Beyond the Books: A Doctoral Internship Experience at the Royal Society of Edinburgh

Today, Katherine Burns, a third year History PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, tells us about her SGSAH internship experience with the Royal Society of Edinburgh. This post kicks off a new series about the value and challenges of doing an internship or residency during the PhD. If you are interested in doing an internship through SGSAH, you can find more information here.

I completed my SGSAH internship with the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) back in August. I had started the position at the beginning of March and my time as a SGSAH intern was such a rewarding and thought-provoking experience that I was disappointed when it had to come to an end!

I’m a self-funded PhD student and I was so pleased to discover that SGSAH internship and artist residency opportunities are open to all arts and humanities PhD students in Scotland. After carefully reading through the other internships listed on the SGSAH website, I decided to apply for an internship with the Royal Society of Edinburgh researching their links to the slave trade. My PhD research examines “Information Wanted” advertisements which formerly enslaved people used to reconnect with lost family members after the American Civil War, so it wasn’t exactly related to my doctoral research, but it fit well with my broader research interests. Shortly after applying I attended an interview and was delighted when I was then offered the position!

SGSAH internships are very flexible in that they can be worked full time, part time, or in blocks. While some people may choose to undertake their internship full time, I made the decision to do mine part time, as I didn’t want to take a break from the PhD. The RSE was very relaxed about when I worked my hours, meaning I was able to fit my internship easily around my doctoral studies, which was helpful. My RSE colleagues also went out of their way to make me feel welcome and part of the organisation, even though we were all working from home.

My SGSAH internship project was a scoping research review to identify past links, both direct and indirect, to the RSE’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. My role was to plan and undertake the research project, which culminated in a report that I submitted at the end of August. This was a big task, which seemed daunting at first, but I was given all the support I needed. I had regular catch ups with my manager, and I also had two mentors from the University of Glasgow – Professor Alison Phipps and Dr Christine Whyte – who provided me with invaluable feedback throughout the course of the research project.

The thing I probably liked most about my internship was being able to set aside my doctoral project for a few hours every week, to delve into something completely new and exciting. Being self-funded, I’m used to having to juggle part time work alongside my doctoral studies. The internship was a new experience for me, because my RSE work always left me so motivated when I returned to my PhD work. I especially enjoyed the challenge of having to work from home and therefore not having access to the RSE building to check out their archive (or any other physical archives, for that matter). As a result, I had to come up with creative solutions to these problems, working out how best to conduct such a research project remotely.

My internship with the Royal Society of Edinburgh had so many other benefits, there are almost too many to list! Significantly, I came away with a more complete understanding into Scotland’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. I was able to pioneer research, enhancing my research skills in the process and utilising the experience gained from my doctoral studies to inform how best to approach the project. I also greatly improved my presentation skills over the course of my internship, as I regularly presented my findings at RSE meetings, to both RSE colleagues and Fellows. As someone who gets nervous public speaking, having to do these presentations so frequently was a really great experience – so much so that I now get (slightly!) less nervous when I give conference papers. My internship also gave me the chance to collaborate with scholars from many different academic disciplines and these conversations served to broaden my thinking.

I would encourage anyone who is thinking about undertaking a SGSAH internship to apply. My internship was such a fantastic experience and definitely one of the highlights of my PhD studies so far! My internship with the RSE aligned closely with my research interests, but even if an internship falls outside your area of expertise, it will still be a brilliant opportunity to develop your skills, challenge yourself and, importantly, will be a great addition to your CV.

Katherine Burns is a third-year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her interdisciplinary research examines “Information Wanted” advertisements and is provisionally entitled “”Keep this Unwritten History”: Mapping African American Family Histories in “Information Wanted” Advertisements, 1880-1900.” Katherine is Postgraduate Secretary for the Scottish Association for the Study of America (SASA). 

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