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Internships for graduate students - a good career development tool?

PostPosted: Sat Jul 08, 2017 3:10 pm
by M.A.
Good afternoon,

I was wondering if I could ask the Forum about your thoughts/experiences/advice on starting a semi-formal internship program for graduate students to aid in their career development. Do you think it would be a worthwhile endeavor? What internships would be most helpful for students trying to decide on their next career step or looking for some help in making the move to industry? What would make such a program worthwhile to employers? Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Background: I am a (relatively recently tenured) faculty member in a biomedical sciences department at a smaller medical school located outside of the big biotech/pharma hubs. I am involved in graduate student career development in several ways: (a) by virtue of serving as an advisor/PI to PhD students; (b) by serving as one of the lecturers in our outreach program where we talk to undergraduate students about graduate school and career possibilities in biomedical science; and (c) by being involved in admission/recruitment efforts within the graduate program. Our program in general takes a pretty proactive and supportive approach to career development (students are required to fill out a Career Development plan yearly and discuss it with their advisor; the program hosts a number of career development workshops and alumni presentations that discuss various career options and help with skills development in science communications, grant writing, industry careers etc.).

I have heard from some of my students that it would be helpful to have access to internships that would allow them to more readily transition to future careers outside of academia. My first thought was that the students could just take initiative and set up their own internships; graduate school could provide some support in terms of travel money or making arrangements with their advisors. My second thought is that perhaps it is unfair to put the onus on the students to find and arrange internships, although I still wonder about that.

In theory, I can imagine that we may be able to establish some connections to a few local employers. We do have some startups in the area, as well as contract manufacturing companies and testing labs; some of them hire our alumni so, at least in theory, there might be some options. The downside, to me, is that while the employers might be somewhat interested, it may be difficult to match the students and their skills to the employers, especially since our graduate program is relatively small. The other downside is that PIs would need to be convinced that this is a good idea, especially if they are paying students' stipends from grants. At this point, it is unclear what fraction of students is significantly dissatisfied with the available career development options and interested in formal internships. I would like to suggest a survey of graduate students to evaluate their interest but before I do that, I would love to hear opinions or tales of experience from the forum members.

Have you ever had interactions with such programs, either as participants, as employers, or, perhaps, as recruiters looking at a resume that includes internship experiences? What would be the most important factors to make this a valuable experience for the students and a helpful contribution for employers? I don't know if we would expect employers to pay the interns but on the other hand, this could be set up as a credit-earning learning experience, which I think would work for an unpaid internship in terms of the legal requirements.

Re: Internships for graduate students - a good career development tool?

PostPosted: Mon Jul 10, 2017 3:23 am
by D.X.
Hi MA,

To answer your question, my answer is a conditional yes, provided your Definition of "internship" is clear.

You've alrady acknowledged your first barrier which is what I interpret to be a undefined, yet prolonged, time away from lab linked to funding source and PI willingness.

Your second barrier is student's time. They do want to get thier Project done yet the day only has a certain number of hours.

And your third barrier - for what future career? most Student at that stage have no clue on what they want, so if they say it would be helpful to have internships tha would allow them to readily transition to future careers outside of academia...well...what does that mean? Get it? there's no granularity there at all that you can KPI against. What future career exactly, that's a very wide net to cast, complete defocused - each Student will have their individual interests so how do you even choose internships?

When I was an undergrad I had a wonderful department advisor who secured internships accross industry and academia in foreign Settings, this Person secured funded Spots where there after students where then "allocated" per interest, sometimes at intense negotiation with students to take the opporunity!!- some times as undegrads students can be quiet say dumb and not see a gift when presented. As an example, my undegrad advisor was left with an open fully paid summer Research internship for a summer at a Big Pharma in Europe(travel and Boarding paid as well). No students took the bait. I capitalized on another internship that was foreign. But that advisor had the luxary of students time, summer! I also had an internship where I worked druing the semenster at a Company in a lab - fullly paid and got credits as well but that's undergrad and in a hub area.

Hard to port undergrad time and Situation to grad School.

So here's what I propose you do. First for me I created my own experiences on my own time. What did help was the fact that I was in a fast moving Global City that is a world finanical hub and home to many Centers of Research excellence. So I was able to find "internships" that were paid on my own time to include "tech Transfer" work for a small start up that I did at night, I was able to take my own courses linked to a local academy of sciences at night as well, and was able to use th Hospital to arrange my own clincal rounds "preceptorship". I found career fairs (not at all sponsored by the unversity) in other sectors and send students there to learn and assess what other sectors are doing (i did this on Weekend time).

So why don't you look for small ops that allow students to allocate say 2 days of their time, maybe an early morning clinical Grand rounds, or maybe they can spend an extented lunch understanding how the grants Office work, or even a tech Transfer. Look for small bits that "expose" the students - back to my Point on your view on internships. I think you should define you Goal, which is small doses of exposure. The Little doses will go a very very Long way, and for me that's based on a N of 1.

For me to the extent I would have benefited from my PhD program helping me find what I find is debateable as nothing was really offered - I think a bit of self Motivation helps as it did in my case but maybe you can give offerings.

