Technical Apprentice Case Study - Megan O'Dowd

08 February 2024

Name: Megan O’Dowd

Employer: The University of Manchester

Role: Apprentice Horticulture Technician

Level: 2

Time in role/time remaining: 

4 months in – 3 years remaining.

Why did you decide to do an apprenticeship? 


I found myself in a position of wanting to enter a profession that is quite hard to get into without experience, a lot of horticultural jobs expect lots of experience or at least lots of volunteering, and I wasn’t hearing back from anything I’d applied for. As I’d been working in hospitality, I had little time to volunteer so was struggling to find a way into the career I wanted. I had an integrated master’s degree already in Geography, but it didn’t quite prepare me, as I had some relevant knowledge but no experience in the industry.


I’d been considering doing an apprenticeship for a little while, as I liked the idea of learning on the job, being mentored by an expert and being able to make money while learning. I thought with already having a degree I wouldn’t be considered, but I’ve found that as well as being a way into a career, it’s also a great way to specialise knowledge and skills to make you more employable for future jobs. I ended up going for it because I felt like it'd be a great first step into my career, one where I’m not expected to know everything and am encouraged to learn and build on my knowledge.


What are your roles and responsibilities? 


My roles are incredibly varied in the apprenticeship. I work mostly at The Firs Environmental Research Centre but have spent days working on main campus helping postdoctoral researchers with soil science projects, learning how to carry out DNA sequencing on plant samples to determine exact genus and species, and networking with fellow apprentices and FSE (Faculty of Science and Engineering) staff.


At The Firs, I help with daily maintenance including watering plants in the botanical collections, checking on projects in the research greenhouse, feeding the fish, and opening and closing the site. Other tasks are quite varied, and range from renovating a pond, sowing seeds, clearing vegetation, and databasing the botanical collections – some of which involves going through historical records from as far back as the 1950s.


We have lots of volunteers as The Firs too, and I spend much of my time working alongside them, guiding them through tasks and independently leading when necessary. I have given tours around the site and am required on occasion to do a health and safety brief to new members to the site. I have the opportunity to choose my own projects to carry out alongside my studies, which I look forward to starting once I’m a bit more knowledgeable about horticulture.


What did you do before your apprenticeship? 


I completed an integrated master’s degree at The University of Sheffield in Geography, from which I graduated in 2020. After which I worked in hospitality until 2023, rising from waitress to restaurant manager at a busy Manchester venue. I volunteered when I could at botanical gardens and with City of Trees, though nowhere near as much as I would have liked.


What have you gained from your apprenticeship? 


I have learned so much in the 4 months I’ve been working in this apprenticeship, from the science of plant physiology to understanding how to take care of them. It is also the first place I’ve worked that’s been quite professional, and I’m picking up skills on how to act and communicate with others in a formal way, and believe I’ve got great support from my managers for further professional development.


What are the benefits to completing an apprenticeship over other pathways choices (e.g.: A-Levels)? 


Apprenticeships are much more personal than A-Levels, if you know what you want to do, it is a brilliant way to enter the career of your choice and be able to learn on the job while getting paid. It gives you vital work experience you wouldn’t get from an A-Level, all the while learning everything you could need in a much smaller environment. You learn from professionals who work in the industry, who will have time to work 1 to 1 with you on a regular basis and give you any support and guidance needed. This level of guidance isn’t possible at Sixth Form. There’s also a lot more variety in the kinds of apprenticeship you can do compared to the A-Levels you can do, that means you can get right into your area of interest without having to spend a few years completing courses that might not be relevant to you and your career goals.


Where do you see yourself after your apprenticeship is completed? 


I’m still not sure as I’m quite early into it, but the fact I’m able to do such a large range of things during the apprenticeship is great because I’m sure I’ll end up finding a niche I want to work in.


Did anything surprise you about your apprenticeship? If so, what?


The amount of support from managers has been great, I expected it to be just a job where I was expected to just get on with my work independently and be held to high expectations, but there’s been a lot of checking in from the apprenticeship team which I’ve really appreciated. They’ve helped me manage my workload when I was feeling overwhelmed and given me ways to work in more efficient ways and feel a bit more relaxed.


I’d really recommend looking into doing an apprenticeship, they can be really specific which is great to get you right into the career you want. It’s hard getting into jobs sometimes without the specific knowledge and this is a great way to get it. The support has been amazing, and I feel like once I’ve finished my apprenticeship, I’ll be in a really good place to go out and find work for myself which is relevant to what I want, and that having this experience on my CV will make me highly employable.