Charlotte Lee is a PhD researcher in the department of Psychology at the University of Southampton. Within the Centre for Perception and Cognition (CPC) Lab her research examines the eye movements of skilled readers.
An internship with Hampshire County Council during the Covid-19 pandemic
What a surreal moment. I found myself in the middle of a video call with some very important people – representatives from the emergency services, Public Health England and Hampshire County Council. They were discussing their plan of action for tackling the Covid-19 pandemic in the area, and I was a fly on the wall. I was invited to sit in as part of my internship with HCC since I’d been working on some projects on the subject.
It occurred to me in that moment how only three months ago I had been sitting in my flat working on my PhD project – a completely different topic, analysing people’s eye movement patterns during reading, with a background in psychology. How had I even ended up here? And what a privilege it was to be given the opportunity to experience this.
Those few months earlier I had decided that since the lab would be closed for testing for some time and I wouldn’t have any new data to work on, it would be the ideal time to do an internship and use my skills on something useful in the “real world”. I had been considering doing an internship during my second year to give myself some idea of life and work outside of academia (just in case), and to give my CV a little boost, of course.
I reached out to the SCDTP for help finding a suitable internship where I could be useful. I ended up joining a team at HCC on a series of projects for 3 months – my role covered desk research, some analysis for data they had already collected and eventually grew to include building some tools for the council to use with public health for a Covid-19 project, which could also be adapted for other projects.
Since this internship took place during partial lockdown and with restrictions in place, I never actually met anyone in person, the whole thing took place over video calls and emails, and any work I did was done remotely. It was a bit strange, but luckily as a PhD student this kind of working life felt fairly normal to me!
The members of the council I worked with trusted me to work hard and produce work of a high standard at my own pace. This really helped me to feel confident in my work and comfortable within the team. I was involved in meetings with clients and colleagues where my contributions were valued and encouraged. It was a great experience in learning how things work within the county council and beyond. And how sometimes teams have to adapt quickly to changing circumstances – this was especially true when working on Covid-19 related projects.
I learned a lot about myself while working on these projects, mostly that I should be confident in aspects I know I am knowledgeable about. For me this was suggesting statistical tests, giving psychological insight for certain projects about public/consumer behaviour and assessing the quality of research I came across in literature searches.
My biggest realisation was that not only is my skillset in statistics and coding more useful outside of academia than imagined, but I also have a perhaps more important skill. As a self-motivated PhD student, I am really good at learning things by myself and finding out how to solve problems quickly.
Occasionally I would be asked to do something I didn’t know how to do or use software I’d never used before. Although I was always told that if I couldn’t do it, not to worry, and that we could find someone else to do that part, I was always determined to figure out how, learn and get it done. I think a lot can be said for knowing what and where to (re)search.
Maybe I’m just motivated by the idea that I can’t do something yet, but I think it’s probably something we all share as PhD students. I think it’s great to be confident when looking at future careers because we actually bring quite a lot to the table. If you’re even slightly considering an internship during your PhD, I would fully encourage you to just go for it, there’s so much you can gain from the experience!