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When a PhD is not enough: A case study of a UK internship programme to enhance the employability of doctoral researchers

Purpose – This paper outlines a doctoral internship programme introduced for students researching Mechanistic Biology in the Department of Biology, University of York, UK. The programme forms part of the White Rose Doctoral Training Programme (DTP), a collaboration between the three “White Rose” Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York in the North of England. It provides an analysis of the UK context in which the new biotechnology doctoral internships initiative sits and describes the pilot phase of the Professional Internship for PhD Students (PIPS) programme and the introduction of the full doctoral PIPS internship programme. The purpose of this paper is to examine best practice in the planning and management of internships with particular interest in doctoral programmes, with a discussion on the challenges presented by cognate and non-cognate internships. Design/methodology/approach – The paper uses as a case study, the introduction of PIPS for the DTP in Mechanistic Biology, hosted by the White Rose Consortium of Universities (York, Sheffield and Leeds) and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). It also considers good practice from around the world and relates these to the work-based learning literature. Findings – The paper outlines the processes and resources used to secure PIPS internships and evaluates their success against BBSRC’s objective to help early career researchers to understand the context of their research and expose them to the range of opportunities available after graduation. The authors describe an initial pilot study, challenges and opportunities provided by the internships and feedback from students in the programme. Research limitations/implications – Though the number of students in the pilot study was very limited, all students had a greater awareness particularly of their leadership, project management, organisational and team working capabilities following the three-month internship and were more receptive to the consideration of careers outside of academia. Originality/value – The authors offer recommendations from their own experiences of initiating these doctoral internships which may be useful to others implementing non-cognate internship programmes at their own institutions, whilst being mindful that programmes in other countries may face different challenges.