realisation has left me happy that I have the ultimate opportunity to step back from my research and do something a bit different: an internship!

I’m currently half-way into a three month internship as a media and communications assistant at The Royal Institution. I’m working on promoting their annual Christmas Lectures broadcast on the BBC. This year the lectures are on the science of communication and we’re talking about anything and everything, such as how our increasing use of emojis means that we can put the emotional information back into our written communication. I’ve been able to do a whole host of really cool things! I’ve observed interviews between journalists and this year’s Christmas lecturer, Prof Sophie Scott. I got to go through the Royal Institution’s archives and hold Lawrence Bragg’s Nobel Prize diploma and a host of other treasures and also blog about the experience. I was also able spend a couple of days at the helm of the Royal Institution’s Twitter account, and literally have tens of thousands of followers at my fingertips. Ooh, the power!

Getting excited whilst going through the Royal Institution archives. These items belonged to Lawrence Bragg, one of the fathers of crystallography.

I have benefited a great deal from my internship. Spending time writing media articles and press releases and then receiving insightful feedback has meant that both my writing ability and my confidence in my writing has improved. This is good timing since I’ll soon be putting together research papers as well as starting to write the elusive thesis. I have immensely enjoyed the teamwork aspect of my work. My ideas and crazy comments have always been welcomed and encouraged by the Ri staff, and helped me develop my creativity. I think there can be a bit of a gap between the skills you develop at the bench versus the skills required for careers both in and out of science.  An internship can help you fill it.

The ironic thing is that I now have no doubt that this internship will make my PhD more successful. I’ve found that in my PhD it’s been way too easy to get too close to a problem to necessarily be able to see the best solution and my internship has given me the headspace to overcome this. It has made me more relaxed and therefore made me more creative and improved my ability to concentrate. I picked up a paper the other day, and I could almost immediately feel all the excitement and new ideas bubbling up within me.

I understand that not everybody will be able to carry out an internship, but to those who can, I say go for it! And thank you to The Royal Institution. It’s been a pleasure.

christmas dinner
Having a lovely Christmas lunch out with some of my wonderful colleagues at the Royal Institution.

My top 5 tips for the perfect internship:

  1. Pick a well-established scheme. They will know how to manage interns and will avoid you being sent to do buckets of shredding or left twiddling your thumbs for the first week whilst they find you something to do!
  2. Do what you love.
  3. Decide what skills you want to develop and pick an internship that will fulfil this
  4. Pick something in a field you may pick for your career.
  5. Do the internship when you really need a break from your PhD. It will let you return to the lab feeling positively refreshed!

selfieAbout me:

I’m a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, where I am working on developing new anti-cancer drugs. In my free time, I am a passionate science communicator and enjoy taking part in science comedy and making science videos.  You can follow me on twitter @TheGingerSci



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