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Our year in industry: setting the stage for a career in science

More people are going to university than ever before. One way students are boosting their employability is through a Year in Industry placement. What’s it like?

July 29, 2019

More people are going to university than ever before, making the job market a daunting place - with an average of 75 people applying for every graduate job. One way students are boosting their employability is by doing a year in industry mid-way through their degrees, but what is it really like?

We spoke to Will, Lucie and Elena, three students who are coming to the end of their placements at EI, to find out what they thought of the experience.

Meet EI's Year in Industry class of 2019

Lucie, who studies at the University of Exeter, has always been interested in plant biochemistry. "I was already aware of Earlham Institute and when I found out about the research on increasing crop yield carried out here, I decided to apply." This is something she discovered a passion for whilst doing work experience at the John Innes Centre in sixth form: "I wanted to get a clearer idea about what having a job in academia would be like."

Will decided to do a year in industry to help him get a better idea about what he wanted to do after university. "I have always been interested in genomics and when an ex-year in industry student from EI told me that you work with Genomics England, my ears pricked up." After doing some more research, Will, a biological sciences student from the University of Birmingham, was impressed with the breadth of research carried out here. "EI appealed to me as someone who was unsure about the exact area of genomics I was interested in."

Elena, who wrote her dissertation on gut microbiota, found out about Earlham Institute through her university supervisor. "He knew that there was some research being carried out in that field at EI and thought I’d find it interesting." In her time here, Elena worked in the Korcsmaros group, looking at the cell-specific effects of Bifidobacteria in the gut. "Learning at university is just theoretical - I wanted to see why I was being taught this stuff and how it is applied in a job. It was great to follow up my dissertation with performing my own research on the same subject."

Elena Rodriguez spent her Year in Industry looking at the cell-specific effects of Bifidobacteria in the gut

Elena Rodriguez spent her Year in Industry looking at the cell-specific effects of Bifidobacteria in the gut
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Learning at university is just theoretical - I wanted to see why I was being taught this stuff and how it is applied in a job.

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Elena Rodriguez, Year in Industry student

Coding and public engagement: what have our Year in Industry students been up to?

Lucie’s project focused on comparing two ways of identifying DNA methylation: the classic sodium bisulfite conversion and a new method, APOBEC-seq, which uses enzymes. She told me that the project enabled her to develop her practical lab skills, get better at academic writing and increase her knowledge in genetics and sequencing - all of which will help her in the final year of her Biochemistry degree. She even learnt how to code, a skill that intimidated her slightly before:

"Coding is something I never thought I would do! But when I first started my placement, I was encouraged to spend some time learning by my supervisor." Despite her initial hesitations, Lucie is a big fan of coding now: "It is actually really fun and now I can see just how important it is in biological research."

Having had the opportunity to participate in the Inside EI open day and Norwich Science festival, they all felt as though their public engagement skills had improved, with Will telling me: "It was something I hadn"t really had to do before, but I really enjoyed it!" Lucie said: "I feel much more confident about talking to people about the science I am doing now.”

Our Year in Industry students helping out with public engagement using the EI Lego DNA sequencer at Norwich Science Festival

Our Year in Industry students helping out with public engagement using the EI Lego DNA sequencer at Norwich Science Festival

Starting a placement year can be a bit daunting at first. "You"re going to be working with lots of people who know much more than you - but that’s ok!" Lucie would tell anyone starting their placement year. Elena agreed that she also struggled at the beginning, feeling as though her project was insignificant compared to the people around her: "But now I have finished, I can see the impact that it has had."

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I feel much more confident about talking to people about the science I am doing now.

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Lucie Spurgeon, Year in Industry student

What are our students moving on to next?

On her return to the University of Manchester, Elena is looking forward to becoming the president of the Biotech society: "I'm planning on organising a conference and arranging for some of my friends from EI to come and discuss their research." She is also hoping to continue her research on gut bacteria.

"I’ve chosen a module about cancer next year, because I'm interested in how gut microbiota affect cancer. I would love to do a research project on this for my PhD." This is a slight change of heart for Elena, who is studying for a degree in Biotechnology. She was not thinking about doing a PhD before she started her placement year- and Lucie told me the same - with her original plan being to do a masters. "Now that I’ve spoken to people who have done both masters and PhDs, I have a better idea of what each would consist of and can see the benefits of doing a PhD."

Will is also looking to do a PhD and his experience of working with students studying for one means he now knows what to look out for when applying, such as funding. His research project within the Genomics Pipelines Group, which saw him test and compare the cost-effectiveness of two sequencing methods (Illumina and Oxford Nanopore), enabled him to get a better understanding of the area of research he would like to go into. "Before I came here, I thought I wanted to go into population genetics, but now I know that it is transcriptomics I am interested in." He plans to carry out his final year research project on the transcriptomics of cancer.

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Before I came here, I thought I wanted to go into population genetics, but now I know that it is transcriptomics I am interested in.

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Life at Earlham Institute: Jiu Jitsu & work life balance

Their experience hasn’t just been about science: Lucie and Elena both participated in Jujitsu club, of which Ross Low, a postdoctoral scientist in the Neil Hall Group, is the sensei. I asked Elena about this after attending her end of project presentation: "It was crazy, I literally started it in November and won bronze in a national competition by February! It was a great way to meet people who work on the research park and we became friends - some of them even came to my talk today."

As well as being a Postdoctoral scientist at EI, Ross Low also runs a local Jujitsu club. Several EI staff participate including Year in Industry students Lucie and Elena.

EI postdoc scientist Ross Low also runs a local Jujitsu club. Several EI staff participate including Year in Industry students
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It was crazy, I literally started it in November and won bronze in a national competition by February! It was a great way to meet people who work on the research park and we became friends.

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Elena Rodriguez, Year in Industry student

Will, who goes out running with his colleagues, told me that "everyone has a great work-life balance here and it means there is a real community feel", while Elena said, "I love the atmosphere at EI. Everyone is so friendly and helpful, and I like that everyone sits together at lunch time.”

Will told me that in order to get the most out of your experience you have to: "Seize every moment!

Use the people around you, ask loads of questions and get them to teach you things."

"You have to persevere when it gets difficult and stressful because it is worth it when you get to the end", Lucie added, "I feel like I have gained so much from the experience!"

Interested in doing a year in industry at EI? Applications for September 2020 will open in October. We take students studying a range of science degrees - see more here.

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Use the people around you, ask loads of questions and get them to teach you things.

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This article was prepared and written by Science Communications Trainee, Georgie Lorenzen, whilst on a placement in EI's Communications team.