Work experience during your research

Why do work experience?

You might think that you already have enough to do with your research project, but work experience outside your employment sector or discipline could benefit you. Whether you plan to remain in academia or would like to explore career options outside your current experience, an internship or professional placement could help you:

  • develop commercial awareness and learn about business priorities
  • further develop professional skills such as teamworking or financial skills
  • decide whether a particular career path is for you. First-hand experience may not be quite what you expect
  • expand the network of people who may be able to support your future career development
  • demonstrate on your CV that you have taken the initiative to gain experience and that you are serious about working in a particular sector or field.

It can also help you to:

  • build self-awareness
  • develop fresh perspectives
  • see how your research skills can be applied in a new context
  • find new ways to apply your research and demonstrate its potential impact
  • Meet possible future collaborators
  • Make successful job applications outside your field or sector.

Setting up a work placement

First find out if there are any formal schemes available to you for  job shadowing, work placements or knowledge exchange. For example you might consult your institution's business development office, careers service, your line manager or supervisor or your funder.

If nothing suitable is available to you, set up your own placement.

  • Consider opportunities within your own or other universities, approach other groups or departments with a view to learning new skills and gaining new knowledge
  • Talk to the human resources department in an organisation where you would like a placement
  • Approach the person you want to work with/shadow and explain what you would like to do and why. Don't be apologetic, but be prepared for refusal
  • Set out clearly what you are looking for. This should include: length of placement, level of commitment expected from the company/individual, what you can offer, what you are looking to get out of it.

Get the most from your work experience

Plan what you want to achieve. Be realistic about what can be achieved in the time available.

  • Talk to people. Gain insight into the organisation and what it is like to work there
  • Take notes. You will come away with a useful list of phone numbers, email addresses, facts, thoughts and observations
  • Volunteer to do things. People like someone who is helpful. If you do basic things well they are more likely to offer you work with more responsibility
  • Watch others work. You can't expect to start doing high-level work straight away, but you can learn a lot by watching how others work
  • Ask questions
  • Socialise. Have lunch with people and join them for social activities

Be aware of what you were promised. If your experience falls short, inform someone who can address this.

Find more practical tips and guidance in our publication for researchers: The researcher on placement.