Icaro de Oliveira Rosa is a PhD candidate and Sessional Teaching Staff member in the Macquarie School of Education. In this post, Icaro shares how he took the plunge and embarked on a research internship during his PhD. The outcomes surprised him as the internship not only provided fresh perspectives to enrich his research, but he was also able to translate the experience to benefit the students he tutors.

Breaking out of the traditional PhD bubble

Many PhD candidates spend long hours navigating the challenges of traditional academia – tucked away in their offices or labs, working on their thesis, journal articles, presentations, grant applications, as well as teaching and dealing with academic bureaucracy. I believe that it is important for PhD candidates to consider opportunities to enhance their professional growth outside academia. These opportunities, including research internships, can broaden horizons while honing research and teaching skills.

The journey from application to opportunity

A research internship is a position provided by an organisation external to academia that engages higher degree research (HDR) candidates in research and development aligned with their academic pursuits. (Commonwealth Scholarships Guidelines (Research), 2017). It is an opportunity to apply developing and acquired soft and hard skills in a professional setting.

In July 2023, the Graduate Research Academy at Macquarie shared an opportunity to apply for the iPREP Biodesign Program. I thought applying would be a good idea as it would give me some practical experience. I discovered that I could apply for a Leave of Absence which grants HDR candidates up to six months away from their studies to pursue an internship. This allowed for the thesis submission date to be advanced by up to six months. I submitted an application to iPREP, which consisted of my résumé and an online pitch. I received a placement at MTPConnect, an organisation based in Western Australia (WA) that works in the medical technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors.

Internship and PhD: A Virtuous Circle

I was excited about working with MTPConnect as it is one of the Australian Industry Growth Centres, an initiative that aims to drive innovation, productivity and competitiveness across Australia’s six priority sectors.

Together with a small group of other PhD candidates from different fields, I was assigned three main projects to work on during our three-month placement: 1) evaluating the impacts of initiatives promoted by MTPConnect’s partner organisations, 2) mapping the sector’s ecosystem in WA and 3) setting up a group to discuss the sector’s barriers and possibilities in WA.

These projects were interesting not only in themselves but also because they connected the knowledge and skills I was advancing in my PhD to a professional setting.

For the quantitative phase of my PhD, I developed an online survey. Creating a survey from scratch involved learning multiple skills, including survey design, writing questions, deciding the best scale and plotting the results. For the MTPConnect project, I was asked to help to develop a survey. I was excited because having just designed a survey for my PhD, I could apply this experience directly in a professional setting. During its development, I had the chance to recommend changes in its design, questions and scales, exactly as I had done just a few months before.

The qualitative phase of my PhD work had required creating an interview guide. This involved understanding different approaches to questionnaires, learning how to write open-ended questions, conducting interviews and analysing responses. I was also able to apply these skills to the MTPConnect project where I interviewed multiple stakeholders to understand the problems the sector was facing in WA, and then transcribed and analysed the results.

The skills I had acquired through my academic pursuits streamlined this process and enabled me to make the most of the internship. The project will also help with my studies as I learned specific skills such as how to transcribe and use software for an interview, something I will use in the qualitative phase of my PhD later on.

My internship not only proved that I could apply the knowledge and skills I was forging in academia but also showed me the importance of transferrable skills including research, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, time and data management, and research design. For instance, for the interviews, we generated multiple documents and files with the transcriptions and analysis. I developed a data management plan for all these documents, increasing accuracy and reliability of research results as well as facilitating access and interpretation by other colleagues in the future.

Fresh perspectives

All the knowledge and skills that I developed and applied during my internship have provided me with fresh perspectives to look at different career paths. The experience demonstrated that the academic and professional skills I am developing in academia can be applied in multiple industries, even those that are not necessarily linked to my area of study (Education).

Internship and Teaching: A Win-Win Strategy

But what about teaching? How has my internship informed my teaching skills?

When I started my internship, I was tutoring ARTS1000 Humanities and the World at Macquarie. This unit is an interdisciplinary introduction to the main methods in the social sciences and humanities that emphasise three main transferable skills: reflective thinking, influencing, and social and self-responsibility. Reflective thinking consists of understanding actions’ causes and effects and considering their impacts and influences. Influencing is the ability to change people’s opinions, attitudes and behaviours, either directly or indirectly and demands strong interpersonal skills. Exercising social and self-responsibility requires understanding people’s personalities, the factors that influence their behaviour and their strengths and weaknesses (BA Hub, 2024).

I used my internship experience at MTPConnect to emphasise to my students the importance of these competencies for their professional life. For instance, when we debated influencing skills, I demonstrated how I influenced the design of the interview guide and survey during my internship and how interpersonal skills were important when exercising influence, especially within a team with different skill sets like the one I had during my internship. I also drew on my internship experience when discussing reflective thinking. I demonstrated how this internship experience would help my post-PhD job prospects and how that influenced my thinking about whether to pursue a career outside academia. We discussed how my internship had opened new paths that I had not imagined before and how an internship could do the same for them too.

Sharing these real-life examples with students sparked their genuine interest, especially in how to apply skills they were learning in class. They asked me questions about transferrable skills, and we had engaged class discussions. To my surprise, students even mentioned our conversations about ‘how the transferable skills fit into coursework and experiences’ as positives in my Teaching Evaluation (LET).

In Australia and overseas, universities are encouraging educators to go beyond the traditional teaching style, which relies heavily on theory and examples, to make connections to industry and create effective approaches to solving ‘real problems’. This approach puts courses and programs on the cutting edge of teaching and learning (Lipinski & Kosicek, 2016). My internship taught me that strengthening university–industry ties through programs like research internships can be a win-win strategy. Such programs not only give PhD candidates a fresh view of what is happening in industry, they also provide PhD students with additional motivation to engage with their studies by allowing them to experience the impact of developing the skills they are being trained in. For industries, it is a great opportunity to obtain fresh perspectives on their projects, expand their network opportunities, retain talents in their pipeline and get access to high-quality research without the long-term financial commitment.

I was not expecting my three-month internship to help me with my PhD and tutoring work, but it certainly did in ways that I could not have imagined. I recommend all PhD candidates pursue an internship of their own!

e-mail: icaro.deoliveirarosa@mq.edu.au


BA Hub (2024, February 21). https://ilearn.mq.edu.au/course/view.php?id=37652

Commonwealth Scholarships Guidelines (Research) (2017). Higher Education Support Act 2003 https://www.legislation.gov.au/F2016L01602/latest/text

Lipinski, J., & Kosicek, P. M. (2016). Leveraging Industry Experience to Enhance a Professor’s Ability to Teach Applications of Theory. Competition forum, 14(2), 346.

Banner image: Photo by Studio Romantic on Shutterstock
Pathways image: Photo by Olga Danylenko on Shutterstock
Soft skills image: Photo by 3rdtimeluckystudio on Shutterstock
Post edited by Kylie Coaldrake

Posted by Icaro de Oliveira Rosa

Icaro de Oliveira Rosa is a PhD candidate and Sessional Teaching Staff member in the Macquarie School of Education. Contact Icaro: icaro.deoliveirarosa@mq.edu.au

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