Biological Sciences student at University of Leeds

Adam Wilson

Adam is studying MBiol Biological Sciences with an industrial placement. During his degree he's completed a year in industry at Reckitt Benckiser and attended summer schools in Hong Kong and South Korea.

About my year in industry

Where did you do your placement year?

My placement year was With RB (Reckitt Benckiser) at the Hull site, where I worked under the brand Nurofen. The title of my role was Global Regulatory Affairs Assistant.

Why did you decide to do a year in industry?

I had been in higher education for two years and was still unsure what kind of career I would like. I knew I was either going to do a Masters or a placement, as I saw the value of enhancing my degree. I eventually decided on a placement because this gave me a chance to step away from education for a year, and gain some experience of the ‘real world’, while getting the chance to earn a full time wage. I also considered how this might look in my CV when I graduate. As few students have the skills that can be acquired in a year of employment, I saw this would make me more competitive.

Describe a typical day on your placement.

The field of regulatory affairs is quite vast and as a result, my day to day activities varied greatly depending on the most urgent demands. These included the assembly, review and submission or new drug dossiers to a variety of medical agencies globally. In addition to this part of my role was to communicate with local markets to discuss the possible reclassification of drugs, and other market negotiations to increase net profit. My role also included participation in cross-brand projects and the organisation and running of team meetings.

What were your key responsibilities?

I was responsible for a number of projects throughout my time with RB. Many of these involved publishing and submitting dossiers to smaller markets, for new flavours or packaging changes. Some involved negotiation with medical agencies over the regulation of the drug (eg submitting safety data to show the general public would use a drug correctly, if it were more readily available over the counter or in a pharmacy). Initially this was an incredibly complex process to take in, as numerous regulations and company policies had to be accounted for. But gradually, as I was given more support and background information, I was able to complete these tasks on my own. As I came near to the end of the placement, other members of the team would come to me for help with certain projects, which stood as testament that those working around me had confidence in my skills.

Meetings were an important part of my placement. They were intimidating at first; in a room of subject matter experts, it’s difficult to make headway as a student. Initially, I began by taking minutes in meetings, but as my confidence and knowledge grew within the company, I was given greater responsibility. Towards the end of my degree I was organising and chairing meetings with global branches of the company.

Another responsibility, handed to me when I started, was competitor intelligence. As it was my first time working under a pharmaceutical brand, I had little knowledge of what companies were licensing which products at the time. Again, as time passed my knowledge of the field grew, and as I devoted more time to it, my bank of resources also grew, so that I could provide my team with more wide ranging Intel.

What was the highlight of your placement?

I think the chance to work in such a globally renowned company on such a big brand was a real highlight. The work I was doing was actually contributing to the company, and I can be proud to have to have assisted in getting products to market in various countries globally. Aside from aspects specific to my placement, elements of work life in general ready you for graduate life. The application process is strenuous, but the more practice you get the better. Certain tasks will test you, but because of this you find your strengths and your passions. Both of which will set you up for your future career path. I now have hundreds of examples to draw from in interviews, which demonstrate the various skills gained on placement.

How was your degree relevant?

As my placement was not in a lab, I perhaps utilised less of my degree content then others. However, knowledge of drug interactions, contraindications and toxicity proved useful when discussing data in support of submissions. Data sets regarding drug metabolism were already familiar to me from my degree, so this helped me stand out and grasp certain concepts quicker. My degree also provided me with skills outside of biological sciences, Presentations were required in second year modules, so I had some experience presenting information, which I was able to build upon during my time at RB. Also, general skills like critical analysis and team working had been utilised in my degree, hence I was able to use these experiences to assist me throughout my placement. 

What opportunities has your industrial placement opened up?

I now have a strong professional network. Interaction with other staff on a global scale has given me great exposure. With strong connections within RB regulatory affairs, the opportunity to return to a role when I graduate is hopeful. Whether I return to RB or not, I have demonstrated that I can work in a professional setting, full time for a 12-month period. Something a lot of graduates may not have. I hope this will make me more competitive to prospective employers when I graduate.

Do you think your year in industry was relevant to your career prospects?

I’ve gathered skills that would be useful in any discipline. Invaluable communication and negotiation skills, and a greater understanding of the workplace as a whole. I feel my year in industry has been relevant to my career prospects, as it has allowed me to experience an alternative career in science. Which is likely where my interests will lie in the future, it allowed me to see where my strengths and weaknesses lay and will help me tailor my choices upon graduation.

What advice would you offer to students considering a year in industry?

Get your CV completed, checked/reviewed, and apply as early as possible! Some of the largest companies will hire within the first few months of returning to university. But if you don’t get anything early on don’t panic, I didn’t get my placement until June and lots of companies offer their placements at a later date, including many brilliant smaller companies. 

Once you’ve got a placement it’s important to realise that at the beginning things might be slow. There will be a lot of training before you can get stuck into things, but don’t lose faith. Dependent on the company you may be given a lot of mentorship, or very little. It's important to ask questions, so if you don’t understand something ask, everyone has to learn at some point.

Lastly I would say get involved in lots of extra things within your placement, it’s an opportunity to get a lot of exposure to potential future employers. But remember, this is the first time since being in education you will be able to finish work at the end of the day and be done. Weekends are also completely yours to utilise, so don’t overburden yourself and make sure you enjoy that part of working life!

How did the University support you?

During the application process the University was incredibly helpful each step of the way. Providing plenty of roles to apply for as well as helping prep for interviews and assessment days. While on placement we were paired with an academic supervisor. The supervisor checked in with us and made sure our placements were running smoothly. I found this particularly helpful and my supervisor helped me to discuss any issues I was having with my manager.

