A Year in Industry: To Apply or Not To Apply, That is the Question.

If you’ve read my About Me page then you already know that I’m biomedical sciences undergraduate at Newcastle University. What you probably didn’t know, is that I’m currently doing an industrial placement year at one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the country if not the world; Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK). GSK make everything from toothpaste to cancer drugs and I was lucky enough to secure a placement in their immuno-inflamation unit looking at the effects of epigenetics on disease. But how did I get here?

As a student, the world is your oyster and you’re constantly being bombarded with all the options that are out there after you graduate. A PhD, another degree, a grad scheme, the NHS. The list goes on and it can be overwhelming trying to decide what you want to do with your life before you even know what you want for tea. I go to Newcastle University and they’re pretty good at telling you about the different jobs that are out there for a student with a biomed degree. We constantly have guest lecturers from different walks of life telling us what they did with their degrees and how they got to where they are now. Although this is an invaluable resource to a wide eyed student, I don’t think you truly know which avenue is right for you until you’ve tried it. Take me for example. I’m a hard core science geek. Ever since I was a little girl I was fascinated by science and so naturally I always thought that I would get my degree and go on to do a PhD but if uni has taught me anything, it’s that there is so much more out there.

During my second year at uni, I spent my free periods working part-time in one of the uni’s research labs. I was partnered with a PhD student and helped her to carry out some of her lab work. I was lucky. Whilst some people were washing glasses and filling pipette boxes I was actually getting hands on experience in the lab. It may have only been making up media and running plasmid mini preps but I was learning how to work safely and efficiently in a lab, a skill that not many second year undergrads have mastered. This got me thinking about applying for an industrial placement. I enjoy being in the lab, I always have and God knows that a degree alone is not enough to get you where you want to go anymore. With that in mind I carefully thought about the pros and cons of doing an industrial placement.

Pros: Cons:
It would look great on my CV.

It would add a year to my degree.

I would gain valuable work experience. Everyone I know would have graduated without me.
I’ll find out what it’s like to work in industry. Where would I live when I go back to uni?
I can challenge/ push myself. What if industry isn’t for me and I’m stuck there for a whole year?
I’ll meet new people.
It’s a chance to make professional contacts.

These were all serious considerations that I had to weigh up but finally I came to the conclusion that even if I did hate my year in industry, I would still gain all the benefits of my ‘Pros’ column and I would know for certain that industry wasn’t for me. So after months of deliberation I set about applying for an industrial placement. If you’re thinking about doing one, I suggest you start early. Do your research over the summer and be ready to apply as the first ones appear in September. There are some that don’t come out until January or even April of second year but as the old saying goes, “The early bird catches the worm”. And don’t think you have to do your placement in a lab either. When I was applying, there were so many different opportunities in human resources, public engagement, sales etc. If you know what you want to do, great, go for it, but if not be brave, try something new. No experience is bad experience.

So after months of anticipation and interviews at various companies I finally accepted my offer from GSK and six months on here I am, half way through my placement. So what have I learnt about industry? Well the best part for me has been the on the job learning. Every day I learn something new. I’m surrounded by the most intelligent people who constantly push me to think more, to be better. I’ve had hands on experience with so many pieces of equipment that I would never have had access to as an undergrad and more importantly I’ve learnt not just how to use them but when to use them. If you’d of asked me at uni how PCR works I would have been able to rattle off the text book answer within minutes but that doesn’t mean I’d of understood what to use it for or how it would benefit my experiment. Having to plan my own project and carry out my own research means that I now know that if I want to look at differences in gene expression, qPCR would be a great way to go. Uni might have told me that but it was my placement that taught it to me.

Another benefit is how ‘official’ everything is. Carrying out research in industry is very regulated. I have to write up each of my experiments to the letter from the ID number of the piece of equipment I used to the lot numbers of my reagents. Part of this involves setting a title and aim for each experiment I carry out before I even enter the lab. This prompts me to think about what I’m doing and why and then to evaluate whether those aims were met once the experiment is over. I may not always achieve my aims but I do have to think about why that is and what I can do achieve them in future. This is then assessed and hopefully signed off by a colleague and will remain in the GSK archives for years to come. The exciting part is that the work I do actually contributes to on-going drug discovery projects. Unlike uni, no one knows what the outcome of my experiments will be and what I find is often novel and of genuine importance to the company.

Perhaps most importantly though, this entire experience has set me in great stead for my third year project. When the time comes, I’ll already know my way confidently around a lab and will have more experience than most at planning and designing an experiment. This means that I can jump straight in and get a head start on my project whilst others are still finding their feet. I’m also familiar with keeping a well-documented lab book and presenting my data at weekly team meetings. If I can stand up in front 30 experts in the field and talk about my work then doing it in front of a lecturer and a few students will be a breeze. I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet, I’m just trying to give you an idea of the benefits a year in industry could give you.

So what is my take home message? What will be the right path for you? That is the million dollar question and if you took in anything I just said, you’ll realise that only you can determine that. But you don’t need to have all the answers right away. There’s nothing stopping you from doing a PhD and realising it’s not for you. May be you want to work for the NHS, maybe you want to go into sales and marketing or maybe you want to do all three. There is nothing wrong with that. Your decision isn’t final, you can change your career as many times as you want. If my time in industry has taught me anything, it’s that industry, for the time being at least, isn’t for me but if I could go back in time would I do it again? Absolutely. The more you learn, the more you experience, the quicker you will find the right path for you. If you talked to 5 colleagues in my department, I guarantee you every single one of them will have taken a different route to get to where they are now. One might have done a PhD, one could of gone straight into industry, and another might have a masters in regulatory affairs. That’s the beauty of science, there is no right way. Science may be your degree but there’s so much more you can do with it. Explore, enjoy, experience, then you can decide.

If you’re a student like me who’s still confused about the future, I hope this post at least began to help you make sense of your options. And if you have any questions or want to discuss more about life in industry/ applying for an industrial placement then please free to contact me and I will try my best to answer your questions!

As always, thanks for reading!

Here’s me and a few other industrial placement students currently doing placement years at GSK. We have a great student network and the social scene is pretty good to!


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