Apprenticeships analysis

The 14th National Apprenticeship Week, taking place across England this week, is showcasing the impact apprenticeships can have on communities, local businesses and regional economies and how they all benefit from the impact of apprenticeships. The theme for this year’s initiative, “Build the Future”, encourages everyone to consider how apprenticeships can help individuals to develop the skills and knowledge required for a rewarding career, and employers to build a workforce with future-ready skills. 

At the University of Nottingham, the spotlight has been thrust on laboratory scientists through their Bioinformatics Scientist (MRes) degree apprenticeship and Laboratory Scientist (Chemistry) degree apprenticeship. ScientistLive caught up with apprentices on both these innovative programmes. 

Dr Sarah Storr, Nottingham Research Fellow, University of Nottingham. Bioinformatics Scientist (MRes) degree apprenticeship

Why did you decide to undertake the degree apprenticeship?
“My research often seeks to understand the changes in gene expression in cancer, research that has become particularly important to my Nottingham research fellowship which has enabled me to establish my own lab as part of the Division of Cancer and Stem Cells in the School of Medicine. I decided to take on the degree apprenticeship because I had started to rely heavily on others for assistance with large datasets. The apprenticeship has allowed me to train on the job, learn new skills and apply them directly to my current research questions. The online nature of the degree fits perfectly with my career, and I am able to manage the degree around my current workload and deadlines.”

How have your skills improved since starting the programme?
“My bioinformatics skills have dramatically improved since I started the programme. I can assess RNA-Seq data independently and write scripts in R to allow data processing. The apprenticeship directly assists me with my research programme as it allows me to analyse our own data in-house, removing delays and associated costs. My knowledge is being used to help lead new projects that include PhD and MSc students, which I may not have taken on without additional support had I not enrolled on this course.”

How have you found the support on the programme?
“The support on the programme is excellent. I have regular catch-up meetings scheduled and receive prompt responses and online tutor support when I need it. Starting this programme during a pandemic was a difficult decision, but ultimately it was the Covid-19 pandemic that pushed me to the decision. Knowing that research was going online for an undefined time period reinforced my belief that building my knowledge in bioinformatics was essential for my research, and ultimately the success of my students.”

Would you recommend the degree apprenticeship?
“I would strongly recommend the programme to any academic considering it. The course is excellently designed and run, and we have the support of the University’s Advanced Data Analysis Centre, which is one of the largest collections of bioinformaticians, data scientists and research software engineers in UK universities. The programme is very attractive as there is no cost to the apprentice, so you learn state-of-the-art best practices and see the real-time benefits in your research without the financial burden.”

Graham Lightfoot, Trainee Scientist, Johnson Matthey. Laboratory Scientist (Chemistry) degree apprenticeship

What are your day-to-day tasks as an apprentice?
“It depends on the placement. In my first placement I was supporting a project that removed a toxic substance from one of our products. This involved trialling different heating profiles, then doing titrations to determine the amount of toxic substance present in the samples, as well as completing other analysis. In my current placement I am looking at the flow properties of different chemicals which will support plant design and the manufacture of products. It is a branch of science that I have never really thought of before and it is really interesting learning about it, especially when working with leading experts on the subject and with the state-of-the-art technology in the lab. Outside the day-to-day tasks you are also encouraged to look for other opportunities and people are willing to teach you.”

How has the programme supported your development?
“I am much more confident on the practical side of things, since I am spending a lot of my time working in the lab. I have also developed my communication skills, especially in my presentation and report writing. I have started to learn coding to help with my data analysis as well. My original plan when I was in college was to go to university, get my degree, and then find a job in the industry. The degree apprenticeship just seemed like a better way of doing it, since I do all these things anyway except without the debt at the end of it and with a much better opportunity of finding a job with five years’ experience and a foot in the door – all while getting paid a decent salary and good benefits.”

How do you see the apprenticeship helping you to achieve your career goals?
“At this point I do not really know where I want my career to go, but the breadth of the experiences that I have had in the apprenticeship is helping with that. Working in interdisciplinary teams gives you a lot of contact with different branches of the business, so you get some experience of that. There are so many technical aspects to work as well, and generally the scientists working with that piece of equipment or on that project want to talk about it, so you can learn a lot if you ask.”

What would you say to anyone else considering the degree apprenticeship?
“It is a great opportunity for your career but is not for everyone. Get in touch and find out more. If you can it might be worth trying to get some work experience in a lab setting to see if you enjoy it. Weigh up the pros and cons and see if it works for you. On completion of the apprenticeship, I will have a BSc (Hons) in Chemistry with Industry from the University of Nottingham, as well as our degree apprenticeship certificate. With five years’ experience on top of that there are lots of opportunities for recognition, like become a registered scientist.

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