HDR Career Conversations

Supporting research student career development and employability at UOW

iUnivative student consultancy programme: A PhD student’s experience


Introduction: Since coming to UOW, iUnivative has been one of my ‘pet’ projects (I was lucky enough to co-ordinate it in 2014 and 2015).  I’ve seen the huge benefits it can give HDR students in recognising their high-level skills in a very different setting.  UOW PhD researcher Lisa Belfiore is a recent iUnivative ‘graduate’ – let’s hear about her incredible experience…

As a final-year PhD student, I’ve been thinking about what I would like to do career-wise after graduation. While my PhD is in science, I recognise that my knowledge and experience opens up many opportunities for me outside of academia, including in industry, government, consultancy and business related-roles. Participating in iUnivative provided me with some business and corporate knowledge, giving me a taste of what alternative career paths might look like, and showed me how I can apply my transferable skill set to a science career outside of academia.

iUnivative is an intensive one-month program run by UOW that aims to develop students’ innovative problem-solving skills by giving them the opportunity to work with a local organisation on a business challenge. The program is open to all undergraduate, postgraduate, domestic and international students from any degree or discipline, and aims to foster a sense of interdisciplinary collaboration in approaching a real-world problem and generating a solution by allocating a diverse group of students to each team.

Alfred Chidembo: founder and CEO of local non-for-profit charity Aussie Books for Zim

The organisation assigned to my team was the Wollongong-based non-for-profit charity Aussie Books for Zim. This charity focuses on collecting and shipping books from Australia to Zimbabwe in order to set up libraries in rural schools to improve education and literacy rates. The charity has already received substantial support from the local community, but in order to realise its long-term goals of establishing several school libraries in Zimbabwe each year, the charity required a sustainable fundraising model to support its initiatives moving forward. This was the business challenge that our team set out to solve. We had to act as a consultancy team and put forward a strategy that the charity could implement in order to generate adequate funds, improve its marketing and branding, recruit and support volunteers, and improve the efficiency of its administrative processes in order to flourish as a non-for-profit charity.

I didn’t know what to expect going into the program, but found that I enjoyed the experience and learned a lot as I went, with the support of my fellow team members. I developed many skills, in particular:

  • Communication – working closely with others developed my interpersonal skills; pitching our team’s ideas in the form of a formal presentation further developed my verbal communication skills; writing a detailed business report developed my written communication skills
  • Leadership – as the team leader of my team of five, I gained leadership experience by ensuring that my team worked together effectively on the project, scheduling regular meetings, facilitating team members working together to achieve our common goals, keeping everyone on task, managing time effectively, and ensuring all deadlines for the project were met
  • Teamwork – collaborating with others in a small team of five students involved harnessing the individual strengths of each person in the team, problem solving together as a group, and delegating tasks appropriately
  • Research – conducting primary and secondary research in the context of a business challenge was quite different to the academic research skills developed by Higher Degree Research
  • Networking talking to founders and CEOs of the company, and talking with other professionals in search of solutions to the business challenge provides some real-world insight and industry knowledge
  • Co-curricular involvement – iUnivative is recognised by UOWx: an initiative to enhance personal and professional development of UOW students; UOWx formally recognises students’ co-curricular involvement upon graduation, acting as evidence for the skills and abilities developed through participating in the program

The winning team of the Aussie Books for Zim iUnivative challenge. From left to right: Habibullah Khondoker Alvee, Deeksha Balaji, Julia Robinson, Lisa Belfiore and Alexander Mastronardi

When I signed up to participate in iUnivative, a description of the program mentioned that it would be “intensive” – before commencing the program, I don’t think I realised how accurate that description was. It was a very intensive four week period, but very rewarding. My team and I pulled together, conducted research, formulated a proposal, wrote up a business report and presented our plan in front of the Aussie Books for Zim team. The highlight of the program was that our team won the competition!

Overall, I highly recommend involvement in iUnivative for my fellow Higher Degree Research students. The program will help develop your communication, collaboration and problem-solving skills in a new and interesting way. Most significantly, I found iUnivative was a particularly meaningful experience because I could apply my skills to solve a real-world issue and make a tangible impact for a worthwhile cause – something that we as HDR students all endeavour to do!

Lisa Belfiore is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health. Lisa’s PhD research is focused on the development of new anticancer nanotherapies for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer.

Thanks Lisa and congratulations to you and all the team!

I love that we have such a great opportunity for all students to see their skills in a different context.   We consistently receive positive feedback like Lisa’s from HDR student participants:

“It made me realise that I can do a lot more than I thought and my skills are quite broad…the experience clarified and helped me put into words some of my skills.”

“As a research student, my future career plan was to get a research position at university or institute. And now I am confident to work in an industry or company, or even start my business.”

Univative usually runs over the Summer and Winter breaks. See your high level thinking, research and problem solving skills at work in an innovative business setting. Teams are multi-disciplinary & the program is flexible so you can work around your research commitments.

 Have you any questions for Lisa about her iUnivative experience?

 Or questions for Careers Central about the program? Include them in the comments below

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