Getting work experience as a PhD student

Whether you undertake a year-long placement or just spend a day shadowing an employee, work experience during PhD study could positively impact your career prospects and university work.

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If remote working is going to be the norm beyond this pandemic, there is no better person to do that type of work than a PhD student, because they have experience of working independently.

If you’re thinking about carrying out work experience during a PhD, you’ll probably have plenty of questions in your mind. Can you carry out internships aimed at undergraduate students? How do you approach applications?

In this article, four experts in careers advice for PhD students answer these questions and more. They are:

  • David Henderson, postgraduate careers adviser at Durham University
  • James Farror, doctoral academy officer at Cardiff University
  • Alex Houston, careers adviser at Cardiff University
  • Julia Sadler, careers adviser at the University of Oxford.

Question one: how important is work experience for PhD students?

Across all PhD subjects, there’s a high number of students who go on to leave academia and find research roles in industry, James Farror explains. Furthermore, there are plenty of students in the arts and humanities who go on to work in non-research roles. James says: ‘We know that the majority want to go into academic careers and we know that the majority won’t. So I think there’s a need for all PhD students to undertake work experience outside of academia. Arts, humanities and social science students should probably go beyond that and look at non-research roles, as well.’

You may also spend time working in industry before moving back into university: ‘We know that moving between industry and academia is much more fluid than it used to be. By doing internships and applying for jobs outside academia, you are not necessarily closing the door on working in the university sector forever,’ explains Julia Sadler.

And even if you do stay in academia, David Henderson highlights that work experience relevant to your PhD can enhance your understanding of the practical application of the subjects you are researching.

Question two: what opportunities are out there for PhD students?

There are internships exclusively for PhD students and – depending on your priorities – you may prefer these as they are likely to make use of the knowledge and abilities you have built up during PhD study.

If you have a specific role in mind, however, you might find yourself looking at internships usually offered to undergraduate students and wondering whether you can apply. ‘Read the details of the opportunity carefully to find out whether it is exclusively for undergraduate students. If not, and the timings would fit around your PhD, then don’t rule it out. Contact the recruitment department to ask whether the opportunity is open to you,’ explains Alex Houston.

‘Some students struggle to balance their time with work experience and can feel overwhelmed by the idea of this. If this is the case, the key is to assess what you can actually do. Even if it’s just shadowing an employee for a day or having a chat with someone in an industry that you’re interested in to gain a bit more information, these are useful activities,’ Alex explains.

Your university might have initiatives that help you to fit work experience around your PhD. Julia Sadler, for example, mentions the University of Oxford’s micro-internship programme, which offers placements that last between two and five days. Julia also recommends looking into remote opportunities, which can provide flexibility.

So, explore the options that suit you: you might carry out an internship, insight programme, industrial placement or a part-time job – or undertake work shadowing. Find out more about your work experience options here.

Question three: who should you contact when searching for work experience opportunities?

‘Speak to your supervisor at an early stage to discuss your ideas’ is the advice given by David – and backed up by James. On a practical level, your supervisor might have networks and collaborations to help you when searching for an opportunity and should also be able to help out with processes around longer-term placements and breaks from PhD study. Remember that your supervisor will consider your future career to be important alongside your academic work.

Your university’s careers service should also be able to advise you and provide some professional contacts. It’s a good idea to ask them about the other services or resources offered by your university. For instance, Alex and James refer to Cardiff University's alumni department, which puts on events to inform students about different careers.

LinkedIn is a useful resource for finding contacts a few years ahead of you on your chosen career path,’ explains Julia who – like Alex and James – recommends networking with alumni: ‘Use your university’s alumni page on LinkedIn to narrow down your search. Talking about a mutual course or university can be a nice ice breaker.’

If you are funded by a research council, it’s important to contact them to figure out what the processes and options are for undertaking work experience opportunities, as James tells us. You may find that your funding will be discontinued if you undertake an ‘interruption of study’ due to a long-term placement – or you could instead be given funding for the placement by the research council. Alternatively, you might be able to extend the time limit for your PhD – which, while having the same outcome as an ‘interruption of study’ in that you can carry out a placement, will often mean you can continue to gain funding.

Question four: how can you make sure your work experience application stands out?

‘PhD students bring so many skills to a workplace and will often increase the standard of work produced by other employees by sharing their expertise,’ says James. ‘But they aren’t very good at selling themselves.’ So, as Alex suggests, your first step might be to figure out what you can bring to an employer; talking to your supervisor and careers adviser (as well as having a look at the skills listed in the section below) should help with this.

It’s important to make sure you communicate your skills to an employer in an appropriate way. ‘Think about your audience and how best to communicate the complex skills that you are demonstrating in an accessible manner,’ says David. Perhaps ask a family member, friend or fellow student to read through your CV and see whether anything needs clarifying or putting into simpler terms. Make sure you tailor your CV and application to the specific opportunity and/or employer. Read our advice for writing CVs and covering letters for work experience.

Both James and David also recommend considering exactly what you want to gain from work experience and working back from there – particularly if you’re making speculative applications rather than applying to formal opportunities. ‘Have a specific plan of action,’ suggests James. ‘Is it about developing a particular skill? Is it about opening your eyes to a range of career options?’ Again, you can work this out with your supervisor and a careers adviser. If you know what you can bring to an employer and exactly why you want the opportunity, you’re more likely to communicate this confidently when applying.

Question five: what skills do PhD students have that employers want?

Below are the ten aptitudes that Alex, James and David know employers want and that you, as a PhD student, can offer. So, think about how you have built these and how they will translate to the work experience opportunity – then explain this where appropriate during the application process.

Make sure, though, that you also emphasise those skills and qualities included on the description of the work experience opportunity and throughout the organisation’s website.

  • Research
  • Critical thinking
  • Working autonomously
  • Analysis
  • Problem solving
  • Project and fund management
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Writing skills
  • Innovation and bringing fresh perspectives.

‘If remote working is going to be the norm beyond this pandemic, there is no better person to do that type of work than a PhD student, because they have experience of working independently,’ says James.

Alex adds: ‘Many companies seem to be becoming more streamlined and, therefore, want one person to come in – to do the research, bring innovative solutions and help them to progress. Through their studies, PhD students have gained these skills and abilities.’

A final top tip: be open to opportunities

James, who started out in his PhD with the view to becoming an academic, ends the interview with a piece of advice taken from his own working life: ‘Dabble in a sector or role you’re not entirely sure you’re interested in right now because you don’t know how you will feel three or four years down the line. Your priorities might change. I engaged in work experience in things I didn’t think I wanted to do – researcher development being one of them – and here I am today.’

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