Will you stand out of the crowd?

With the many opportunities offered to researchers during the course of their PhD studies and research contracts, it is difficult for many, to develop an understanding of how to strike the right balance between the opportunities to take and the ones to leave. Developing career enhancing strategies is an important part of researcher professional development. In their book “Competence at work: Models for superior performance”, Spencer and Spencer, on the basis of years of research, reviewed the 20 competencies of superior performers. Whilst their book is fairly old, the competencies described as those of superior performers parallel those identified as important competencies in research careers (see the Researcher Development Framework).

What will differentiate you as a superior performer from an average performer?

Among some of the opportunities offered to PhD students in our institution is the Postgraduate Researcher Experience Programme (PREP). The scheme provides funding to PhD students to create their own career enhancing opportunity. Awards of £100 to £1000 have been previously offered to pay for travel, accommodation, training fees or to provide a small salary to cover researchers’ time.

This particular scheme is currently open. Further info here.

Briefing session to know more: 14th March and 1st April, both at 12pm;  book to attend one of these events via Career Connect.

Although some of these opportunities are regularly on offer, some researchers remain reluctant to engage. For PhD students from the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership, internships have now become an integral part of the PhD experience.

Henry Wood, who is a 3rd year PhD student in the department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology share his experience of undertaking a PhD internship:

“Sitting in the introductory talks at the beginning of my PhD I groaned at the news that I’d be required to do a three-month work placement. I came into my PhD having worked outside of academia for a couple of years and so further work experience seemed like a distraction from research. Having now completed a stimulating 3-month period in Belgium, I have an entirely positive perspective on the potential of the PhD internship scheme.

When a problem is laid out clearly, I have always enjoyed trying to solve it. During a discussion with my co-supervisor, he mentioned in passing some of the problems that a collaborating company were having. I was immediately interested, and after some considerable arrangements on his part, I found myself with a 3-month placement at a small company called Diagenode, in Liege, Belgium.

A Belgium landmak, the Atomium in Brussel

In Belgium, I worked to develop a technology that would allow size selection of dsDNA fragments with a resolution of only a few base pairs. This was a nicely standalone project that fitted like a jigsaw piece into a larger project of Diagenode’s relating to the sequencing of microRNAs.

 Before arriving, I had a good deal of apprehension, less about shifting to another country with another language, but more about things like not being able to deliver results, and even my unfamiliarity with basic DNA techniques, including running agarose gels. In the end, this apprehension was misplaced, and not only did I manage to pick up a multitude of new techniques, but I was able to bring to bear on the project some skills that the lab members themselves were not familiar with. Programming was one example, and I wrote several programs to pipeline raw data and streamline the processing, making the analysis of the size selection more rigorous. This experience has given me a great deal of confidence when trying new methods.


There were many things about working in industry that appealed to me, other aspects I didn’t like as much. One example was that the question of ‘why’ seemed to matter less – if something worked, it was less a question of why it worked, but just good news that it did. I am used to a more curiosity driven approach to research. On the positive side, availability of money at the company removed the requirement for repetitive, trivial tasks that are integral to university research work.

To conclude, if I were to go back to that time at the start of my PhD, where I was grumbling at the idea of the PhD internship, I would now tell myself to embrace it and to make the most out of it (funnily enough these were exactly the things that were being said to me at the time). But I would also say how much it is possible to achieve in three-months (I can speak reasonable French now, for example), and I hope this mentality will stand me in good stead for the remainder of my PhD. “

So, if you are prepared to enhance your portfolio of experiences and are considering applying for funding in order to set up your own opportunity, consider carefully:


Which of your competencies do you want to draw from to “stand out of the crowd” at your next job interview?

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