When I first sent out an email to the Bristol Speech & Language Therapy Research Unit detailing my interests in Speech and Language Therapy and that I would like to partake in some voluntary work experience, it was very daunting. Having visited the website beforehand and looked at the Research Team it was almost as if I were daring to ask to be placed amongst a team of such experienced people who between them seemed to have this massive expanse of knowledge.

Of course this sense of nervousness soon left when my email was replied to and I was told that there was an opportunity for work experience at the research unit. Immediately I felt a sense of excitement at the prospect of being able to gain work experience in a professional research environment that also has close links to my university.

I think of my three months of work experience as being split into two sections: pre and post my two week visit to Thailand in July.
Something that struck me on beginning my placement at the research unit was how female dominated Speech and Language therapy is. Having done research into Speech and Language therapy as a profession prior to my placement I had read that over 82% of speech and language therapists are female. To be completely honest this made for a nice break as having grown up with two brothers it was nice to move away from such a competitive environment to one where everyone was so welcoming and treated each other with such approbation.

My first task was checking pairs of transcripts of the same audio transcribed by different people for reliability and working out the percentage of same or equivalent phonemes transcribed and also working out a percentage for the difference between the transcripts. This work introduced me to the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children or ‘ALSPAC’. Having grown up in Bristol my whole life and being (along with all my friends) ‘Children of the 90s’ it was incredibly interesting to learn of such a world-leading study in my own city. ALSPAC is one of the most in depth studies of its kind and holds a wealth of information about the environmental and genetic factors that affect health and development and so to be involved in anything to do with it was a privilege.

After checking the reliability of 48 pairs of transcripts, I moved on to a data management and processing task which involved using a computer to locate, identify and relocate ALSPAC audio files to then be later sent off to America. In this task, I managed to successful move or ‘batch’ 322 sets of three audio files.

These data management and processing tasks were quite laborious and required considerable time and effort but the knowledge I gained made that irrelevant as I know I have learnt so much from working on them whether it was honing my phonetic skills or researching about ALSPAC in my own time. At times it was challenging to do quite repetitive work but the pros far outweighed any cons.

I completed the ALSPAC work the day before I left for Thailand (4th July). On my return on the 23rd July I immediately began work on transcribing audio of an aphasia discussion group where interviewers were asking four aphasia sufferers ‘If you could change one thing about your communication, what would it be?’. I found myself learning a vast amount from the task as it introduced aphasia to me, something which I knew little about previously and is greatly focused upon within Speech and Language therapy and psycholinguistics.

Upon completing the transcription task, I then started writing lay summaries for published journals and articles by members of the research team. I managed to complete six lay summaries, ranging in focus from what it is like living with a sufferer of semantic dementia to defining communication disability response to the World Report on Disability. This writing not only taught me a huge amount regarding speech and language therapy but also aided me in developing my skills for both academic writing and writing for a lay audience.

When I finally completed all the work I was asked to do (and more as I completed much of it ahead of schedule) I felt a sense of achievement I had not experienced before. The reason for this was because at university it is very straight forward: you study hard and as a result you get a good grade and whilst you are happy with that good grade you are not surprised as it is the result of the effort you put in; similarly if you achieve a poor grade it is because of the effort that was not put in. Whereas when I completed a large sum of work the result was that I felt I had accomplished something more because I was in a professional environment completing work that had importance. Completing a task to a high standard in such an environment was very rewarding as I had to use not only knowledge but apply intuition, use professional skills and even judge and identify problems, aspects that are rarely tested at university and therefore to be told I had exceled in such a task which tested me beyond anything I had done before was incredibly fulfilling.

My placement has also been what could be called ‘eventful’. Just five days after I started I was driving to the unit through Frenchay with my windows open and a low flying (what some may call suicidal) pigeon flew into my driver’s side window managing to hit me in the side of the head and tumble down into my foot well and become trapped underneath my pedals. I of course immediately slammed on my breaks narrowly missing crashing into the wall that ran alongside the road; I had the rest of the day off and written on the whiteboard my absence was noted as plain and simply ‘hit by pigeon’. Just over a fortnight later I finished work to come out to my car to see my off-side mirror had been what can only be described as destroyed, presumably by someone who decided to drive just a few inches to close. I am pleased to say after these two ‘events’ my placement went without any more major problems.

My time at the Bristol Speech & Language Therapy Research Unit gave me an invaluable insight into both what it is like to work in a professional environment and also what it is like to work in a research based environment. I was able to talk about speech and language therapy as a career with members of the research team and I really do feel I have gained a wide understanding of Speech and Language Therapy and all the different aspects it covers.

Looking ahead to the future, this work experience has allowed me to acquire transferable skills and the experience to enable me to hit the ground running when I start my first ‘proper’ job after my studies, something which not many students can say. The experience I gained from my placement was not only academic and professional but also personal. I have gained a lot of confidence throughout my placement and also I proved to myself that I am an able and capable person that can rise to the occasion.

I am very thankful to have worked at the research unit and to have completed my time there with such ease and I am indebted to everyone there for helping me learn so much and develop myself on both a knowledge and personal level.