The benefits of internships

As PhD students, we are often focused on research and very little else. But taking a step outside of your PhD to look into the world of work may be worth the time. Having just finished an internship, blogger Ellie talks us through her experiences, and why an internship could benefit you too.

By Ellie King.

As part of my funding for my PhD, I have a pot reserved for professional development activities: for courses, conferences, or work experiences. One of the things I’ve used this funding for is an internship, which I’ve just completed. I spent six weeks with a design agency who work on designing exhibitions for a range of museums, including my research partner, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. My blog today is a lowdown on my experiences, and why I think every PhD student should undertake one.

A girl with a green jumper in the Natural History Museum standing in front of a suspended whale skeleton.
Having worked with museums, I was keen to take a look at how other companies operated in the sector. Image: Ellie King.

Why do an internship?

An internship, regardless of where you do one, is an opportunity to gain insight into a job, an organisation, or a sector. Often paid, although sometimes sadly not, it gives you a flavour of life after study, in an industry you are thinking about going into. For me, I was keen to do an internship to understand what went on from the other side of museums: about how companies and freelancers bid for work and how they handle a variety of projects and clients. Wanting to become a freelancer myself, this side of things was invaluable.

My internship wasn’t with a company that I wanted to work for, but I know that many people do internships for organisations they’re keen to be employed with after their degree. Some people see that failing to secure such work means a failure of the internship, but I don’t always see it that way. If you find that you didn’t get on well at the organisation, it wasn’t a waste of time, but simply a learning that you can rule out that job, place of work, or even sector. It can often help you recalibrate your thoughts on your career, and in a PhD that’s particularly important if you feel like there’s a lack of options out there. Internships are a good place for trial and error.

What I learned on my internship, and what you could learn too

My internship experience was full of trial and error, and a times it was a real challenge, both in terms of work but also mentally and emotionally. But there are plenty of learnings there, even if they are things I’d have done differently with hindsight.

Understand what you want to get from your internship before you start.

It’s even better if you can share these and discuss with your hosts. At PhD level, an internship is a two-way relationship: you’ll be gaining things from your employer, and they’ll be gaining things from you. Don’t just think about what you’d like to get out of it, think about what you can offer and what they would like to get out of it too.

Listen and ask questions.

At least at the start of your internship, one of your main goals is to listen and observe. Especially if you’re not doing an internship as a group – like in a Spring Week – then it is particularly important to spend the time absorbing how the company works and how what they do works. Keep asking questions, be inquisitive about what they do and how.

Take the initiative.

I didn’t do this enough at the start, but it’s crucial to remember that many internship hosts don’t have the time to handhold you through work. They have other things to be getting on with. So you must take the initiative: ask for work, for tasks, to observe, to accompany in meetings. They won’t want you not doing anything, but they are unlikely to have proactively written out a programme of work for you. This is especially true if you’re in a small company, like I was.

Two dinosaur skeletons in Oxford's Museum of Natural History.
Image: Ellie King.

Understand your skillset, and understand theirs.

One thing I really loved about my internship was having a deep appreciation for my skillsets, my hosts’ skillsets, and how we could best work together. It was also highly rewarding to expand my skills in areas that were underdeveloped: I loved being able to do some drawing and creative work.

Do a minimum of 2 or 3 months.

My internship was only 6 weeks, and it was definitely not long enough. I felt like it took me a month to get into it, to learn where I fitted in and what I could do. It was a difficult 4 weeks, followed by a great two weeks, and so I very much feel that if it had been longer that trajectory would’ve continued.

Maintain relationships.

On my final day, I presented some of the work I had been doing. It was really well received and I was asked if this would be something I’d be interested in doing as some paid work in the future. This was fantastic news and I was so pleased that I had made a good enough impression for this. On leaving internships, even if you don’t have these types of offers, it’s so crucial to keep in touch and maintain those relationships, in case anything occurs in the future. Send a follow-up email once you’ve finished thanking them for the opportunity.

Reflect on the experience.

Much like writing this blog has done for me, having a moment to reflect on your experiences, on what you’ve learned, and how you’ve found it is perhaps the most important part. If you’re doing a PhD, how does this change things? Have you learned things that are relevant to your research? Do you know what kind of career path you want now? Even if the answer to these is no, it will have still been a learning curve.

Two people walking across the Piazza at the University of Warwick. There are buildings in the background and a large blue sky.
Image: University of Warwick.

All in all, my internship was a real learning curve. I learnt a lot about myself, about my skillset, how other organisations work, and their real value. I feel I’ve formed some good professional relationships that will continue, and I feel confident in my choices about my proposed career path. On another note, I loved my time living in London. I stayed in an Airbnb with two retired architects, and it was wonderful learning about their lives. I went to the theatre a lot and took advantage of cheap on the day tickets. I explored new food, new shops, and new experiences. That was just as valuable as everything I learnt 9 to 5.

If you’re interested in thinking further about internships and post-PhD work, take a look at this blog on doing a year in industry or this post on finding a job after your PhD.

Have you ever done an internship? Do you have any tips for our readers? Or are you thinking of doing one and have questions? Get in touch by tweeting us @researchex, messaging us on Instagram @warwicklibrary or by emailing us at

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