Rebecca Burns, PhD Researcher with Isoprime

BSc Physical Geography graduate Rebecca Burns undertook an industry-focused funded PhD with Isoprime through the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation.

Why did you apply for an industry focussed PhD and work with a business?

"I made the decision to do a PhD in my third year at undergraduate. I wasn’t sure what a research career would entail and I didn’t feel ready to commit myself to only doing research. In all honesty at 21 I didn’t want to close too many doors employment wise and a PhD in industry allowed me to pursue the further studies I had always wanted to do but also keep an eye on the business world.

It gave me the first chance to sample both postgraduate research and the real world of working for a business, which I feel because I came straight from undergrad has been a massive help in helping broaden my career horizons."

What was the focus of your company project?

"My project focus and company focus didn’t necessarily gel together well at first, the company side of things focussed on developing hardware and software for scientific instruments whilst my research side was based on Icelandic glaciers. However, the company gave me so much training and support in how to work really technical instrumentation that I could apply the skills to other instruments in the Lancaster Environment Centre. It has meant I have produced a PhD in an area of study I am very passionate in, but also that my research has such a technical edge I never imagined it could have."

Had you worked with a business before starting your Phd?

"Yes, I chose a dissertation with work placement option during my third year, I had worked during my degree, and worked the summer before I started my PhD, but nothing similar to this."

Can you describe what it’s like studying at a top global 1% Lancaster University?

"The facilities are second to none and the level of teaching quality is high. I love the campus feel that is mainly what kept me here; it feels really safe and friendly. My office is great- I love my computer, Lancaster University doesn’t cut corners on providing you with the best of everything."

What did you think of being part of a team of graduate researchers working with businesses on research for new products and processes?

"I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing an industry-focused PhD as part of the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation. When I first started I went to a few workshops organised by the University and everyone kept saying how lonely a PhD can feel. I’ve certainly never felt lonely, and I really think that is down to the effort of all the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation staff.

"From day one we were treated as a cohort, not just at Lancaster but at Liverpool too. There was a lot of time and money invested on giving us training which allowed us to bond and I’ve truly made friends for life both here at Lancaster and at Liverpool, which is great as I actually live between the two universities so I feel I have a great network of people who understand what an industry focused PhD entails. It doesn’t matter we don’t do the similar research themes, we all share the common link of having a business element to our PhD.

"I feel the route with the Centre must be quite different to NERC routes- people in my office don’t always understand fully how I work with a business, but having the inclusive feeling the Centre pathway has created I always have people to turn to and ask advice.

My company have been great, they have always treated me like a valued employee and I’ve really enjoyed the time I have spent there. They always seem pleased to see me and I feel so welcome. It’s opened so many doors for me as a researcher, they’ve taken me to present in Germany, France and London so I’ve had a chance to travel. It has really opened my eyes to the possibility that the skills I have learnt could allow me to work abroad."

What skills did you use and develop working with the business?

"They’ve taught me from scratch how to run a Mass Spectrometer, which before I interviewed for this project I didn’t have a clue what one was. I genuinely can’t believe the level of competency I’ve achieved and how I can transfer these skills onto other instruments- I never thought that could be possible in such a short space of time. It has placed me into a real niche."

Did you get paid? What expenses did you have and were they paid for by the business?

"The company’s contribution to the project paid for my fees (worth £12,000) and I received a bursary of £16,000 each year for three years. I’m really grateful to the company and to the European Regional Development Fund for their financial support. For someone like me coming straight from undergraduate £16,000 untaxed is a generous starting salary. A lot of my friends started around this figure, which would have been less after tax! My expenses covered my travel to Iceland which not only allowed me to conduct my project but it really has been absolutely incredible to work out there. In a way I don’t feel I can put a price on the experience I’ve had!"

What was the best thing you think you did for the business?

“The best thing I did for the business wasbeing on hand to present at events I think, their new machinery has been a real talking point and having a user able to talk about it and data already produced has been really useful. At Lancaster we run real life environmental samples for publishable research, this has brought a level of depth to VisIONs unique selling point as we have achieved outputs and created case studies they never could replicate in the factory.

The VisION is a new mass spectrometer developed by Isoprime. I've been testing it since before its market launch and we have continued testing afterwards. It is designed to make mass spectrometry easily accessible to a wider user group- with one potential user being research students like myself."

What was the best thing about doing your PhD for you?

"The best thing about the project for me was that I’ve had some fantastic experiences such as working out in Iceland that I never would have had. It has given me opportunities in this sense that no other job could ever have provided."

Did you get a job because of it?

"Not yet, but I’m currently looking and it is great to be able to look for academic research based jobs and industry based jobs. I feel there are a wide range of jobs my skills will cover and I’m hopeful for the future."

What career do you hope to pursue at the end of your PhD and how do you think it will help you achieve that?

"In all honesty I’m torn between academic research and an industry based career, maybe CGE kept too many doors open! I am quite enjoying browsing through jobs and having a wider choice than many PhD students would have. I want something equally as challenging but as enjoyable as my PhD, but the bar has been set high."

What advice would you give for anyone starting an industry-focused PhD like yours? Any top tips?

"Go spend some time with your company early on, get to know them, let them know you as a person."