In my first year-and-a-bit as a Biological Sciences student I think I must have flirted with every possible future career under the sun. I’ve been interested in plant development, immunology, zoology, and changed tack completely to consider working in the charitable sector.
I doubt I’m unique in this. There’s a lot of pressure at university, and in general to figure out what it is you want to do with your life early on – it’s one of those unspoken cultural things, where everyone is impressed by (and jealous of) the folks with a clear idea of where they’re going and how they’re getting there. A more focused degree type can be a real blessing when it comes to mapping out your future. So I’d decide that I’d chosen my future field, put some fairly intense research and… realise maybe it wasn’t entirely my thing after all.
So there I was, mid-February, with an essay to write on a (biology) topic of my choice. On a whim I decided to look at the ecological impacts of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters (a little niche, I know). As I progressed I found the topic more and more interesting and, since my earlier plans for the summer had fallen through, I thought I’d take a shot at getting some experience in radioecology – the study of how radiation affects ecosystems.
One of the sources I got the most use out of while I was working on the essay was a book called Chernobyl: Catastrophe and Consequences. A little light Googling turned up that both its authors were both still very much alive and active in the field, so I thought I’d try my luck at applying speculatively for a placement opportunity.
With help from my tutor and Carl from the Careers Network LES team (thanks both!), I put together a CV and a cover letter and send them both to one of the authors, based at the University of Lancaster.
And I waited.
And panicked, a bit.
After a week of frantically rechecking the original email for any mistakes, typos, or inadvertent slurs I eventually worked up the courage to send a follow up email. The recipient apologised for not replying earlier (he’d been busy), we discussed a few details, and I found myself with a 2-month unpaid placement analysing trap camera photos at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Lancaster.
Now, what worked for me might not work for other people. Maybe I just got lucky. Maybe I’m great at writing speculative applications (unlikely). But all in all, I can’t stress enough the value of getting in touch with professionals in whatever field you’re interested in – for a speculative application or not. Even a day’s shadowing can give you valuable insight into a field you’re considering, and as the old saying goes: if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Of course, getting the placement is only half the battle. The short length of most summer studentships means you need to put yourself in a position to get as much out of it as possible. Since I confirmed the placement I’ve been doing a decent amount of reflection and research, working out exactly what it is I want to accomplish when I’m there, and what the best way is to do so. Likewise, during my stay I’ll be regularly reflecting on my day to day experiences – what I feel I’ve done well and where I might be able to improve.
All in all, securing the placement was a rewarding (if slightly scary) experience, and I hope to be able to report back in a few months that everything’s gone well.