Since November 2021, I have been doing a maternity cover placement at my research partner: Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It’s been a year of learning, excitement, successes, and reflection. As I now come to the end and get ready to re-enrol as a student here at Warwick, I wanted to take a minute to think, and share, some of the things I’ve learned.
By Ellie King
I’ve been incredibly lucky in my PhD to be able to take a year’s placement at my research institution. Taking temporary withdrawal, I’ve been in the role of Exhibition Officer, creating and organising exhibitions and supporting the museum’s redisplay project of its temporary galleries. It has been a wonderful experience, but as I come to a close I’ve taken time to reflect on things I’ve learned, what is different from being a researcher, and what I can take back to my PhD.
Working alone vs. working in teams
Probably the biggest change that I found was the inherent team-working nature of the job. Whilst I absolutely loved this working style and really felt part of a work family, I struggled to adjust completely. Doing a PhD and generally being a student means you’re often on your own and there is hardly any team working going on. I found it difficult to delegate anything: if I had a job to do, it was mine to do. But that isn’t always the case in the work environment: it’s important to share ideas, show progress at larger meetings and groups, and get sign off for things. Beyond my supervisors, I would not really do any of this during research, so I really struggled to adjust and become more collaborative with my work. But on the plus side, it did mean I wasn’t alone. If I had a problem, there were avenues for discussion and support, which I really benefited from.
Regular meetings and communication
In a similar vein, the working environment was set up with lots of meetings and opportunities for communication. We had a weekly team meeting, a monthly staff meeting, and various committees where work could be shared between colleagues. I found it really great to be able to hear what other people were working on and share my own work. At some points, I will admit I felt these meetings were a waste of time, as I felt I’d rather be doing all my tasks instead of just sharing my progress on them. However, I soon realised that they worked as a nice break from my tasks but were still productive. Sometimes in my research I feel guilty for lifting my head up and not focusing on the work in hand, but this has taught me that sometimes the breathing space of a team meeting or a related but less urgent task is really useful.
What I want to do with my future
The biggest thing this placement has done is provide me with an opportunity for me to think about my future post-PhD. As much as I’ve enjoyed it, I feel that a permanent, collaborative working environment isn’t really for me. I think I’m quite a restless person, so being stuck in one job probably doesn’t suit me. I prefer to be moving around, constantly starting new projects, and being able to direct what I do with my time. Undertaking this role has been fantastic but I’ve learned that in the long run, this type of thing isn’t really for me. This is great, as it means I can focus on my career plans. I’m keen to do freelance work with the research I have done with my PhD. My research can be turned into a service for museums and heritage sites, so I’m now more focused than ever on being able to take things forward after my viva.
I’ll leave you with some advice now I’ve gotten down my reflections. If you have the opportunity, take as many placements, internships and work experience positions as you can. Even short-term placements of a week or two are really good as a productive break from your research and provide you with an opportunity to work more collaboratively. You’ll also be able to see what kind of thing you might want to do, or definitely don’t want to do, after your PhD has finished. Even if you absolutely hate a placement, it’s never a waste of time, because now you’ve found out you don’t like that particular thing and you can cross it off your list.
Short term placements usually don’t require pausing your PhD, but make sure you discuss everything with your supervisors. If you want more information, take a look at Warwick’s Careers Service and the Doctoral College.
If you’re thinking about careers and what you want to do after your PhD, we have loads of posts in the And Beyond section of our website. Check out this one on finding work after the PhD or this one on staying in academia or not.
Have you ever done an internship or placement? What was it like? What did you love most? What advice would you give? Let us know by leaving a comment down below, on our twitter @researchex or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.