Updated: Feb 7, 2021
An international student’s story of making her way into the professional world.
Let us rewind a little back in time to April 2019. An MSc Biomedical Science student has just cleared her written exams, believes she has the knowledge and skillset to make an impact in the world of science, and is persistently applying to jobs. However, she is shy, unclear about her career path, has little work experience, hasn’t worked in teams other than partaking in group assignments in university, and wants to work on her public speaking and communication skills. Fast-forward to June 2020, she has attended multiple interviews, completed two placements, and has developed an array of scientific and transferrable skills that she can take forward in her career, one that she is very optimistic about, now.
An opportunity to take up a placement for a student is pivotal to their personal development, subject knowledge expansion, and career progression. Placements provide students with real-world experience and give them a chance to incorporate classroom knowledge into practice. They encourage university-to-work transition, introduce students to employers, and equip learners with qualities and skills to thrive in their chosen professions. Placement students are propelled into the real world, wherein they are forced to move out of their comfort zones, develop new preferences, inculcate different values and orientations about the working environment and themselves.
I worked in two organizations in my placement year. My first job was as an e-learning executive and online module creator for infectious diseases in Page Medical, a healthcare consultancy based in Ely, Cambridgeshire. I worked here from June to October 2019. My next job was as a Biomedical Support Worker in the Histopathology laboratory of Cambridge University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and I started working here in December 2019.
My placement journey began exactly a year before that, in December 2018, which was three months after I moved to the UK. I gave myself some time to settle into the new country, got familiar with processes and lifestyles followed here, and got acquainted with various university teams, including the Kingston Career and Employability (CAE) team. I attended career fairs, broadened my network, took part in the CV and cover letter-writing workshops, and religiously applied to at least 10 companies in a day. However, even by March, none of these seemed to be working; l would wake up to rejection emails every day, which would put me in a state of despair and hopelessness. I pondered a lot as to why I was not receiving any calls back - were there issues in my application form, were my qualifications insufficient, or was my CV and cover letter not written effectively? I decided to act upon the latter and sought advice from the CAE team. It was perhaps the best decision I made - the team was brilliant and resourceful. They amended my CV and cover letter to suit UK standards, helped me with interview questions, and gave me new job platforms to apply to. In April, I finally got a call from a healthcare consultancy, Page Medical, for the role of an e-learning executive. I carefully researched the company, had a practice interview round with the CAE team and brushed up on my knowledge of infectious diseases before my final interview. The hard work definitely paid off - they offered me the role right after the interview on the 30th of April 2019, which happened to be the day before the deadline for us to obtain a placement.
Page Medical describes themselves as experts in the communication of infection education via the e-learning route. They work closely with the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy to put out e-learning modules in 5 different languages on the platform of FutureLearn. The modules were on vaccine development, antifungal stewardship, and antimicrobial resistance, among others. I was given the responsibility to make modules on the topics of Antimicrobial Stewardship in Wound Management and Antimicrobial Stewardship in Veterinary Practice. The former involved working alongside wound infection specialists and microbiologists to deliver the significance of antimicrobial stewardship towards tackling antimicrobial resistance and treating a range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses, and fungi, and how to apply this in the safe treatment and management of patients with wounds. Learners are taught how to diagnose wound infections and how to implement infection control measures in their own healthcare practices. I particularly enjoyed making this module, as it gave me the chance to work with experts from the European Wound Management Association (EWMA). Antimicrobial Stewardship in Veterinary Practice was a very important project, as vets and human health professionals both have a responsibility to address the challenge of antimicrobial stewardship. In this course, the norms of veterinary prescribing and monitoring responsible medicine use are challenged and the tools needed to introduce good antimicrobial stewardship practices are gained. To make this module, I worked with representatives from all the veterinary schools in the UK, which was a truly enriching and humbling experience.
