My year in industry at an NHS laboratory

Like most undergraduate second years, I spent the year juggling work and applications for internships, and like most people who get offered an internship I was ecstatic. Although, this was no ordinary internship, it was working for the most necessitated institution in the UK, the NHS. I would be working as a student biomedical scientist within a haematology laboratory. If you have ever wondered where your blood goes to be tested before your doctor gets the results, that would be a laboratory full of biomedical scientists conducting the necessary tests.

Before I began, my emotions were very mixed; I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn more about my course in Biomedical Sciences in a clinical environment. Nevertheless, I felt a little apprehensive about how it would pan out. Choosing to complete a year in industry is daunting because you have to watch your friends finish whilst you still have a very long final year ahead and you don’t really know what to expect from it. Sure you will have had previous laboratory experience at university and are somewhat comfortable and confident working in a laboratory. Although I must say that completing labs at university is no walk in the park. I have always likened it to the Great British Bake Off’s technical challenge, where everyone is confused, peering to see what other people are doing and the air is filled with panic. However, working in a professional laboratory is completely different and frankly scarier. Despite this, I was excited to work with real patients and real samples.  I ended the year with the same mix of emotions as I began with and here’s why.

Lets start with a positive, though I must warn you there aren’t many! Firstly I did learn a lot, I was taught how to complete many procedures using new equipment and procedures that we learn about in lectures but do not get a chance to practise at university. Some of these were really interesting, for example, I got to test if a patient had malaria, which I think is pretty cool. Moreover with every procedure and test completed there was a real person awaiting my results, which can be a little daunting! I honestly felt privileged that I was entrusted to produce a result that may impact a person’s life so heavily. So yeah, it was pretty awesome in that respect, I don’t think many people on my course can say that they’ve seen a malaria parasite before.

On the other hand, at the end of the year I did feel that I had learned more about the NHS than I had about the job. Which in retrospect I should have known was the whole point of the year in industry, so I guess this is more of a neutral point rather than a negative. I got a real insight into how the NHS works, the line of accountability and how cuts that we see on the news truly affect the functionality. I also have a lot more respect and understanding of what staff in the NHS have to endure in order to keep its services running. Ultimately, knowing how the industry works is invaluable in a job where the institution directly impacts working life.

Conversely, as great as it was to see the inner workings of the NHS, it was also an unbelievably demanding environment. Sure every industry is hectic and there are deadlines but I don’t think many can compare to the NHS. Everything has to be accounted for; all samples, all results and all tasks. Samples are valuable; each sample belongs to a human being that has had to endure an invasive procedure in order for that sample to reach the laboratory. This means that every sample is handled extremely carefully, as it makes its way through the laboratory it will be tracked and its position known at all times. Likewise each sample has to be assessed suitably, whether it’s a full blood count or a HIV test, you cannot mess up. Every mistake that is not accounted for will lead to errors in the results, which is extremely dangerous. These results will heavily impact someone’s life, and I know that may sound dramatic but it’s really not. Additionally, unlike an office job where most of the time you can fit work around other tasks, you simply cannot do that in the NHS. Every sample and test has to be completed within a certain time period in order for the results to be accurate and to maintain the smooth running of the laboratory. If a sample comes in from A&E you simply cannot leave because its lunchtime, you have to assess it and make sure that those results reach the doctor within the hour.

Working office hours or shift work is quite a jump from being a student and having a leisurely timetable. For five days a week you are unavailable for eight hours of the day. This is particularly difficult when you’re living in somewhere like Durham, because everywhere closes at 5 and you don’t get home till 6, so how are you supposed to get everything done? The answer to that is the weekends, so those tend to get pretty busy too and ultimately that doesn’t leave much time for you know, socialising or feeling human. But the most awful thing about years in industry is that you still have to pay a tuition fee to the university. Granted its only 20% of the total fee, nevertheless, it’s the thought of paying when you are not even going to be there for a whole year, truly terrible I know.

Still there is a lot of happiness to be had when you can leave work at work and enjoy being home. Unlike university where there is the constant dread of having to do more work at home, and the feeling of guilt creeping up when you are not working. There is none of that in industry; as soon as you step out of work you are free as a bird (until you have to go back in the next day…). Finally, you get to experience the industry and get one foot in the door whilst still being a student and having a fall back. You still get all the student perks whilst working, and if you end up not enjoying it, that’s fine too, because you have another year to sort your life out (or hope to anyway). Overall, even with all the negative aspects I would do it all over again, and I know other people that have absolutely enjoyed their time in industry. To any second years that have the option of doing a year in industry I would greatly encourage you to consider it, you may be surprised as to what it has to offer.

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