Institute for Academic Development
Institute for Academic Development

Evaluating professional internships for PhD Students

Evaluating the EAST of Scotland Doctoral Training Partnership Professional Internships for PhD students scheme

Team Members :  Caroline Pope, Joshua Stapp, Lisa Scattergood, Sharon Maguire, Susan Bird, Tania Morgan Alcantarilla


Background: Some educational activities such as internships are unusually effective at providing substantial educational benefits to students and are all associated with desirable learning and personal development outcomes (AAC&U, 2008 report; Kuh, 2009). Employers endorse these “high-impact practices” (for a full report on this survey and related employer findings, see ). This led to a growing call for more experiential learning through placements at under-graduate and post-graduate levels in the Universities UK 2009 report. This was reiterated in the Wilson 2012 Review of university business interactions where the recommendation was made to give students more experience of business through placements. As a direct response to this in 2012, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) became the first Research Council to require all of the PhD students funded through its Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) programme to undertake a three-month Professional Internship for PhD Students (PIPS) in an area outside of academic research. 

There is considerable debate over the place of experiential learning in higher education with some saying that these types of learning experiences do not belong in the university (described in the research literature by Moore, 2010). The fact that internships have a high degree of variability in terms of their learning potential is relevant to this debate (reviewed by Nancy O’ Neill in Fall 2010). Although the benefits of doctor internships are widely documented and accepted as common practice in the health care setting, evidence in STEM subjects is sparse. Studies investigating the impact of innovative experiential learning range from a short reflection on the practical aspects of work placements (McConnell, 2007) through to in depth evaluation of experiences of people who have undertaken work placements linked to STEM (Collins, 2010 and Driscoll, 2011). However, a gap exists in the research literature around the impact on professional and career development for Life Science doctoral researchers of undertaking professional internships.

Through implementing the EAST of Scotland doctoral training partnership (EASTBio) internship scheme, I gained cross institutional perspectives indicating that many are embracing the learning opportunity offered by internships. However, some remain sceptical of the relative benefit of PIPS compared to extra time in the academic research laboratory and questioned the focus of the internships. In addition, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that students who have undertaken PIPS are keen to report positive experiences but hesitant to share uncomfortable learning, which are perceived as a “less than favourable outcome”.

Aims: EASTBio wishes to create an internship feedback and evaluation survey tool that aims to promote dialogic interaction and the development of the students’ evaluative capacities (Carless, 2015). 

Methodology: Students will be invited to complete the survey developed after their work placement is finished. We anticipate that including this missing step in the current internship process will encourage students to reflect on their PIPS experiential learning experience and put a mechanism in place to record achievements. This has been shown to empower students to incorporate their new understanding of that activity into their lives (Bohn & Schmidt, 2008). The data captured will allow us to investigate whether participation in doctoral internships is having a positive educational impact on students’ knowledge, skills, personal development and work-readiness.

Final report, including other project outcomes to date

Final project report may be downloaded here

Other Project Outcomes

Professional internships for PhD researchers: An integral part of doctoral training - Occasional paper C2 Paper based on workshop 'C2 - Professional internships for PhD researchers: An integral part of doctoral training' presented at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference, 8-9 September 2015, Manchester, UK. (Volume 3)