In September, during my 3-month review, my manager highlighted points of progress and achievements, including contributing to the company’s win of the Small Business of the Year award in the annual Ely Awards. She was content with my work ethic and dedication towards the role; however, due to my projects coming to an end earlier than anticipated, they would have to cut short my placement. This truly crushed me, as I was hoping to take on more projects with the company; sadly, at that point, there weren’t any that could be allocated to me. I went through a period of sheer terror and depression, as I was worried about not being able to get another placement and that I would fail my placement module. I contacted one of my module leaders, Dr. Karen Whiting, to get some advice on what my next steps should be. Her advice is what gave me the courage to persevere and not lose hope - she told me to recite the Serenity prayer by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
I made a game plan to get another placement. I applied to about 40 jobs in a day, tracked each application on Microsoft Excel, and made a follow-up schedule for each of these jobs. In a span of a month, I had applied to over 400 vacancies and had received interview calls for 5 jobs. Two of these were for National Health Service (NHS) hospital laboratories and the others were for pharmaceuticals. What I had done differently this time was that I applied relentlessly to entry-level opportunities and called the organization to find out more and follow up on my application. By November, I had received two job offers - A Biomedical Support Worker in Cambridge University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and a Lab Technician at ALS Pharmaceuticals. I chose to go with the former, as I want to imbibe NHS values and standards in my daily life and I am extremely passionate about patient care. Moreover, I have heard nothing but great things about the staff, the organization as a whole, and the tireless work everyone continues to carry out for its patients.
I moved to Cambridge to begin the job in December 2019. This job was a stark contrast in comparison to the previous one - NHS as an organization is massive, the role was more practical and hands-on, and there was a proper induction and training programme in place. My trainer was extremely supportive and instilled confidence in me early on, which helped me grasp techniques quickly. I will never forget what he said to me - “Wynola, be confident. If you are confident in whatever you do, others will have confidence in you.” I keep repeating those words to myself whenever I feel doubtful about myself. My role encompassed assisting pathologists at the dissection of organs presenting with abnormalities, tumors, or cancers. This gave me a brilliant opportunity to learn so much about various human organ systems and specialties such as gastro-intestinal organs, gynecology, urology, and cardiology. I am curious by nature and always want to learn more, so I would keep asking questions about anatomy, physiology, and cancer biology. I was very lucky, as the pathologists, I would work with would always oblige me and answer questions in detail. In addition to this, I got to view various staining techniques, electron microscopy, and working in a safety cabinet - I had learned about these in my medical microbiology course in university, so it was amazing to observe them. A change that I noticed in me was that I was looking after myself more - I was adding more fiber to my diet, exercising regularly, sleeping for sufficient hours in a day - in the histopathology lab, you see cases in which there is considerable damage to internal organs if you don’t follow a regulated lifestyle (bad eating habits, sedentary routine, smoking, etc.) and I do not want it to happen to me.
Within a couple of months, I started working independently - I was involved in routine maintenance and troubleshooting of equipment, processing of tissue, laboratory stock checks, specimen storage, among other tasks. I also got an opportunity to train new joinees, which was a wonderful learning experience - when you teach others; you firmly fix the technique in yourself and understand all underlying principles fully. Another thing that helped me was constant support and guidance from my line manager; I would have regular 1:1s with her wherein we would discuss my progress, whether I was having any difficulties, and how she could help me train in any particular technique. By March, I was in love with my job - I had completed three months, got tremendous feedback and support from colleagues, and I had observed some incredible and rare cases. I remember one particularly - it was a case of Hereditary Leiomyomatosis and Renal Cell Carcinoma Syndrome (HLRCC) in a 17-year-old patient. It is a condition in which affected individuals tend to develop benign tumors containing smooth muscle tissue (leiomyomas) in the skin and, in females, the uterus. This condition also increases the risk of kidney cancer. HLRCC is so rare that it has been reported in approximately 300 families worldwide - and the fact that I was getting to see one was mind-boggling.
When I look back on my first placement, the only negative I can think of is that initial failures would set me back and lower my belief in my abilities. Lack of effective communication in a small-sized company also hampered work output, which lessened my confidence. At first, this took a considerable toll on my mental health and well-being. However, I learned that initial failures and setbacks are stepping stones to success later on. Making mistakes is a learning experience.
There are so many positives to this experience. Apart from all the technical and transferrable skills I have obtained, I think my biggest learning from this experience is to never give up, even at the last minute. Everything about this placement year - from obtaining one on my deadline day after multiple applications and almost losing hope, unexpectedly having my first placement being cut short, having to repeat the entire process, and applying to over 400 jobs in a span of four weeks to get another placement, having episodes of self-doubt and utter despair, attending interviews and dealing with nerves - I’ve had to be strong. I have learned that I am extremely resilient in the face of adversity. There are challenges that I feel I may not be able to overcome, but a little perseverance goes a long way. I have learned to be a go-getter - if I want something, I have to go after it. I am so grateful to my course leaders, Dr. Terry Gaymes, Dr. Karen Whiting, the Student Services team, and Kingston University for giving me this opportunity and supporting me in my placement journey.
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