Skip navigation
Graduate Matters

An internship during your PhD can be vital to your career development

Internships can help students realize their potential as thought leaders, data analysts, innovative thinkers, and complex-problem solvers.


PhD training is rigorous, and by the end of it, most students should be highly proficient in core competencies dealing with their discipline, such as technical expertise, critical analysis, and problem-solving. Other core competencies such as emotional intelligence, effective communications, and conflict management may need further development depending on the student’s mentors and their own self-directed career agency. Some of these skills can be acquired through an internship.

An internship during a PhD is not for everyone. But for those who would like to enhance their core competencies, which are maybe not being addressed in their current research experience, an internship (with permission from their professor) may be the vital link towards fulfilling professional and career development.

Students at the University of Toronto, particularly those who participate in the Graduate Professional Development (GPD) program in the faculty of medicine, are trained and empowered in skills such as relationship-building, opportunity-creating, and effective communications so that they are enabled to seek, find and build their own internships or experiential learning experiences.

Take for instance, Masha Cemma, who at the time of taking the GDP course wanted to venture into the world of policy and global health. She sought an opportunity to intern at the World Health Organization (WHO), attended a number of relevant conferences, and built a network of colleagues and mentors in the field. After completing her degree, Dr. Cemma has joined the inaugural cohort of Canadian Science Policy Fellowship and furthered her policy experience at the federal government. She is currently a policy advisor to Canada’s chief science advisor, Mona Nemer.

Another example is Vincent Nadeau, who thought for years he was going follow the academic track with his biochemistry PhD. During that time, he explored his interests in science commercialization and found an experiential learning opportunity by volunteering at the tech transfer office of the hospital where he pursued his graduate research. This early experience before the end of his PhD helped him land a full-time internship in the commercialization office for few months after he graduated, which in turn helped set him up to successfully land a role on the technical team at an investment bank.

Manisha Talukdar’s first internship during her PhD as a marketing and business development intern at a biotech start-up allowed her to explore the business side of science. Through this internship, she was able to theoretically map out the potential next-steps of her academic research if she were to commercialize it. Her next internship as a health economics and market research analyst at a medical device company impressed upon her the importance of interpersonal skills such as negotiating with others, and communicating to a lay audience. These enhanced communications skills helped her academic research when writing scholarship applications and presenting at conferences. She thought her internships were crucial in making her a well-balanced scientist, and the skills derived from them were crucial to her landing her current job.

After completing the GPD course, Aidin Balo took his strengthened communications skills to a conference where he started discussions with representatives from a company, who at that time, were not in the biotech space. After a few months, he had built a rapport with them, and designed an internship of about five hours a week (with his structural biochemistry knowledge) to help build a 3D visualization interactive tool for other scientists and school children. After almost two years, Nature Methods has published this story. Dr. Balo’s story is a win-win for all. His supervisor and he have a new industry collaboration and a publication. The industry partner has ventured into a new field: life sciences. The student has gained valuable skills in project management, collaboration and industry experience. It is unknown if Dr. Balo will become an academic, but for any career path he carves out, all of these skills will help him enter the workforce with a niche for himself.

Other GPD students have similar stories with respect to proactively enhancing their education and pursuing an active role in creating their own career paths. Some students think that when they finish the graduate degree they are a highly qualified technician or specialist of a scientific discipline. They are, but too few recognize themselves as scientific thought leaders, data analysts, innovative thinkers, and today’s complex problem solvers. The bridge which closes the gap of taking these skills to industry is their strength in communication, scientific outreach, and proactivity.

Students, if your program does not have a professional development program, develop one yourself with invited guest speakers. If your program does not have an embedded internship, find and build rapport with employers on or off campus to see if you can intern on a part-time basis, with permission from your professor. Remember that many opportunities also exist on campus, such as work-study or casual employee experiences in programming and student life offices. If your program does not include site visits to various industries, organize your own. If your department or faculty does not have a mentorship program, join Ten Thousand Coffees or find your own by strengthening your network. Find key mentors who can facilitate in opening the doors to creating your own career.

With empowering tools like these and the help of Science Careers IDP, student can carve their own path for a fulfilling scientific education, as well as useful career development tools to use throughout their life. Students can be leaders, thinkers who can research the world, and can help fulfill global needs while forging their own career path.

Vincent Nadeau is an associate at Bloom Burton Securities, the leading investment bank for the Canadian healthcare industry. Manisha Talukdar is a medical science liaison at AstraZeneca, and just defended her PhD in September 2018. Aidin Balo is postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Davis who just defended his PhD in November of 2018. Masha Cemma is a policy advisor to Canada's chief science advisor at the Government of Canada. Nana Lee is director of Graduate Professional Development and an assistant professor, teaching stream, for the departments of biochemistry and immunology, graduate life science and education in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto, as well as a former biotech director of Application Science.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Reinhart Reithmeier / March 29, 2019 at 20:04

    As increasing numbers of PhD graduates gain employment outside the academy, perhaps internships should be an integral part of a graduate education.

  2. Helen Miliotis / March 29, 2019 at 20:52

    The personal stories in this piece really help to illustrate the impact that internships can have on one’s career path – great article!

Click to fill out a quick survey