From CO-OP Kid to Trainee Researcher – Jennifer Higgins

In January 2013 I was appointed as one of two research interns working with the Food Health Ireland (FHI) research team in PESS. Five years later I now have a desk, a grand total of five metres away from where I spent those 8 months. I may not have physically moved very far but the journey in between has been varied and full of learning.

Sport and exercise science graduates have many opportunities from health to high performance sport, teaching to treatment; it’s a degree where you can branch off into many areas and make a difference to people at all stages of life. CO-OP is your opportunity to make it your degree, to develop skills, to build the CV that stands out. At the end of second year my CV and my classmates weren’t dissimilar. After CO-OP our skills and experiences were shaping the careers we were about to embark on – research, injury prevention and rehabilitation, occupational therapy, psychology, physiology, teaching, strength & conditioning to name a few.

“Fate and free will are equally powerful forces but I consider free will to be more important as it is your free will that determines your fate.” – Vyasa

CO-OP is a fantastic opportunity but ultimately it’s your engagement that turns it from a tick the box exercise to a fulfilling learning experience. Four years on, it seems a good time to reflect on my thoughts of making CO-OP count.

  1. Think about what you want. In two years (or 5 or 10) where do you see your career as a sport and exercise scientist? What skills will you need – both technical and transferable? I knew I had a passion for physiology, for human performance, for new ideas to help and support. I had a passion but my technical skills needed work. I needed an environment I could learn from others. I thought I wanted to work in research but didn’t really know what was involved. I saw CO-OP as a chance to figure that one out.
  2.  Start looking early and keep looking! While it would seem easy to secure a six-month placement especially if you work for free, don’t be surprised if you get a lot of no’s or even non-responses! I started looking in summer 2012, I was offered a placement in November! The CO-OP office will have a list of placements but sometimes it doesn’t quite match up to what you’re looking for. Looking around also helps you see what the possibilities are.
  3.  Look for an opportunity rather than a cheque! The issue of unpaid internships in sport and exercise is regular source of debate but unfortunately as an undergrad there’s not a whole lot you can do. I’m not suggesting you get into debt while gaining experience but a bit of flexibility or willingness to work elsewhere concurrently will open a few extra doors. Professional soccer players might be earning six figure sums but the intern who’s there three hours early to make sure they have everything they need probably won’t be retiring after a few months of placement.
  4. Do your homework. Is there someone with first-hand experience of the role who you can speak to? Can you go visit? Or organise a Skype meeting? As an intern you’ll probably start working with junior members of staff, or as a researcher with postgrads or research assistants. A few minutes chat or spending time observing their work and asking questions is much more insightful than any number of hours trawling websites for information. I was fortunate that my placement was in UL. A 7am visit during a morning of blood tests and body composition assessments, protocols that would become part of my near-daily routine, gave me more insight than any number of hours in conversation.
  5. Be patient but diligent. My first day was spent copying numbers from excel to individual word document reports. It’s as riveting as it sounds! By July I was leading a project – with support but nevertheless it was my responsibility. The transition didn’t happen overnight. Be an enthusiastic apprentice. Do your best at everything – accurate transcription of those figures from excel was as important to the research process as treating blood samples for later analysis, or monitoring exercise sessions to ensure the intensity was appropriate. Just because it’s boring doesn’t mean it’s unworthy. Show you can be trusted, that you’re diligent and more opportunities tend to arise.
  6. Embrace opportunities. Once upon a time this would have read “say yes to everything” but “say yes to things that move you forward” came from a lesson I learned the hard way! There’s only so many hours in the day but engaging with learning experiences that show you’re interested and give you a few extra skills even if it’s at 6.30am is invaluable.
  7. Engage. People are very willing to share experience and while you might be there to work as a physiologist there are many other experiences you can learn from. It’s one of the fantastic things about sport. Even now as a physiology PhD student I regularly bounce ideas off others – psychologists, coaches, biomechanists, and that’s only within PESS. You can learn a lot from people who think differently. CO-OP is as varied an experience as you make it.

For me my CO-OP experience pretty much placed me in the position I’m in today. Many of the technical skills are about to be put to use in an upcoming study. Being confident in my lab skills has given me scope to develop as a researcher, focusing on design and deeper knowledge, rather than just being a “do-er”. When it comes to applying for funding it’s much easier to write about how I have experience in human physiology than trying to draw tenuous links. With a bit of thought, a lot of engagement and a willingness to learn CO-OP can be a doorway to a career filled with adventure.

Only practical work and experience lead the young to maturity – Maria Montessori.

Jennifer Higgins is a postgraduate student in the PESS Department here at the University of Limerick. View Jennifer’s profile Here!

Jennifer’s Email:

Jennifer’s Twitter: @higgins_jen

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