Placements during your PhD

Katie Denby is a final year PhD student from the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. In this blog post, she discusses her experiences of doing a Professional Internships for PhD students (PIPS) placement as part of her PhD.

As part of my BBSRC-funded PhD, I am required to carry out a Professional Internships for PhD students (PIPS) placement. This placement forms a key component of the Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) programme, and requires DTP PhD students to carry out a 3-month placement in an area unrelated to their doctoral research. The aim of this placement is to help students understand the context of their research, whilst also exposing them to a range of opportunities to which they can apply their PhD skills and training to after they graduate.

During my PhD, I have been studying how bacteria (specifically E. coli) are able to respire in the absence of oxygen by using the alternative electron acceptor, trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). In order to study this process I have been using cutting-edge techniques, such as DNA microarrays, mass-spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR), to name just a few! As much as I enjoy my time working in the lab, I have often found myself wanting to work in a more public-facing domain and wanting to feel part of something bigger. To address this want, I have co-organised, developed and delivered workshops for A-level students on DNA manipulation and fingerprinting, called ‘The Science behind CSI’, through the University’s Outreach department and Science Brainwaves. My enjoyment of running these workshops coupled with the fact that a career in teaching was something that I had considered even before starting my PhD; I knew exactly where I wanted to carry out my 3-month placement!

I arranged to carry out half of my PIPS placement in a local comprehensive school. To say I was nervous on the first day of the placement would be playing it down, it had been 7 years since I had even stepped foot inside a school! However, I need not have worried; staff members were so helpful and friendly and the children were so interested to hear about my PhD (during my placement is probably the most time I have spent explaining my research to people!) and my journey to get to the point of doing a PhD. During the 6 weeks at the school, I worked in both the Science and Additional Educational Needs departments, assisting pupils to access the curriculum, help them with any areas of knowledge weakness and also keep them on task! I also observed the amazing science lessons that went on in school, seeing how the students would learn about a topic and have the concepts of the lesson reinforced through a scientific investigation. It was great to see the excitement on a teenager’s face, when their experiment had worked (shock horror!) and the further questions from them that this stimulated. It also gave me the chance to put the science I had learnt over the past 6 years to the test. I was worried that I may not be very useful in helping with physics questions, as it had been so long since I had studied any physics material, but when questions were asked, I found the answers all came flooding back to me. This all sounds great so far, but it’s not all a bed of roses, the behaviour of some pupils is not always great (I was surprised at how much low-level classroom disruption occurs) and it was an achievement to get the most behaviourally-challenged pupils to put pen to paper some days. But, for me the positives really did outweigh any negatives and I suppose what I found most enjoyable about my placement was the ever-changing, fast-paced and at times comedic environment of working with teenagers. I could imagine that even if you taught the same material each year, the questions that you get asked would be different each time. I also found myself really wanting the pupils I interacted with to do well, so that they could on and do the best that they could do.

I think a career in teaching is definitely something I would love to pursue after my PhD. Sometimes, when I tell people I am considering going into teaching they comment, ‘is that a waste of a PhD?’ To them I say; I did a PhD because I was and am still passionate about science and love learning about it. But, I also enjoying passing on my knowledge and enthusiasm to young people. I have learnt so many transferable skills during my PhD for example, I am much more confident now with speaking in front of large groups of people and I am so much more organised. So, what better way to combine all of these factors, than to teach the subject that I love?

Written by Katie Denby

Nov 2015