CAREER COLUMN

Five reasons to do an internship during your PhD programme

Rekindle your love for problem-solving by taking your lab skills to a completely different environment, says Jessica Sagers.
Jessica Sagers is a PhD student in speech and hearing bioscience and technology at Harvard Medical School and an intern at RA Capital Management in Boston, Massachusetts.
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Illustration of a female figure in a lab coat explaining a graph to other figures, while a panel of colleagues sit behind.

Credit: Alice Mollon/Getty

“If I have to make tissue-culture medium one more time, it’s going to kill me,” I thought, removing a frosted tube of fetal bovine serum from the lab freezer. As a doctoral student in the final year of my life-sciences programme at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, I have been culturing cells for nearly a decade (if you count my undergraduate years). For most of that time, I’ve loved my work, and had imagined leading my own laboratory. But over time, my interests evolved. I found myself wanting to help patients more directly, and I began to daydream about a career off the bench.

In my third year, I added a speciality in therapeutics to my degree. This required the completion of a three-month internship outside of academia, which I put off until my last year. I thought it would be a distraction from my research and felt scared to negotiate time out of the lab with my principal investigator (PI). But the internship, at a biotechnology-focused investment manager in Boston called RA Capital Management, turned out to be one of the most enlightening and valuable experiences of my graduate training. To my surprise, the added workload made me a more efficient and productive dissertation writer, and I emerged with an enticing job offer.

Here are five reasons to do an internship during the final year of your PhD.

Get out of the lab

When you’ve been focused on the same scientific area for years, it’s easy to forget that there’s a world outside your bench. Wherever you choose to do an industrial or other non-academic internship, you will discover a new realm of research and career possibilities. RA Capital is just a 15-minute walk from my lab, but it felt worlds away from what I knew. Working there part-time, as I helped to research drug candidates and explore unsolved diseases, opened my eyes to how PhD-level scientific expertise can inform decision-making in business and finance so that we might someday make a difference for patients. For example, when a company working on solutions for hearing loss (my field of research) approached the firm to seek funding, the investment team asked me to review the data that they sent and gave me the opportunity to lead an in-depth ‘due-diligence’ call with the company’s executives.

Adjust to a different workplace hierarchy and dynamic

By the final year of your PhD, you’ve optimized how to function in your lab microenvironment. You know how to sweet-talk your PI into letting you go to conferences far away, and to sign up right at midnight to score time with the shared confocal microscope. At your internship, you’ll learn what it’s like to work in a network of peers, role models and supervisors who have different management styles, rather than report to one PI whom you know well. Academia doesn’t explicitly teach us to develop skills such as how to receive and give feedback or be an effective teammate, whereas many companies with larger teams invest in equipping everyone, including interns, with these skills. Although every research group has a specific culture, laboratories usually aren’t conscious of their shared values and behaviours. By contrast, the people at the firm where I interned were introspective and deliberate in defining the values that they held in high regard, such as treating others with respect and strongly supporting new ideas rather than borrowing them from others.

Make important career connections

The people you meet in your new workspace will be integral in helping you to identify and evaluate interesting career opportunities. Even if you don’t want to stay in the place where you are interning, you will probably be working with people who have been in your position in the past. Take them out for coffee and ask them about their paths. They might be able to recommend options you haven’t considered or introduce you to contacts in other fields. And if your supervisors like your work, they could well invite you to stay on after graduation in a full-time, permanent position.

Learn how your personal skills fit into the workplace

It’s daunting to be the new person in an organization, and you’ll remember what it feels like not to know how to use the coffeemaker — and to feel too afraid to ask. But if you intern in a place that nurtures confidence, you will start to appreciate how much you actually have to offer. You will begin noticing ways in which you can apply the skills you acquired during your PhD to make yourself uniquely useful. For example, I joined my internship with expertise as a scientific writer and editor. When that came to light, I was asked to work on a writing project with one of the founders of the fund, and we published an opinion editorial together in STAT News. I was surprised to discover how relevant my skills were to the work that RA Capital does, how willing everyone was to invest time in my development and how approachable and open to my feedback even busy senior executives could be.

Rekindle your spark for learning

Exposing yourself to a completely different aspect of the scientific world will remind you how much you enjoy tackling something new. This is probably the feeling that drove you to pursue a PhD in the first place, and applying the skills that you honed over years in the lab to a different type of problem in a new environment with new colleagues might recharge you at a time when you otherwise feel exhausted.

For scientists who are exploring work outside the bench, completing an internship during your final PhD year is the smartest decision you can make. And who knows — you might come away with your next job.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01087-9

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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