Katie Timms is undertaking a PhD in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Leeds’ Institute of Medical & Biological Engineering, following her undergraduate degree in Medical Sciences (2015), also from the University of Leeds. In this post she explains why she chose to do a secondment during her PhD and how networking and her proactive approach helped her to secure it.
Why did I decide to undertake a secondment?
Browsing through twitter one afternoon I came across a poster describing alternative careers for scientists, based on the Science Council’s ’10 type of scientists’. In case you were wondering, there’s a quiz on the Science Council’s website! I have always been interested in science and research, but was curious about the alternative careers available following my PhD.
The main type of scientist which caught my eye was ‘the policy maker’. This got me thinking: how do researchers interact with government and parliament? Academic research is highly technical, whereas politicians or civil servants rarely have a technical background, yet it is vital for research impact that they understand outcomes of research.
At the same time, MeDe Innovation had just put out a call for funding for early career researcher secondments. I applied for this funding for a two-week stay in London, and my application was successful! Then came the hard part: finding organisations that would be willing to let me spend time there. What I really wanted was to spend time within either government or parliament, and some time in a closely linked external organisation.
How did I find relevant people and places?
To start on my quest for relevant people and places, I first asked the people who provided the funding. They pointed me in the direction of the head of Medical Technology Innovation at the university, Dr. Jo Dixon-Hardy; and Dr. Ged Hall who assists in improving research impact – such as through engaging with parliament and/or policy.
Luckily, Jo had a contact at the Royal Academy of Engineering. Policy advisors at the academy influence government policy with the aim of improving engineering. This encompasses technical topics like medical technologies, through to diversity and education. The academy were more than happy to have me for a week – so that was the external organisation sorted.
Organising time within government and parliament was much more difficult. Ged put me in contact with Naomi Saint – the University Programme Manager, Parliamentary Outreach. Together, we identified a few locations and sent out speculative emails. Unfortunately, most of these locations either run existing internship programmes or have a limited capacity so were unable to accept me.
Although disheartening to get a string of negative emails, many of the replies also contained ideas of other contacts, which kept me motivated and gave me hope! Eventually I got a positive reply from the head of the Science and Environment Section of the House of Commons Library. The library houses technical experts who bring together scientific information into reports for MPs. This hit my brief exactly: understanding how parliament understands and evaluates research evidence.
House of Commons Chamber (above) and House of Commons Library (below). Images from the UK Parliament Flickr
A few months later I went to London and spent a week at the Royal Academy of Engineering, and a week at the House of Commons Library (I will be writing a blog on the MeDe website for more information on what I got up to!). As well as getting an insight into the work the organisations do, I asked almost everyone about their career paths. For me, I was interested in knowing what types of skills I would require for such a job post-PhD. Both weeks were insightful and extremely interesting and I came back to my PhD with a renewed vigour. I would highly recommend spending some time away from the day-to-day life of your studies or research to develop other important skills, and expand your professional network.
Summary and Key Points
Overall, perseverance and enthusiasm are critical when proactively finding contacts for a placement. Even if you receive a response which says one organisation or department has no capacity, it is worth following up with a thank you and asking if they know of any related people who might. Ask your contacts for their contacts and their contacts’ contacts, be grateful for any replies, and don’t be afraid to chase people after a few weeks (especially when there is no formal placement procedure)!
I would like to thank MeDe Innovation for funding my secondment, everybody at the University of Leeds and beyond who helped me find appropriate contacts for my secondment, and those at the Royal Academy of Engineering (especially Philippa) and the House of Commons Library (Sarah and Ed in particular) for making my two weeks so enjoyable and keeping me occupied! I am also happy to be contacted with any questions about my placement (firstname.lastname@example.org), or find me on Twitter @KVTimms