From the Lab to the Boardroom: Life as a HR intern

This post is by Sophie Powell. Sophie is currently a PhD Student in the Faculty of Life Sciences.

I came into work as usual this morning – swiped through the access barriers, took the lift up to the third floor and took my seat at my desk by the window for 8 am. But something is different. The window is not a square in a wall, it is the wall and my view is not of the other wings of the Michael Smith building but of the Manchester cityscape on a glorious, sunny day. My co-workers are dressed casually, as am I, but a telling blow-dry here and a pair of high heels there suggests that this is not in fact your normal science attire but the wonderful element of office culture that is Casual Friday. As I log into my landline phone and review the day’s teleconferences in my calendar one thing is for sure – this PhD student is NOT in academia any more…


As part of my PhD programme my funding body insists that I complete a 3 month placement in an area COMPLETELY unrelated to my project. Whilst many of my fellow BBSRC DTP friends stayed in science for their placements I took the BBSRC on their word and found myself a placement which was about as far away from my PhD area as I could get and as far away from the academic world too – if we are to experience the world outside of academia then I was going to experience it fully! In my mind there was only one place that I could go; the corporate world. And not a little office somewhere with a few co-workers, I wanted to go somewhere BIG. Somewhere that I would get to meet new people who weren’t fellow scientists on a daily basis. Somewhere that I could learn how to talk and present myself in important business meetings. Somewhere where I could do a piece of work and see it implemented into a business within the 12 weeks of my project and not have to wait 15 years for it to go through clinical trials to see if it is a success. Somewhere where my favourite hoodie and trainers combo is a completely inappropriate outfit choice…

So now here I am in my new role for the next 12 weeks. The building I came into this morning was the super-swanky, state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly glass structure (somewhat resembling a cruise liner) that is The Co-operative Group Head Office in Manchester City Centre. My department is Human Resources where to be more specific I am working with the Leadership Development team as a Community Resourcing Intern helping my team to deliver strategies which address the groups’ resourcing problems and boost youth employability in communities. I know right. We scientists think we’re special because we use words that other people don’t understand – we got nothing on these guys! My supervisor and many of the people that I work with in my lab seemed to disapprove of my choice of placement, almost as if I were a traitor to the academic world. Would I really buy into all that touchy-feely corporate nonsense about ergonomics and people skills and implementing strategies and coaching for performance? Well, yes. Yes I have. So how different to academia is the corporate world, really?


For starters I am not used to having the privilege of being able to look out of a window, let alone being able to look across the entire city from the terrace on the 14th floor! Even on a cloudy day the building is bright and airy! The dress code for me is a dream – dressing smartly boosts my confidence and somehow makes me feel capable of doing what I have to do and makes other people treat me with respect. Long live the suit! This is especially important as you never know who you are going to meet in the open plan office. As the office runs a ‘hot desk’ policy you never know who you are going to be sat next to; one day it could be your colleague, the next it could be the team’s boss or even the head of HR! First impressions count and I love being able to come across well in a professional manner, not easily done in trainers and an old hoodie…

The main difference for me though is the people and their attitude to work. As we are working together for the good of the business and its objectives no-one is ever too busy to help or offer input (all done by coffee meetings or teleconferences). Never do you hear the words ‘That’s not my project, you figure it out’ or ‘well I can show you but I’ve only ever used it for something else so I’m not the expert’. People in the corporate world are much more confident in taking ownership of their knowledge and using it to help others in their projects. Whilst academics are helpful people it can be hard to find the right person to turn to for advice as everyone has their individual projects. They often tell you what they don’t know and try to fob you off on someone else, especially when it comes to using a piece of equipment, rather than accepting that they are the most knowledgeable person on the subject. I think a lot of this comes down to confidence or lack of and one thing that the HR people here are hot on is training leaders on how to manage people and give employees the confidence to do their job well.

We students have plenty of graduate training opportunities throughout our PhDs (thanks Graduate Training Team!) but on being in the corporate world I have to wonder how much training is offered to PIs, and if it is offered how many of them actually go… On speaking to friends at uni I know how many of us feel stupid and intimidated by supervisors, how we feel under pressure to get things right first time, fear failure and how few see their supervisor as anything other than the scary boss that must be appeased with data.  In the corporate world managers are trained on how to manage people, how to be aware of their employees emotions, how to come across as a person, how to ask the right questions to get people to think for themselves without it coming across as an inquisition or them ‘having a go’.  This comes through in the confidence and laid-back approach that people in the corporate world have towards their work and in sharing their knowledge because they know they are good at their jobs and have support when they are struggling. I doubt very much that supervisors are actually as scary or standoffish as they often appear and so I feel that more leadership and people skills training for those in high positions is the one thing that academia can really learn from the touchy-feely corporate world. That and the dress code. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a ‘breakfast date’ with my wonderfully flamboyant, new boss – if that’s not a non-academic experience I don’t know what is!


One thought on “From the Lab to the Boardroom: Life as a HR intern

  1. Cheers! That was a very interesting read. I had to laugh when you mentioned that you usually don’t have a window, ha, Michael Smith … I know what you mean. Looking forward to hear more in the future, as the world ‘outside’ (academia) is still a big unknown for me.
    Best wishes, Marco

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s