Ben Fernando

Hello everyone! I’ve just started my PhD on the Environmental Research DTP in Oxford, and like most other people here I am funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

I’m not actually an Earth Scientist by training, despite being in the ‘Dynamic Earth’ stream of the DTP. The only reason that I applied here was because I did a NERC REP (Research Experience Placement) last summer.

REPs are paid placements of 8 to 10 weeks which take place over the summer, for which you receive a stipend of £200 per week, and additional research expenses of up to £500. Some might be based at a particular university, be split between different sites (for example, a research department and a museum), or conducted entirely at one of NERC’s ‘partners’, such as the British Antarctic Survey. You’d normally live in or commute to whichever city you’re working in, and the hours tend to be quite flexible so you can adjust things to suit your schedule.

There are, however, a few important caveats: you must have eligibility to work in the UK, and have at least one year left of your first undergrad or integrated master’s degree . You have to be on track to get a 2:1 or above, and need to be studying a ‘quantitative discipline outside of NERC’s remit’.

The last rule basically means that you need to be studying something that isn’t Earth Sciences, certain aspects of Biology (like Ecology or Zoology), Archaeology or Meteorology. Eligible subjects might include Physics, Statistics, Maths, Engineering, Computer Science, Chemistry or even Economics. Some people see this rule as a little unfair, but it exists so that NERC can try and tempt people from other disciplines to do Environmental Science PhDs. Doing so brings in fresh ideas to help tackle the challenges of doing cutting-edge science.

Supervisors normally post projects quite late in the internship cycle (from Easter onward), and might ask to interview you either in person or over the phone. If you’re interested in a particular project, you ought to make contact with the supervisor before applying. They will be able to provide further detail about what the project will involve, which is especially useful for finding out about things like fieldwork or data collection, which all projects are supposed to involve.

If you get a place and have not already done so, you might want to meet your supervisor. This is a good chance to make sure that everything is in place for you to begin, and can be quite reassuring. There’s a good chance they’ll be taking time off over the summer, and as you may be eligible to do the same this is an ideal chance to coordinate. You might also want to ask if there’s a conference you can visit or present at come the end of your placement, as this is a lovely way to round things off and to meet new people who you might want to apply to do a PhD with.

Once you arrive, you’ll probably be given computer login details and access to the building. There’s normally a safety briefing and a tour too – though I must admit I kept getting lost for several weeks afterward until I got used to the building. In the first few days, your supervisor will explain in greater detail the objective of your project, and you should make sure to let them know if there’s anything that you’re unsure about. Because you’ll be coming from a different field, you’re not expected to know a huge amount about what you’re working on. Be honest about how much you know, as there may be additional training that you can get over the summer if needed.

The project itself should be full-time, but you should make sure you take the opportunity to enjoy your summer and make the most of being in a new environment (no pun intended). Take the time to speak to the staff and PhD students about what they do, and to get ideas about potential topics for postgraduate research. In my case, I’m pretty sure doing this was central to getting a place at Oxford!

At the end of your placement, your supervisor will need to write a short brief on what you’ve done to send to NERC. You’ll also need to write a report containing details of what you did and why it’s relevant. This is to make sure that your supervisor is completely up to speed on what you did; they will almost certainly carry on your work in some form or another, so it’s vital to have logged exactly what worked and what didn’t. This also provides a useful little document that you can take to job or PhD interviews, and if done well might even lead to a publication.

More info on REPs:


“I’m a first year student in the DTP who completed my integrated masters’ degree (MSci) at Imperial College London in 2016”