Last week I didn’t post a proper blog post because I was super busy. Generally, I manage to get an Errant Science blog post done even when I’m snowed-under with work but last week was different, last week I had to look after teenagers.
In the UK when you’re about 17 years old you are required/strongly encouraged to do something called “work experience”. The idea is that you spend a week shadowing someone in their job and see what the working world is like.
It varies across the country but students are encouraged to try and find workplaces they think they’d like to work in when they’re older. However, in practice what this really means is that the kids generally end up working at wherever their parents have friends, because many employers are reluctant to spend the time on it without internal pressure.
I love the work experience scheme and I think it’s a great way for kids to get their first true insight into the working world. And I think it’s a huge shame that it relies so heavily on connections – which can disadvantage many school students from getting to see the workplaces they dream of working in.
So firstly, an advert.
If you want work experience in a research lab, ask! We work with glowing chemistry, oozing goo and lasers, and would happily show what it’s like being a scientific researcher.
Next, a plea to others to offer the same. Below are some of my reasons why other researchers should also be more welcoming to students.
Why it’s worth it for the students
Firstly, part of the experience is to dispel a few myths about working in science. For example, despite Hollywood’s insistence, antidotes are rarely blue and accidents in the lab more often lead to horrible scars than superpowers.
The most pervasive of all the myths is absolutely the idea that you need to specialise and decided on your career now, now, are you doing it? OMG, you left it too late, now you’re a bum. Just hearing about people with non-traditional routes into jobs is so important for students constantly being fed the whole “choose or die!” story in school and an unhealthy obsession with specialising when you’re still a teenager.
As a quick related side-note, an amazing source of some of these stories is MySciCareer which shows the breadth and diversity of all kinds of scientists.
Secondly, for probably the first time in their lives, the students get to see what an actual day job is like – every last bit of it. The research, the explosions, the tea breaks, the paperwork, the quietly sobbing in the corner when your experiment doesn’t work, etc.
While you are possibly a bitter old scientist, students with no experience at all find pretty much everything fascinating. All they want is to see what the life is really like, not what some sanitised “everything is awesome” version is like.
Why it’s worth your time
What I mean by this is why it’s worth your time, besides the fact that you’re doing a nice thing for someone. Because at the end of the day, that is the key here – despite all the nice fun side effects (see below) this is you giving up your time to explain to someone why what you do is cool, so that they can make better choices about their future.
I realise that sounds a little bit like a careers poster at a 1990’s US sitcom school but screw it, this post is littered with motivational grandstanding. But in addition to the whole “being a nice person” thing there are genuine advantages to have a school student around.
For a start, nothing makes you take a long hard look at your work like having to explain it to a 17 year old. A 17 year old that is just starting a long summer holiday and is trying to forget all their knowledge as quickly as possible. If you can succinctly explain your work to a 17 year old and get them excited about it, you can explain it to anyone and explaining your work, what ever your field, is vital.
(I’m not saying grant boards are made up of squabbling teenagers but the principles of talking to them are pretty similar)
And while they are shadowing you there is no reason they can’t help. Of the last two students I had, the first one produced some data for me for my vortex rings work (she got a credit on our paper) that I just didn’t have time to do and work that they were more than capable of doing after a little guidance. The other helped me record some videos of experiments for lecturing and provided a fresh set of eyes on what I could do to make things clearer.
Obviously, there is a huge list of health and safety concerns about having students in the labs for a week but it’s not insurmountable. If we can have them in our laser labs (with various deadly materials) I’m sure others can work out a way to host them. The key for us was really just thinking about the work we’re doing (or are thinking of doing) and seeing if there is a way to modify it a little to make it school student suitable. Even simple stuff like cleaning and calibrating the pipettes and then testing them – it’s not exactly the best day for me but compared to most of the practicals they get, it’s a huge step up.
I’m not saying we all need to take in work experience students – some environments are impossible – but I am sure we could all do a lot more to at least try.