Internships Boost Postdocs’ Skills, Worldliness, and Marketability

20131021_LLaursenPostdocInternship_KellyAndringa_160x160When Kelly Andringa began to get calls from faculty anxious about their paperwork, she wondered whether she’d done her assignment right. As a 2-days-a-week intern on the conflict-of-interest review board at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), she had written a Web-based tutorial explaining to faculty how to properly fill out compliance forms. Her main job, however, was as a postdoc in environmental health at the same university; administration was new to her. But, as more calls came in, Andringa realized that the concerns of most of those faculty members were unwarranted: They had completed the forms correctly. “I was quite proud,” she recalls. “I felt good about communicating it well.”

Andringa is one of a small but growing cohort of scientists who take time off from postdocs to complete internships outside of academia. In its latest survey of postdocs, Vitae, an organization based in Cambridge that supports the career development of U.K. research staff, found that 9% of respondents have done placements or internships outside of academia, up from 5% just 2 years earlier. Andringa’s internship helped her get a job in her desired field: After finishing her postdoc in the winter of 2009, she first took a program management job at UAB before moving to her present grant administration job there.

Many postdocs use internships, as Andringa did, as bridges to jobs outside research, but some continue on as researchers and are better rounded for it, says David Taylor, who, after doing a postdoc at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), completed an internship in the hospital’s administration department. His internship, too, led to a job: Taylor now facilitates internships for CHOP’s current postdocs. Whether you leave research or stay in, internships can give postdocs a chance to look at their academic work with outsiders’ eyes and position themselves better to move forward in their careers.

Applying skills to new sectors

Physiologist Sara Borniquel of the Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm, Sweden, is not yet sure what she will do when her postdoc is over, but she is ready to leave academia. A couple of years ago, Borniquel attended a seminar on internships for postdocs offered by the KI careers office. The Spanish native recalls reasoning, “I don’t know where I’ll be in 5 years and this seems like a good opportunity to widen my knowledge and learn a bit more about Sweden.” Borniquel has since done two 3-month internships, one at Karolinska Institutet Innovations AB and the other at Stockholm-Uppsala Life Science. “I learned that I’m not just a scientist. I have another area of knowledge, other skills, which I can apply in other areas.” She now feels comfortable interviewing experts and preparing market-research reports.

Vitae development director Alison Mitchell, says that companies see internships as “an opportunity to have some innovation, new solutions, new resources, and increase their visibility and relationship with the university—and also recruit new talent.” Postdocs offer more experience and specialized skills than doctoral students and undergraduates do, and are closer to the job market, she says.

Internships are a good way to get your foot in the door. “We do give a preference for individuals who have been an intern at IBM,” says Jim Spohrer, who is the director of IBM’s global university programs in San Jose, California. This is because such applicants know the IBM culture and the company has a good idea of how they will perform. Altogether, IBM’s worldwide research labs host between 350 and 400 interns per year. It isn’t clear what proportion of interns become IBM employees, but three of the 10 advanced-degreed participants in IBM’s Zurich and Haifa-based Great Minds program are now IBM employees, says IBM communications manager Chris Sciacca.

According to Spohrer, postdocs are more likely than doctoral students to match the company’s ideal employee hiring profile: a so-called “T-shaped” professional, with both depth of training in one area and a breadth of experience, such as having worked in different countries or having both scientific and business skills. While an internship may or may not lead directly to a job, it can still make you more employable.

What will my principal investigator (PI) say?

Andringa, who knew from the start of her postdoc that she might not want to become an academic researcher, made sure to tell her supervisor of her intentions during her first interview so that there were no surprises later. That made things easier for her, but many postdocs may not start looking around at other opportunities until after they’ve taken up their posts. For them, an early step toward pursuing an internship should be a conversation with their PI.

It can be a tough sell. Postdoc advisers generally expect their postdocs to spend most of their time doing their research, leading to new insights and publications. Why should they allow key lab personnel to go off and do an internship?

One thing postdocs can do to convince their PIs is offer to keep the research going. During her 3-month internship, Andringa was away from the lab just 2 days each week. Borniquel did two 3-month internships, both full-time, but she had two advantages: She received funding for her internships from the KI careers office, which helped compensate her supervisor for her time away, and her supervisor was “pretty open.” Even so, she offered to work some weekends. At one time CHOP compensated PIs for postdocs’ time away, Taylor says, but due to budget cuts the program’s administrators now make all their internships part-time so that they’re less disruptive.

Another way to convince your PI, Mitchell suggests, is to offer to extend the postdoc to make up for the time you’ll be missing. “It’s got to be done in an appropriate way so they’re still making progress on their postdoctoral research,” Spohrer says.

But, while it’s important to reassure PIs they are not going to lose their workers (at least not completely), postdocs can also make a case that their exposure to new work environments is a benefit to PIs. An internship can, for example, bring new ways of thinking into the lab, Mitchell says. Taylor adds that, given the current job market, many academic supervisors understand the need to place their postdocs in nonresearch posts. “I think that reflects to an extent the way the biomedical community is going,” with researchers ending up in a wider variety of jobs, Taylor says.

Finally, both the postdoc and the PI must ensure that the resulting arrangement satisfies the requirements of the contract with the research’s funders.

So, how do I do it?

When Borniquel went searching for internships, a career office identified interested companies and agencies. Andringa’s university had a similar program. Postdocs who don’t have access to such programs can start by identifying people in their network who could help them find a placement. “Very often it’s [after] talking within academia that the opportunities arise,” Mitchell says.

Postdocs should choose their internship with care, aiming to maximize the career benefits of their time away from research. CHOP interns spend a month exploring possible projects and then 5 months carrying them out, Taylor says. Even if a researcher has identified a target company, they should research that company and find out what projects are afoot and whom within the company they might work with, and come to the interview with questions, Spohrer says.

Finding a placement is only the beginning. Spohrer advises that postdocs maintain an inquisitive attitude throughout their internships. The researchers who get the most out of their placements at IBM attend colloquia, shadow a range of colleagues, and seek out mentors, he says.

Structure can make the experience more valuable, says Mitchell; she recommends a discussion ahead of time about what the various parties are expecting from the internship and a final review at the end. Taylor’s internship was capped with a presentation, which he says is a good way to take stock of what you’ve learned.

An internship is an opportunity for postdocs to broaden their experience and outlook. “It made me more aware of what was out there,” Andringa says. As a result of the internship, her professional network, credentials, and job opportunities expanded. And when the time came to apply for a job, people in the administration office where she worked could vouch for her understanding of administrators’ roles at the university.

“Everybody going through the program has the opportunity to find a new niche,” Taylor says. “Even if they’ve stayed in research, they’ve found it very positive.”

First published by Science Careers [html] [pdf]