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Dear CareerDoctorI am currently a 2nd-year undergraduate student studying biomedical sciences at Kings College London. My subject covers a variety of fields, but I am mainly interested in genetics, cell/molecular biology, and physiology. I would like to apply for a summer placement at some kind of science-orientated workplace. I do not mind what type of job it is, even if it is a volunteer position, as I would like the experience to help me decide whether I am interested in the experimental or theoretical aspect of my degree. The experience would also help me to gain a deeper understanding in my subject area.I would be grateful if you could advise me on how to find vacation work.Thank you.Shen

Dear Shen:

You are definitely taking the right approach by wanting to get into the workplace and experience life as a scientist first hand. As well as giving you a chance to see how the knowledge and skills you are acquiring can be applied, you will also see the conditions under which scientists work and get a feel for workplace culture--all providing valuable insight for the career decisions you'll be making in your final year. Perhaps the biggest selling point, though, is that it will make it easier for you to find a job upon graduation. The work experience in itself will make you more attractive to potential employers, and you will have learned a lot from having been through the recruitment process. There's nothing like a real interview to improve your interview technique!

At this stage, you need to do two important things:

  • Try to narrow down your preferences a little in terms of location, occupation, or type of employer--or you will be overwhelmed by opportunities.

  • GET MOVING! Many summer schemes have fast-approaching application deadlines!

  • I'll leave it to you to narrow your options through a chat with your careers service and/or a friendly academic. My jobs in the remainder of this column will be to direct you towards advertised vacancies and to look at how you can go about finding other opportunities.

    For a start, all the big graduate recruiters run summer placement schemes--sometimes called internships--for undergraduates, generally those reaching the end of their penultimate year. These are usually well paid (you can expect from £170 to £250 per week), and they offer training, novel scientific projects to work on and, more often than not, a shortcut through at least some stages of their graduate recruitment process.

    That's the good news. The less-than-good news is that these programmes are also very competitive, have early closing dates, and require you to fill in lengthy application forms. Typically, you must also go through at least one interview, and sometimes you'll be asked to visit an assessment centre, where you may have to give a presentation or take part in an observed group exercise.

    These schemes are usually advertised through university careers services, so make a visit to the University of London Careers Service a priority. While there, you can pick up a work experience case book, which will give you profiles of employers and advice on applying for and getting the most out of your placement ( Prospects Focus on Work Experience 2003 and TARGET Work Experience 2003 should both be available). You will find a range of vacancies to investigate further on the other big careers Web sites: Hobsons, the National Council for Work Experience, and Doctor Job. Be prepared to trawl through a lot of general vacancies, though, as these are not specifically scientific career sites.

    The format of these summer internships will vary, but many place science students in laboratories to work on real projects. As a very young chemist, the CareerDoctor spent a summer in sunny Egham looking at the effects of provitamins on our hair. Although my contribution at the time was infinitesimally small, now you can't move in Boots stores for bottles of provitamin this and that. During this placement, I also received training in communications, marketing, and team building. And I was given the chance to visit other company laboratories, departments, and manufacturing sites and talk to people in various roles.

    You should also check out the brilliant and more business-oriented STEP placement programme. As its Web site explains, "for eight weeks every summer 1500 undergraduates join small and medium-sized businesses and community organisations to undertake specific business and technology related projects of real and lasting benefit to the host organisation. Students receive a training allowance of £170 per week as well as training, access to leading skills development software and a full support service." You can look at details of typical projects and apply online.

    Do not restrict your search to internships, though. Many employers offer short-term employment opportunities, which will probably be advertised through your careers service. Also have a look at the notice boards around your department, as some employers send vacancy details directly. If you are interested in working in another geographical location, get in touch with one of the university careers services there and ask for any information available to students from other universities.

    Another possibility is to ask around departments about any funding for short-term research projects within the university. Sure, your salary will not be the same as for commercial placements (otherwise, the PhD students would be up in arms!). But experience in this setting will dramatically improve your research skills. The range of subjects in academia is also wider, and if your pet topic isn't researched in your institution, you might be able to work elsewhere--although some universities may fund only their own students.

    If you are feeling more adventurous, you might consider an overseas placement, which would have an even greater impact on your CV. In many international companies, the preferred working language is English, so not having other languages needn't be an insurmountable hurdle. The International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience ( IAESTE) is an independent, nonpolitical organisation that arranges paid, course-related technical training abroad in industrial and commercial organisations, research institutes, local government bodies, state enterprises, consultancies, laboratories, and academic institutions. There is a small fee (£60) to pay initially, but it is refunded if the arrangement is cancelled, and the rates of pay are calculated to cover all living expenses in the host country.

    For more placements abroad and advice on them, have a look at Hobsons Web site and the books of tips on finding work in specific countries that are kept by your careers service. Be aware, though, that it might be more challenging to organise short-term scientific work overseas because many of the advertised programmes are in sales or summer camps. However, there are many scientific companies across the world, so if you have a particular country in mind, some Web research should turn up a list of possible employers. You can always approach their UK offices for information on opportunities overseas.

    Now, let's say you've had a good look at all of these sites, and you still can't find any vacancies that suit your needs. One way around that is to identify companies that will be interested in your knowledge and skills and to approach them. You can find recruiters' lists on the Web sites of trade associations, such as the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry ( ABPI). Again, your careers service Web site can lead you to still more organisations because it is bound to have an extensive Virtual Careers Library that links to dozens of scientific bodies.

    If you do find yourself in the position of "knocking on doors," you will need to get some advice on your CV and covering letter. Although it is a big time commitment, try to make each application relevant to the company. These changes might be very subtle--squeezing in recent advances, the names of specific products, or a particular laboratory technique, for example--but they WILL increase the impact of your letter. I would be wary about sending a letter that asks for "anything scientific," as it may come across as a lack of insight or effort--even though I realise you simply want to increase your chances! Another danger with vague letters is that they can be passed through many hands, which often means they won't be dealt with by anyone.

    Finally, use the CareerDoctor's favourite resource--your network--to identify possible employers. If you ask around your department, you will find it has seen many students go off into the big bad world of work. You might be put in touch with someone who can either talk to you about what they do (to help you firm up your ideas), put you in touch with someone in recruitment, or even ring down to a minion and find you something to do. OK, perhaps the first two are more likely, but some of the more senior academics will have some impressive contacts, so work out what you want to do this summer and see if they can smooth your path to the perfect placement.

    Once you're there, make sure you squeeze every drop of learning and opportunity. Recording your experiences (using STEP's Skills online package, for example) will be invaluable when you return to university in the autumn and need to make decisions about life after graduation. Your first term will be a whirl of applications, as closing dates for PhD programs are increasingly early and the best doctoral research opportunities get snapped up well before finals.

    Always bear in mind that if a successful placement can launch your career, an unsuccessful one can be even more valuable if it prevents you from making a career faux-pas. Surviving 8 weeks in industrial research might be tough if you crave the freedom to carry out blue-sky rather than commercially driven research, but you'll return to university knowing that academia is right for you. Equally, you may discover that you are more interested in marketing or human resources.

    Whatever choices you make about your summer placement, I am sure that it will help you gain a more complete understanding of much more than your subject.

    All the best in your career,

    The CareerDoctor