Why should graduate researchers undertake an industry internship?

In this post we invited APR Intern’s Justin Mabbutt to share more about why La Trobe graduate researchers might be interested in joining an internship program. Justin works for APR Intern and is based at La Trobe for part of the week. Any supervisors or students who are interested in speaking to him are invited to get in touch.

Seeking a career following graduation has never been a simple enterprise. Indeed, previous RED Alert post writers have shared: career advice to your 16 year old self, top career tips for ECRs, and how to approach career planning as a research project itself. However, it is clear that employment markets for researchers have changed over time. One aspect of this change is that there has been greater participation in graduate research, which has produced a higher number of highly skilled researchers. At the same time academic employment markets have remained tight, and there has been evidence of growing demand for researchers in the private and public sector.

For example, in May 2019 a report called Advancing Australia’s Knowledge Economy – Who are the top PhD employers? was released by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute and CSIRO Data61’s Ribit.net. The report highlights Australia’s growth sectors as the top PhD employers: medicine, pharmaceuticals, mining and finance, as well as growing demand across advanced manufacturing and emerging industries such as environmental services and media technology. Arguably, Australia’s economy, innovation capability and global competitiveness is dependent on the effective skilling of this workforce to apply specialist expertise within a commercial business environment.

Another key finding of this recent study was that over half of the PhD students who were surveyed indicated that they are hoping to work in industry positions. The question then arises, how might graduate researchers make connections with industries they may later wish to work in, while they are seeking their higher degree research qualification?

That's where Australian Postgraduate Research Intern (APR.Intern) programs come in. APR Intern was launched in 2007 by the Australian Mathematical Science Institute, and it aims to make it easier for PhD students to gain industry experience and broaden their career opportunities. Our key contribution is to bridge the gap between academia and industry to and equip PhD graduates to make the transition. Our reach across all sectors and disciplines is a significant factor in the program’s success.

While Australia is seeing a slow cultural change, universities such as La Trobe are increasingly aware of the benefits of industry partnerships and the value research can bring to industry. As the report from AMSI and CSIRO shows, industry is embracing PhD talent as an innovation accelerator.

La Trobe Head of Mathematics and Statistics, Professor Luke Prendergast, has mentored several PhD students during APR.Intern PhD placements. Have a listen to Luke speaking on the benefits of industry experience for universities. In the video, Professor Prendergast describes the mutual benefits that can accrue for mentors and students (who get exposure to real industry problems) as well as the possibilities for graduate researchers who can expand their professional networks and career opportunities. 

Case Study: PhD intern at the Fuel Storage Frontline

Interest in underground fuel storage has recently skyrocketed, due to growing environmental concerns and regulation. To investigate fuel loss during storage at service stations, wetstock management specialists, Environmental Monitoring Solutions (EMS), collaborated with La Trobe University PhD student, Roshan Kumar, on a tailored internship.

As part of the five-month project, Roshan was given the opportunity to apply his technical skills to a real-life challenge, working with EMS to inform and lead new product development.

“Not only was the project’s aim achieved, but Roshan also uncovered new information leading directly to broader benefits in terms of environmental impact,” said Erica Scott, EMS Operations Manager.

With the guidance of his Academic Mentor, Prof. Prendergast, Roshan used machine learning and software development skills to design data-driven algorithms.

“The internship provided me with an opportunity to hone my programming skills and learn new concepts, while attempting to manage the complexities of real-world situations,” said Roshan.

“It was a great transition from the academic environment, which makes the education experience more wholesome,” Roshan continued.

The opportunity to mentor Roshan highlighted the transferable nature of PhD skills for Associate Professor Prendergast.

“For me, being able to see first-hand how Roshan solved difficult problems with programmed solutions, highlighted how academic researchers can work brilliantly with industry partners for mutual benefit,” said Prendergast.

Following the project’s success, EMS employed Roshan in a newly created, full-time position. 

This is just one example of the possible outcomes of internships for researchers. For more information please contact Justin Mabbutt.