3 things I learnt during a PhD internship

3 things I learnt during a PhD internship

For the last three months, as part of my EASTBIO PhD experience, I got to undertake a UKRI policy internship at the Department for Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), where I had the opportunity to lead on the G7 Chief Veterinary Officer meeting as part of the UKs G7 presidency.

Here, I want to share 3 personal reflections on what I learnt:  

1. Taking a break from your research, can improve you research.  

In the middle of my PhD, I was able to tackle a new project, read up “new” science, and, best of all, I had a hard deadline of three months. No budging on that. It was as close to every PhD student’s of “I’ll just quit and do something completely different” as you can get – don’t deny it! We all have been there.

Further, I gained skills that are useful for my career including project management, teamwork, and unfortunately very topical currently – maintaining online relationships while working remotely.

Now, I feel more confident and excited to tackle my project than ever.

However, you do not have to spend three months working full time to learn new skills or boost your confidence in the same way. Taking a step away from your research in your everyday life and tackling other projects can be a great way to gain that same confidence and learn new skills.

2. Build your non-academic (net)work

Before I started, I wondered: “Why does EASTBIO require me to do a non-academic internship?”. And while I wasn’t privy to that particular board meeting, I can guess. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) 70% of UK PhD holders leave the academic sector within three-and-a-half years after graduation. 70%!

 So, to ensure your PhD experience prepares you for your future career, having work experience, and, more importantly, a network outside of academia, is not a nuisance, but a good move.

3. Why do we need research anyway?

Even if you stay in academia forever, having experience of how science is used in society can help focus your research. Working in policy has given me an insight into why we do research in the first place. Sounds silly, but hear me out:

I often felt that in academia gaining knowledge is the most important thing. However, I often asked myself “So what?”. The impact that this knowledge could have is considered less important than that shiny new publication you may get out of it.  

However, the knowledge you gained must be accessible to the outside world, particularly policy makers, to make a difference.

How can we achieve that? While I am not an expert, I have a few thoughts: Use accessible language to communicate findings to people who aren’t experts in your area. Distribute your research outside academia – write a blog, do a podcast, publish an article. Build rapport with the stakeholder affected by your research. Consider contributing your data to open data platforms. There are many ways in which we can ensure our research reaches the people it needs to make an impact.


This is only a short blog and by no means an exhaustive list of things I learned during my internship. If you are interested to learn more, feel free contact me via l.mackenzie.19@abdn.ac.uk or @LMacKenzie19 or leave a comment below.

Published by The School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen


  1. #1
    Max Tschol

    Thanks for sharing Laura, all great points, but especially point 2 I think.

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