Combining dissertation research and work experience

Canary Wharf, London

Post by Astrid Tooms – Year 3, BA Geography student

In my first few months back at University in second year it dawned on me that I had better think about what I wanted to do after University.  I started browsing various graduate job websites such as Target Jobs and Prospects (these were both useful – if you sign up and indicate your interests both will send you regular updates of relevant job vacancies for internships and graduate programmes).

I decided that I would love to work for a large company with the potential to travel. After making this decision I started applying to many different financial companies, to try and get a place on a summer internship programme for 2012 (as it seems pretty common knowledge that the best way to secure a place on a graduate scheme is to complete a internship first).  After online applications, online testing, telephone interviews and an assessment day I managed to get a seven-week programme with a leading international bank, the hard work had paid off!

Towards the end of second year the word dissertation starting creeping more and more frequently into our lectures and tutorials and we were all beginning to think about what sort of topics we could cover. From the outset it was made clear to us that studying Geography allowed for you to research a really broad range of things! I spent several weeks trying to think of ideas about what to look at, but nothing really stood out for me. It sounds like a total cliché, but one lunch I was having a coffee with a friend and she just simply suggested that I should try and combine my summer internship with my dissertation. This was perfect! Especially due to the fact we had to complete the majority of our research over the summer, and I knew that I would be busy with my internship programme. After enjoying my Social and Cultural Geographies module, taught in the second year, I decided that I wanted to incorporate this into my dissertation. Therefore I focussed my topic on gender in the banking sector. This is something that feminist geographers have researched and written about.

During second year we had a lecture from people at the careers centre about the possibility of competing a work-based dissertation, this seemed like a good idea for me, and I contacted the relevant people to discuss the prospect of completing a dissertation like this. However there were a few complications, so I decided to carry on with my initial idea and complete a ‘normal’ dissertation and use my experiences working at the bank as a means of collecting my research. I would definitely recommend this path, as it seemed like a great idea and the people involved are really supportive.

Prior to starting at the bank, I did a lot of reading and contacted individuals asking them to complete interviews for me, this was a great experience and highlighted many issues and key themes that would later become relevant in the workplace.

Starting my internship was really exciting, however I was extremely nervous. I had never worked in an environment like this before, and the majority of people in the office were extremely experienced in their fields. During my first few days many people asked me about my University degree, and when I said I was doing Geography I think many of them were quite shocked that I had decided to work at a bank instead of being a weather girl or geography teacher! However the graduate recruitment team at the bank had reassured all the interns that they wanted a diverse mix of people, and they had looked for transferrable skills and personal qualities as well as academic subjects during the recruitment process.

From the start I really enjoyed my time working in the commercial banking centre and built good relationships with many of my colleagues, I learnt new skills all the time and I was given real responsibility from day one. Throughout my seven weeks I completed some of my dissertation research, I asked about completing participant observation with my work colleagues (this was fine, however obviously there were strict confidentiality regulations in place). Whenever something happened that seemed relevant I would scribble it down on a piece of paper, then every night I would copy up my notes and explain my experiences. I quickly learnt that its very easy to forget things, and I tried to write down as much detail as possible as you never know what you may need in the future for my dissertation! Recording things in this way also helped me towards the end of my internship when I had to prepare for my performance review, as I had a detailed list of things that I had done, seen or been part of.

Throughout the internship experience, I also got to meet other interns, we kept in touch throughout the process and met up regulalry for work related events and socials. There were two other interns who were from the University of Liverpool.  Towards the end of the internship we also got to visit the bank’s head office at Canary Wharf, which was a great experience! Being part of this community for several weeks was fantastic and I believe it has really helped me with regards to my dissertation; it has given me a better understanding and has helped me view situations from different perspectives. When I completed my interviews I was able to relate to people better as I had witnessed the environment they were used to working in.

Overall I would recommend combining your dissertation with something you are really interested in, it takes up a lot of your time so you don’t want to be stuck doing something that doesn’t benefit you. For me, being able to complete my internship and gather research data was fantastic, I think otherwise I would have struggled to fit everything in or my data would not have been so good. Furthermore, the company was really interested in what I was doing and it showed that I had a genuine interest in the Banking sector. Everyone I spoke to was really friendly and willing to help, and I made some great contacts. Even people who I just spoke to on the phone for an hour offered to help me with my career and gave me great advice.

After the summer I feel that I am in a good position to carry on with writing up my findings, also the bank has offered me a graduate job which is a big relief going into third year.

And most importantly I don’t hate the word DISSERTATION… yet!

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