Impact Blog

PhD Industry Internships: Adjusting to a New Normal

June 2020
Glen Sheldon
Deputy National Program Manager, APR.Intern

Industry-university research collaboration is crucial to enhancing Australia’s knowledge economy. Not-for-profit, APR.Intern, works with universities to place PhD students into short-term, paid industry internships. In this post, APR.Intern’s Deputy National Program Manager, Glen Sheldon, highlights how the program has responded to the pandemic and why industry experience for PhD graduates is more important than ever.

COVID-19 has presented significant challenges for the APR.Intern program and its stakeholders; Australian businesses, from startups to corporate, universities staring at record deficits, and PhD students – many of whom have had to pause their candidature and lost part-time jobs. This network of businesses and universities is key to APR.Intern’s success, and we are committed to supporting our partners as the crisis continues to evolve. Current circumstances reflect that now, more than ever, the power of industry-university research collaboration is needed by Australia’s industrial sectors.

PhD students, too, benefit from the APR.Intern experience; a paid opportunity to apply their analytical skills in a practical research environment and make industry connections. In April this year, APR.Intern experienced a record-breaking surge in student applications – more than double the highest month ever. This increase followed an exciting 2019; 90 new industry partners and 162 internships signed across Australia, including our first international project via the University of Queensland with Astra Seneca in Sweden. These figures were nearly double 2018, and 2020 looked on track to repeat another impressive performance.

Then, COVID-19 hit, and just two internships were signed in May.

But things are starting to look up and we currently have more than 30 PhD internship opportunities advertised on the website.

So how has APR.Intern responded to the challenges of COVID-19? Fortunately, most of our business development team worked off-site pre-pandemic regularly, and were used to facilitating internships with students and businesses remotely. Of course, face-to-face meetings, working on campus and in cafes were part of normalities. However, they have had no problem adapting to the new Zoom environment… in fact, it seems many businesses are catching up to them! Virtual interaction has now become the new normal.

Crippling economic downturns are not generally considered conducive to internships. Many companies are grappling with existential issues and trying to make sense of the situation they find themselves in. While our May internship numbers reflect this, many companies decided to continue advertising their internships and seek out the perfect PhD student. We have also had a number of enquiries from new businesses looking to engage with a PhD intern to fast-track research during the pandemic. A company in SA, DuMonde Group, is currently seeking four interns. And existing industry partner, Inventia Life Sciences want to place two interns.

Of course, the economic downturn was caused a public health emergency that has killed hundreds of thousands of individuals worldwide. The safety of our interns is paramount, and our team has been working with industry partners to ensure a smooth transition to remote arrangements. We have also been working with universities to ensure students undertaking an internship remain compliant with university policies. The benefit of remote internship arrangements is that it opens up projects to students, nationally, regardless of location.

We have also been engaging with students through virtual events. Most recently, a webinar co-hosted with Associate Professor Inger Mewburn (also known as the ‘Thesis Whisperer’) addressing COVID-19’s impact on PhD research careers – the webinar received 1000 registrations. Hearing the challenges students are facing firsthand is critical so that the APR.Intern program can develop to meet their needs. Many are anxious about the future, the prospect of finding work after graduation and the realisation that permanent transformation in the sector – recently foreshadowed by ANU VC Brian Schmidt – may further weaken their quest for a position within academia.

Supported by the Australian Government’s Department of Education and Training, APR.Intern has brought a unique and rich career experience to hundreds of PhD students through the ‘Supporting more women STEM careers: Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute – National Research Internships Program’. It has also opened the eyes of many businesses to the value of engaging with first-class, PhD-trained research specialists.

As the program adjusts to a new normal, we look forward to continuing to collaborate with universities and ensuring Australian PhD students are industry-literate and career-ready.

Australian Postgraduate Research Intern (APR.Intern) is Australia’s only PhD internship program spanning all sectors, disciplines and universities. The program connects PhD students with industry through short-term 3-6 month research projects, empowering students to thrive in a practical research environment. For businesses, APR.Intern is a platform to access some of Australia’s brightest research minds and tap into new worlds of innovation.

Photo by Tomasz Frankows via Unsplash

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