What were the most enjoyable and most challenging aspects of your placement?

I think the new environment was both enjoyable and challenging. It was enjoyable because of the new people, and responsibilities. But challenging because it was my first time in such a professional environment, I was being paid for my work and that meant it was a challenge to find the confidence to know my work was up to scratch. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the global branches of the company, it was great that I could be talking to someone in Italy one day and Malaysia the next. One of the biggest challenges was learning about the regulations for different authorities across the globe, because of the sheer number and variation. Another challenge was learning the language of the business. Multiple abbreviations and project names meant sometimes it felt like I was in a room with people speaking in gibberish. However as time went on it became easier. Another big challenge of my placement was learning to speak up when I felt something was wrong. Learning this helped me improve my work life, and produce work of a better standard. 

Tell us about the volunteering opportunities you undertook during your placement.

RB’s partner charity is Save the Children, through the company I was able to gain experience volunteering at various events. As well as this I was able to contribute to a good cause and work together with other students across the company. I also got the chance to volunteer at a company run scheme for gender parity in the workplace on international women’s day. RB also has an outreach programme to local schools encouraging secondary school students to go into science careers, I assisted with this.

About the University

Why did you choose the University of Leeds? 

The teaching staff are not only current researchers at the front of their field, but there are also incredibly passionate about their work. I think seeing this passion for science is a great motivating factor. Leeds also has such an amazing Students Union, with so many societies and opportunities to meet new people. Furthermore Leeds is a fantastic student city, with a great nightlife which contributes to the overall university experience.

What have been the highlights of your time at Leeds?

Trying out new societies and meeting new people has been a highlight throughout my degree. The Faculty’s society, FoBSoc, was a great way to meet and socialise with my course-mates, and as a result of this society I feel there is a strong sense of camaraderie not just in my course but across the faculty. This paired with the fantastic opportunity to tailor my course into both an industrial placement and integrated Masters course, was great. On top of this I also got to experience study abroad. Through the University's amazing connections I was able to study in two different countries during the summer.

How have the facilities helped you get the most out of your degree?

Throughout the duration of my degree, facilities in Leeds have been updated to the highest standard continuously. The libraries provide pleasant and modern spaces in which to study. With a wide variety of studying environments, including group and individual study spaces. Labs are well equipped with a variety of machinery and equipment that allowed us as student to try a variety of techniques with supervision. These experiences will hopefully set Leeds graduates apart, due to the breadth of techniques they are able to learn.

Why did you choose the integrated Masters?

As my industrial placement year was not based in a Lab, my lab experience was limited. I wanted to get an idea of what a life in academia might be like, and the course at Leeds allows me to experience a full year of research, with the added benefit of student financing. My degree is now 5 years long, all of which I am able to cover with my student finance. When I graduate I will have an MBiol, BSc and a year's experience, which I hope will set me apart from other candidates when applying for future careers. I always thought I would extend my education, but the structure and integrated nature of the course at Leeds encouraged me to extend my current Biological Sciences degree. This paired with the fantastic range of supervisors and projects helped me make my decision.

Tell us about your summer school experiences.

While at the University of Leeds I took part in two international summer schools. Which I can honestly say were two of the best experiences I’ve had during my time at university. The first was at Korea University, South Korea and the second was at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Experiencing such vastly different cultures opened my eyes to a global community of international students. I was able to study courses both related to my degree and to my own interests. I got the opportunity to learn a new language (Korean) which I continue to study now and make friends from all over the world (who I have an excuse to visit) as well as become alumni of well-respected and long established programmes. For me a summer programme is a fantastic opportunity that Leeds offers and an absolute no brainer! Yes, you spend a summer break in education, but you can do it all over the world with the University’s many links, and you can study something you might not get the chance to otherwise.

Have you joined any student societies or sports clubs?

In my first year I joined the Fencing Society, it was something I’d never tried before but always been intrigued by, I trained weekly and grew quite passionate about it. If nothing else, it taught me that even if you’re an absolute beginner at something, you won’t be the only one, and societies are often very encouraging to those willing to start something new. I also joined the Swimming and Water Polo Society, where I met lots of amazing people, the trials were intimidating but helped me prove to myself I could do it. The training was also intense and I made the most of increasing my fitness. FoBSoc; the Faculty's society has also been a big part of my university life, it presented some brilliant opportunities to get to know my course mates, and other students in the Faculty.

What would you highlight to students thinking about coming to do the same course? 

I think there are many things to highlight about the Biological Sciences course at Leeds. For example in the first and second years of the course, the modules are incredibly tailorable. For people who are slightly indecisive of what they want from their degree, this allows them to try quite a lot of things out before choosing a specification in their second and third year. Also labs during their first two years are incredibly rewarding, you get hands on experience of techniques you will utilise if you continue your degree, as well as getting results that are tangible and give a sense of pride, eg growing cultures, running gels, making bacteria fluorescent.

What are your ambitions and plans for the future?

This is a question I do not yet have one answer to, a situation that I feel many students are in towards the end of their degree. Due to the nature and reputation of the degree many fantastic opportunities open up. With the help of the careers centre, including talks and lectures from both the university and independent companies, you become aware there is a vast array of choice for a science degree. Some of these include international scholarships for study built up by strong relationships with Leeds Due to my international experience with the summer schools I hope to incorporate this into achieving a global career, possibly continuing my studies and achieving a PhD in an international university. Alternatively, I may apply to a competitive graduate scheme, which with the help of the Careers Centre I hope to become a strong candidate.