Adam Penson, employee, in a science lab

Telegraph article: Alternative routes into Science

GSK apprenticeships offer students keen on a career in science an alternative to the traditional university pathway.

When Adam Penson, 19, applied for an apprenticeship, his father, once an apprentice himself, worried his son would get stuck making the tea. But he’s working in research and development at GSK, using technology to help discover antibodies that will be used in making medicines. “I spend a lot of time generating cells, doing experiments and presenting data to teams. It’s good for my confidence to be treated as an equal by the experienced scientists I’m working alongside.”

Penson did toy with the idea of university – with science A-levels, he applied to the likes of Bristol and King’s and UCL in London. “But in my heart of hearts, I wanted to get stuck into a science career. I wasn’t convinced university alone presented good value for money. I thought an apprenticeship guaranteed relevant work.”

Like other GSK apprentices, he’s also studying for a foundation degree and hopes to complete a bachelor’s degree – funded by GSK – within five years of joining, by studying alongside his work. What he learns in applied bioscience and technology, he applies directly in the lab. “Sixth-form science prepared me to some extent but the more complicated principles I’ve picked up in my degree studies.”

Neither he nor apprentice Tori Nicol-Smith, who joined GSK two years ago, feel they’ve missed out on university life. They socialise with other apprentices, and both feel well networked within the company. They’ve appreciated the friendly support from senior scientists within GSK. “From the start, I felt I could ask any question, it wouldn’t sound stupid,” says Penson.

Like Penson, Nicol-Smith was pushed towards university when at school, but she didn’t want the debt a degree brings. “I always saw chemistry as something I could do in the future – I had an inspirational teacher. This is a way of doing my dream job while helping people as well.”

She works in research and development in physical properties, looking at the physical characteristics of drug powder, such as particle size. In her first month at GSK she was supervised in running an experiment; the next month she conducted one on her own. “It just shows how well trained we were. It was intensive – you are brought up to speed quickly. You get hands on experience straight away.”

Like Penson, she’s working towards a foundation degree in applied chemistry and hopes to complete a bachelor’s in the subject. She spends a day a week at university, with an intensive residential week once a year. “You have to be quite self-motivated – we’re not spoon-fed.” Once she got over the shock of working with people the same age as her parents, she’s relished the environment. Her team is split between men and women, while she has more female managers than male.

Both know they could move around within a company the size of GSK; both believe they’ll be in a strong position for a scientific career once qualified. “I’ll have a degree, experience at the coalface, and a good network,” says Penson. “With work experience in a large multinational, I’ll be in a great position.”

This feature first appeared on The Telegraph - as part of The Telegraph UK STEM Awards.