I am currently a first year PhD student in Biology and Biochemistry, but was previously an undergraduate pharmacology student and did a placement in 2018/19. The application process started during the summer between first and second year, and the department were very keen to ensure we applied quickly for any available opportunities. Paid placements at big pharma companies and biotechs began to be advertised in the September, and the department strongly emphasized that we should apply for as many as possible to increase our chances. It seemed that it was a very competitive process, and that even getting an interview would be an achievement. The possibility of doing unpaid placements was also mentioned, however the focus was mainly on paid positions.
At this point, I was not sure what particular area of research I wanted to work in, so applied for anything and everything. The majority of companies I applied to never responded, so often you only realised you had been rejected because someone else on the course had been offered an interview and you hadn’t. I was eventually offered interviews at two companies. I was not particularly interested in either of the projects, but felt like I may as well go to the interviews as it was better than nothing. It’s very hard to sound enthusiastic about something that you are not interested in, so although I don’t think the interviews went badly, I’m sure that my lack of interest came across compared to the other candidates and may be a reason why I wasn’t successful.
This had taken me up to the end of the Autumn term, at which point a few people on the course had secured placements, but not many. It felt quite demoralising at this point. At the beginning of January, I decided that rather than applying for anything going, I would stick to an area in which I had a genuine interest. I also decided that a paid placement wasn’t necessarily the best option, as it would mean that I couldn’t continue my part time job, and that it would probably involve moving to London or Cambridge where the living costs are much higher. I therefore chose to try my luck with university departments offering unpaid positions, as I realised that cheaper living costs, along with still being able to receive my full student loan and keeping a part time job, would actually mean I was better off financially.
I therefore began by looking at university websites to see what kind of research groups might be of interest, and found the contact details of a few people to contact. I was extremely fortunate that the first research group I contacted was the Antibiotic Resistant Pathogens group at Plymouth University. I sent a CV and cover letter to the head of the group, and asked if he had any opportunities for placement students. Within a day he had replied to arrange an informal chat over Skype, and was very happy to take me. This was clearly a huge relief to have not only secured a placement, but in an area that I was really looking forward to getting started in.
At the start of my placement I was immediately made to feel part of the group. It was a very relaxed atmosphere, and the attitude was that you could have full flexibility over the time you spent in the lab, and work when suited you. My supervisor emphasized that he was never going to pressure me to do things, and that it was up to me to get as much out of the experience as possible. For me personally this flexible approach worked really well, as I was much more motivated to work in a way that suited me. On my first day in the lab I realised that I essentially knew nothing about how to do any kind of research! However, I was able to work closely with and learn from PhD students and Post docs in the group who were always happy to give advice and help with new skills and techniques, so it was easy to settle in and get started.
During my placement year I made the most of several opportunities to present at conferences, and the highlight for me was receiving funding to present at an international conference in Amsterdam in the summer. I was also able to assist with the planning and running of a conference at the Eden Project, as well as several public engagement events throughout the year. Due to the success of my placement year, I decided that I would do a PhD, and I believe the experience I gained during this year was the key to me securing a PhD position.
The main advice I would give to someone applying for a similar placement is to try not to feel pressure, but to focus on opportunities that really suit your interests and specific circumstances. I would also say that during the application process it sometimes felt that university-based placements were a second-best option, however I personally feel that this can offer just as much benefit as working for a company. Finally, don’t be demoralised if you are rejected (or don’t even hear back) after an application, as everyone on our course who wanted a placement was able to find something suitable in the end.