Best of both worlds

A degree apprenticeship offers the opportunity to earn whilst studying.

By Alison Cranage, Science Writer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Sanger Institute 2019 apprentices

Entering your first full-time job with £35,000 to £40,000 worth of debt is a fact of life for most UK graduates. But a degree apprenticeship offers a different way to study. We spoke to two apprentices who have recently started at the Sanger Institute. They are employed, but also studying for a bachelor’s degree at Anglia Ruskin University. Instead of debt, at the end of their degree they will have four years of work experience. 

Starting out

Beth Sampher

Beth Sampher’s route to the apprenticeship at Sanger was a series of serendipitous events. “I was interested in the apprenticeship scheme, as we had got an email about it at college,” she explains. “Then, my class came on a visit to the Sanger Institute. It was really cool, we were shown around the data centre, the sequencing facility and the whole campus. I happened to see my old dance teacher walking past – I had no idea she worked here,” she says.

Beth messaged her teacher, Siobahn Austin-Guest, when she got home and she confirmed that she did indeed work at Sanger. She offered to arrange a day’s work experience for Beth. Beth then took up a placement in the stem cell informatics team and has now started a BSc in Bioinformatics. The team provide custom laboratory information systems and computational research tools for high-throughput laboratory analysis of human stem cells.

Why choose an apprenticeship?

Beth hopes the apprenticeship will make her more employable. “I wasn’t too bothered going away and getting a degree. This way, I can earn while learning, and getting work experience is going to make me stand out when I apply for jobs.”

Benjamin Topping has also recently started an apprenticeship at the Sanger Institute. His degree is in Digital and Technology Solutions. “I don’t want a big debt – University costs a lot of money,” he says. “During my A-levels I did apply to some Universities, but wasn’t sure it was the right thing. I was torn between a degree and an apprenticeship. So I’ve found the best of both worlds with a degree apprenticeship.”

Day to day

Benjamin is working in the laboratory information management system team, which develops and maintains software for the high throughput DNA sequencing facility at Sanger. He first learnt programming skills in computer science A-level.

“I really enjoyed the programming side of it – it’s problem solving,” he says. “Some of the programming languages I’m using now are new to me, but I am able to learn at my own pace, using online courses.” He hopes to soon be creating software for the team.

Beth is also enjoying her time exploring a new area of science. “I’ve been interested in biology since secondary school,” she says. “Though I’d never heard of bioinformatics until I saw the degree apprenticeship, I could see it is the up and coming thing.”

Beth didn’t study computing at A-level, so has learnt to code from scratch during her placement. “It wasn’t something I’d done before,” she says. “But once I’d learnt one language, and the concepts of coding, it was easier to learn others. Now I’ve written scripts and bits of software for my team.”

The apprentices spend 20 per cent of their time on degree work at Anglia Ruskin University, and the rest working at Sanger.

Sanger Institute apprentices with Director Professor Sir Mike Stratton and Associate Director Dr Julia Wilson

Advice for applicants

Benjamin would advise anyone with an interest to apply for the software development apprenticeships. While you do need some understanding of coding, you don’t need to have knowledge of biological sciences too: “You can learn about DNA sequencing, and other processes, on the job as you go along,” he says.

Beth agrees and would encourage anyone interested to take a look. “If you are considering a degree – don’t just go along with everyone else. An apprenticeship is such a good way of doing it,” she says. Though she does admit it is hard work.

Beth also advises networking. “Go and talk to people – at events, science festivals – you never know who you might bump into.”

Apprenticeships available

Anglia Ruskin University and the Sanger Institute are offering apprenticeships in Human Resources, Software Development and Laboratory Science, starting in September 2020. Applications are now open – visit the Anglia Ruskin University website to find out more.

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