The risk you may put yourself into is that you may find some opportunities but not enough students to participate so that may put you in a bad light with those "experience" Providers, so manage your relationships, maybe ask studnets to be a bit more tangilbe on what they want, get their time commitment then move from there. As for one of my ventures, the tech Transfer one, I survived about 2 weeks before the Needs of my lab let me to leave the opportunity, so I was in bad taste in the Company.

So my advise, go for small low hanging fruit, get committment from the Student that they will particiate - you'll find many can be talk but no Action. Look for out for opportunites and map things that are on-going and let the students choose - you can't spoon feed them, only Point the the direction - some on the Forum have a view that Hands Need to be Held...i disagree and some on the Forum will say PIs have to lets students do internships...i disagree. Where I agree is let students find time to explore a bit but thier Primary focus or "raison d'etre" is to get thier PHD done.


Re: Internships for graduate students - a good career development tool?

PostPosted: Mon Jul 10, 2017 1:11 pm
by M.A.
Hi D.X.,

Thank you very much for your detailed and thoughtful answer! I think you have hit on all the potential problems I have thought about. Aside from the PI resistance and time limitations, the main problem that is looming large in my mind is that I also feel that this is something that (a) the students need to articulate for themselves (i.e., what is my career goal? what knowledge or practical skills am I missing to get there) and (b) that I would expect students to take a proactive role in.

We have a very nice Tech Transfer office with the Director who is quite open to discussions with students and faculty, a supportive Graduate Studies office, short career development workshops etc. so I feel that any student who is interested in either brief exposures to certain careers or in a more in-depth experience should be able to "build their own internship". However, getting feedback from the students that "we don't have enough opportunities" made me wonder if I was missing something.

I usually bring my students to clinical Grand Rounds or more clinically oriented conferences if that is what they are interested in. It sounds like I should continue to encourage them to network directly with the people in their chosen career fields and be supportive of their own efforts to create internship opportunities, rather than make arrangements for them.

Re: Internships for graduate students - a good career development tool?

PostPosted: Mon Jul 10, 2017 4:04 pm
by PG
I think that this can be done in a successful way if supported by everyone involved.

The version that I have seen work lets companies apply to the University for presenting a Project to the students. The University evaluates the suggested Projects and approves the top x Projects (based on scientific quality, training possibilities etc). These Projects are then presented to elegible students that can then apply to Projects that they are interested in. The companies then chose the candidate they prefer among the applicants.

This ensures that first the Projects competes with each other for funding, then the Projects compete with each other for applications from students and finally the students compete for the positions. Since all the involved parties ie the University, the student and the Company has the possibility to say no it means that there is a degree of quality ensurance in the program.

Re: Internships for graduate students - a good career development tool?

PostPosted: Tue Jul 11, 2017 1:56 am
by D.X.
Hi MA,

Well many may disagree with me, but the "we don't have enough opportunity" is often a complaint with no substance. To the Point you mentioned, ask what it is they want with a tangible and palable answer that can lead to a measurable and quantifiable outcome and I bet you get very Little.

It goes back to this hand-Holding, sense of entitlement issue that many students may suffer from which then subsequently restricts some entrepreneurial and proactive behaviors. Luckly in back in my day, alot of my Student Peers were self-starters though we did notice the complainers who tended to be the more squeaky wheels - most of us went on outside academia with successful careers, and by success, i mean they found internal happiness.

Regarding the Grand rounds that's good, have them shadow a MD so the see the Patient, link it to clinical papers, in my case I reviewed a couple Phase III studies for a then block buster anti-epleptic plus some Reviews to contextualize the findings then toured the in-Patient ward and attended meetings with Patients (on the patient's concent per MD's request) to see the complete Picture - it was eye opening. Over a few days i spend a couple hours with the MD in the early Mornings and was ready for the lab there after.

Projects are good as PG mentioned again noting all the barriers - one Thing you can think about is finding internships AFTER graduation - That would be of value. The Company I work and within Global HQ DOES give internships to new PhDs locally (within our Country) - often they join Medical Affairs within a Medical Information or Publications Management function as a 6 month Trainee - we take about 2 annually and a few have made it to full time FTE Status. (hired!). They have done the same in Drug Safety. Another Company I worked for, I was part of a small global commerical team that was geographically hubbed at a api and emerging biologics/device manufacturing site (different country than the corporate HQ), and they worked with local universities to source "apprentices" to work in manufacturing, such as technical production, and CMC Quality Assurance though there is a System for this in the Country i'm in.

So try that, look for internships post-grad School, challenging but probably rewarding to both you and Student.


Re: Internships for graduate students - a good career development tool?

PostPosted: Tue Jul 11, 2017 9:33 am
by PG
You need to show the value of the program to all participating parties. If you have a few successful runs this will get easier. For example the company I work for has frequently recruited people who has participated in this type of programs and that type of fact increases the attractivness of the program to student and of course also to us as a Company. You may be able to get numbers for this from other programs that may help with making the program attractive

ie for example to be able to say that in a similar program at University x in city y 50% of the participants have later been recruited to the Company in which they did their internship. IN total 85% of the participants says that participation in the program have helped them in their career development.