Impact Blog

Delivering impact through internships: Q&A with APR.Intern’s Lisa Farrar

March 2022

Internships and placements are an important part of Australia’s graduate research landscape. Despite the disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the growth in demand for PhD internships among both students and host organisations has been quite remarkable. In many cases the specific technical and clinical needs arising from the public, health and community response to the pandemic has generated additional opportunities for internships.

Australian Postgraduate Research Intern (APR.Intern) is Australia’s only national PhD and Masters by Research internship program spanning all sectors and disciplines. ACGR spoke with APR.Intern National Program Manager Lisa Farrar about multifaceted nature of intern programs and the value they offer to students, supervisors and industry partners.

Feedback regarding the impact and quality of graduate researchers undertaking internships and placements is often positive, what value do internships for PhD/HDR students offer?

APR.Intern has a 99% program satisfaction rate among students, academics and industry – there are so many benefits for everyone involved.

For students, undertaking an internship during their postgraduate studies unlocks a whole new realm of career possibilities. They pursue a PhD because they are passionate about research and a career in academia and can be unfamiliar with the industry research roles available. An internship is an opportunity for students to dip their toe into all manner of industries to see how their cutting-edge skills can be applied to solve real-world challenges and help organisations level up their innovation.

Nearly all of our student interns complete their project with the same feedback: it was an eye-opening experience. They leave with new soft skills that complement their academic experience, in addition to enhanced CVs, new industry networks and broadened career horizons. And, of course, they are paid a monthly stipend throughout the internship.

One of our PhD students, Martina Di Venere, interned at medtech start-up, Haemograph, and said: “The internship was a great opportunity to learn new skills and experience the differences between industry and academic research environments. I gained new technical and soft skills and learned the inner workings of a start-up.”

Following the project’s success, Martina was offered an ongoing position as a Research Engineer.  This is not an uncommon outcome, with many of our interns being offered ongoing employment.

For academics and universities, PhD internships are an invaluable opportunity to see and hear the challenges businesses are facing.  The gold standard successful internship includes an ongoing university-business relationship that continues to explore how partnering can improve knowledge as well as the application of research in a broader context, to improve society.

Each intern is paired with an Academic Mentor – typically their PhD supervisor – to provide guidance regarding the internship’s research goals. It’s during this time that academics have the chance to learn about the business needs, build rapport and nurture ongoing research relationships and partnerships.

Professor Kate Smith-Miles, from the University of Melbourne, has mentored five PhD students through the program and credits the industry engagement for helping her develop some of the technology now on show at the ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Optimisation Technologies, Integrated Methodologies and Applications (OPTIMA), which Professor Smith-Miles was awarded nearly $5 million by the ARC to lead.

“The techniques my student and I developed during this internship enabled me to broaden my mathematical toolkit in a direction well-aligned with industry needs, which years later led me to establish OPTIMA. Now, we are applying these techniques for other industry partners such as Boeing and AGL Energy,” said Professor Smith-Miles.

PhD industry internships are a win-win for both the student and research institution.

There appears to be strong interest from industry partners wanting to offer internships and placements to PhD/HDR students. What is the value to the host organisation?

There is ongoing and growing demand for research skills in the workplace, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors. The discipline and research expertise that PhD candidates bring to the table is a skillset that businesses sometimes don’t realise they are missing until they experience it.  Very often, our industry partners report that the skills the intern applied helped them accelerate up the innovation curve much faster than they would have otherwise.

APR.Intern connects the brightest emerging research students with business and industry. By taking care of the student matching and paperwork, we allow everyone to focus on the important stuff: the R&D. The internships are short-term three to six month projects, that bring rapid results and often create significant value for all involved.

One of our industry partners, Dr Slaven Marusic, Digital Insights Leader at global engineering firm, Aurecon, said the following on the value PhD interns bring, “The most valuable part of the APR.Intern program has been the opportunity to source research expertise, from across multiple disciplines, to meet some of the most complex challenges in industry. Internship project outcomes are having an immediate impact with our clients and within Aurecon.”

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the APR.Intern offering?

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, APR.Intern transitioned seamlessly to offer remote internship arrangements Australia-wide and placed a near record-breaking 155 PhD students into industry placements in 2020

The remote internship model was embraced by industry, students and universities and it will continue to be part of the APR.Intern model moving forward, to provide maximum flexibility and opportunity for the student, business and universities to come together. The program was a very helpful backup for students who were challenged by being unable to continue with their PhD’s during lockdown. Instead, they were able to undertake a meaningful internship to support continued productivity nationally by applying their vital research skills in industry in the interim.

A systematic review has been undertaken and your 2022 program has been finalised, are there any significant changes to the offering? What does the future hold the APR.Intern beyond 2022?

APR.Intern continues to offer three-to-six-month internships nationally, to all disciplines, with the same student stipend and an honorarium for academic mentor participation. There is no longer a cap on international students, excepting where the organisation cannot host an international student, such as Defence. We will also place Masters by Research students.

A subscription is now being offered to all universities, providing unlimited access to APR.Intern each year. As APR.Intern is a division of AMSI, AMSI has also introduced an internship benefit for its members, whereby all university members receive unlimited free Mathematical Sciences internships and a small number of free internships for all other disciplines, depending on the level of membership. For those universities wishing to access unlimited opportunities to utilise the established APR.Intern framework, the subscription model incorporates both.

Further details about the APR.Intern program are available via their website. APR.Intern also welcomes direct contact (03 8344 1785 or ) for queries about the membership and subscription models.

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