My science policy internship

I’m a plant microbiologist. For the past three months, however, I haven’t touched a pipette, a petri dish or a plant pot. Instead, I’ve been doing an internship in science policy.

New PhD studentships from the BBSRC involve a three-month internship, allowing students to take a break from the laboratory and try out something new. It was set up to try and give postgraduates a chance to experience life in the real world.

Several people from the John Innes Centre have found internship placements around Norwich. But I applied to the BBSRC’s policy internship scheme, and found myself a place at the Centre for Science and Policy, based at the University of Cambridge.

This meant packing up and moving somewhere else for three months. Of course, Cambridge may not be the real world the BBSRC had in mind – it’s a place commonly described as a bubble by its students – but the work was certainly a change from my day-to-day in the lab.

My jobs at the centre have been massively varied – giving me the chance to meet policymakers from government, as well as stakeholders from industry and charities. On top of this, I was able to get the chance to organise and attend workshops on topics ranging from food security (playing to my background) to ageing and affordable housing.

I have taken part in visits from big players in the policy world – including President Obama’s former energy secretary (who also happens to be a Nobel Prize-winning physicist), permanent secretaries and Director General from the UK government, and a shadow cabinet peer. I’ve also had the chance to interact with a massive range of top academics – while always trying to find the angle to drop plant and microbial sciences into the conversation, of course.

The internship schemes were designed to give students transferable skills – and of course I’ve gained these. But I didn’t realise how many of these would be so applicable on my return to scientific research.

I’ve helped organise conferences, something research academics often end up doing – I know more than one PhD student who have taken on this task on top of their research because they want to get the experience. My professional network has grown, and a good proportion of those new contacts are academics. I’ve improved my typing speed and writing – something that will definitely come in handy when my thesis rolls around. I also managed to spend my free time supervising undergraduates in plant evolution – something that takes up more time than I had previously thought.

I am coming to the end of my internship now, and have really enjoyed the experience. However, I now have a dilemma. I thought this internship would help me decide how I felt about staying in academia or leaving it. But taking three months out has left me thinking one thing: I can’t wait to get back to the lab.

I have found the policy world fascinating, and I think I’d really enjoy working in it, but I also really want to get back to my research and spend my days in the lab. Rather than this internship making me more certain about my future career, I seem to have taken a step backwards. Luckily, I still have nearly two years of research left to decide. Hopefully I’ll manage to make up my mind eventually …

Izzy is a third year PhD student in Phil Poole’s research group. She tweets as @isabelwebb.

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