Rather than spending three straight years slogging away at my BSc, I decided to trade in the pen for the pipette and take the opportunity to spend a year in industry. This was a 12-month placement at British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Hopefully this blog-post will make you consider a research-based placement year.
I get the feeling that many undergraduates question the idea of taking a year out altogether; after all you still only get a BSc for what is an extra year of your life. Well, simply put, I think you’d be making a mistake if you didn’t jump on the opportunity to explore research in the life sciences. I know it’s a bit trite to say this, but you should consider a placement if only to satisfy yourself that it is/isn’t for you. Plus, the year is a welcome relief to the study regimes and exams that, by the end of second year, I found increasingly difficult to motivate myself for.
After the ups and down of the application process I obtained a placement in the early stages of the drug discovery process. My work involved the creation and development of biochemical ‘assays’ for specific biological targets, usually a disease-related enzyme or protein. These assays are a means of probing a particular function of the protein, related to what you would want your drug to target. As a result, biochemical assays are generally measures of enzyme kinetics or protein-protein interactions. After development, an assay is transferred for use in High Throughput Screening. Whilst these assays may sound systematic to make, they were far from simple and require detailed calibrations of every aspect of the biochemical environment. Disregard any concerns you might have that “industry” might be a duller prospect than an academic placement – the sheer wealth of the pharmaceutical industry allows them to bring in the latest technologies, meaning cutting-edge research/techniques are the norm.
Right, now to the crux of my argument for why you SHOULD take a year in research: you get an early opportunity to develop the most important technique in experiment-driven research – the application of the scientific method. By this I mean the ability to compose experiments and successfully execute them. Then, of course, be able to concisely explain the nature of the results. Honing of these skills requires months of practice and involved constant feedback and discussion with my supervisor. I would argue that pharma is the best place to start learning this skill. Their data-integrity policies are vast, and they use electronic lab-books, meaning that almost anyone can freely access your work and analyse it! All this equates to an emphasis on high quality research, meaning development of all individuals to a high-standard.
Work aside, there are also social benefits to having a year in industry. Working for a large company on a large site means a large number of placement students, from various fields of study. Lots of students having no responsibilities outside of working hours = copious amounts of socializing. Also, there are no exams. NO EXAMS. I would go as far as saying that my year at GSK was the most enjoyable of all my years as a student, and also the year in which I learned the most. Yes, it was even better than first year!
Going into my final year, I return with not only a substantial amount of discount Lucozade (a GSK product that I enjoyed perhaps too often), but also a wealth of experience and skills that will undoubtedly help my studies. I now have a substantial body of work to my name in the form of my YII Report that I can attach to post-graduate applications. Add that to a boosted CV, I can forward with a confidence and direction that I would not have without my placement year!
If anyone has any questions about stuff I haven’t covered, for example, the application and interview process, you’re welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org