Kirsop Labs

Skills development for science students everywhere

How to find a summer placement

Finding a suitable research project can be challenging, but the important thing is to put yourself out there and don’t be discouraged.

Placements can help you in many different ways. They give you a taste of research; they allow you to practice your skills in an independent environment and, most importantly, build your confidence.

So Where Do You Start?

If you’re applying to your academic institution, you might receive an email from the admin office notifying you of staff who have space in their lab for a project student. If so, great! But you shouldn’t wait for this to happen – take the initiative and do your research.

Finding a project that’s right for you based on your interests and degree is pretty important if you’re going to make the experience worthwhile. Having a good read through university staff bio pages is a good way of identifying research areas where you might like to get involved.

Once you have identified a couple of areas of research you like, email the staff member directly to see if they have any opportunities for a project student. Be polite, express your interest, and if it’s bad news, try not to be too discouraged. They might know of someone else you could apply to, so just ask. It’s possible there’s someone else in the area with a similar research focus willing to take you.

Home or Away?

Placements abroad are pretty competitive and highly sought after. If this is something you feel interested in, then you might want to prepare the following documentation for the application process:

  • Target Your CV and the Cover Letter

For students requiring help with writing a good CV, I recommend contacting the careers office of your institution. Your careers officer will help you prepare this important document and show you how to target it towards the job you want. Targeting your CV and application form is important and requires a bit of effort, but don’t skip this stage. And don’t send out generic CVs and cover letters. Those go straight in the bin! Most supervisors will ask for a paragraph or two explaining why you want the placement. Again, this is something the careers service can also help you with if you are unsure of how to word things. There are websites available such as Jobs in Science that give you some great pointers on what to include and a page from the University of Kent, illustrating a template of something you could build on.

  • Letter of Matriculation and Academic Transcript

These can be obtained free of charge usually from the academic registry of your institution.

  • Passport Scan

Some applications ask for this, others don’t, but it’s always good to have it handy.

Where To Find Worldwide Internships

There are some places that you can apply to for placements abroad. The applications can be particularly long, requiring letters of recommendation from your personal tutor as well as the documents listed above, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get this all together. Be organised and prepared.

IAESTE – run by the British Council, IAESTE has placements all over the globe that you can apply for in many different fields. The length of placements is dependent on the company/location.

Amgen Scholars – Amgen also provides some placements in universities across the US, Europe, and Japan. The length of placement is again dependent on location.

UTSIP Kashiwa – The University of Tokyo Summer Internship Programme in Kashiwa is for undergraduate students studying natural sciences. They provide hands-on experience in labs with classes in Japanese.

Saltire Scholars – The Saltire Foundation offers a range of placements based on different degrees.

Testimonials and Words of Wisdom

Here are a couple of student testimonials based on experiences abroad and in the UK, and some excellent advice from 2 respected researchers.

Rosie Upton, PhD student at the University of Manchester, UK, and Intern, University of Edinburgh, UK

“Once I finished my Chemistry degree in Edinburgh I had a three-month gap before moving to Manchester to start my PhD. There was a summer internship to work in the Hulme research group (School of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh) in collaboration with National Museum Scotland (NMS) which I applied for and secured for 10 weeks of the summer. By undertaking a summer placement sandwiched in-between the end of my degree and the start of my PhD, within a field relevant to both, I found it extremely useful for maintaining and building upon my previous knowledge. The summer holidays can be several months long and I found that the 10-week placement provided me with a good mix of down-time and stimulating work. The project focus was on the analysis of ancient tapestries in order to determine their origin. Using chromatographic techniques, we were able to add to the public information available at museums around Scotland. I got the opportunity to work within a research laboratory at the university and in the labs at NMS; it was a great insight into an industry unrelated to pharmaceuticals.”

Gina Smith: Graduate of the School of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh, UK, and Intern, Saltire Foundation

“The Saltire Foundation help to find paid internships for undergrads and they are trying to increase their science internships. I did my placement with Edrington in Glasgow, UK who make Macallan, Highland Park and Famous Grouse whiskies, working on reducing their environmental impact. It was more about business experience than chemistry – how reducing emissions would not only benefit the environment and save the company thousands of pounds, but would also improve their customers’ overall views of the company. Saltire has good relationships with companies, and makes sure you actually are doing something productive for the company.”

Dr Colin Campbell – Director of OPTIMA Centre for Doctoral Training, University of Edinburgh, UK

“Professional experience gained during a summer internship is valuable for a couple of reasons:

1) It gives you a chance to gain experience that might help you decide what you want to do after graduation.

2) When applying for Ph.D. positions or jobs it looks better on your C.V. than a summer making pizzas (unless you’re applying for a job making pizzas).

3) It gives you material to discuss in job interviews – you’ll almost always be asked a question like “give an example of a time when you’ve used your problem-solving skills” and you’ll be able give a tangible example that’s not based on making pizzas.”

Dr Michael Seery, Reader in Chemistry Education, University of Edinburgh, UK

“Summer internships are a really great way to complement many of the more formal aspects of your degree and provide for some great ‘interview anecdotes’. Interview anecdotes are short stories from your experience that can be used to answer a variety of interview questions. Lots of degree work offers interview anecdotes – think of all that team work on a Chem 3P activity, or all those hours spent in the lab. But internships are a great opportunity to develop this more – log them in some way as you progress through your placement.

• Did something seem initially quite daunting but you worked through it?
• Did you have to find out about some topic that you didn’t know about before?

Documenting these experiences gives you a rich source of answers to interview questions. Imagine an anecdote around approaching a new topic that seemed initially difficult. A short synopsis of how you did this and were successful answers questions on your ability to problem solve, how you investigate new information, perhaps how you work under pressure, and so on.

These anecdotes are much more interesting to an interviewer than a bland response about what a great problem solver you are, as it tells them about you personally, and how you work in a context they can relate to. Perhaps most importantly, it shows the interviewer that you have the capacity to recognise the experience you are relating as being a personal developmental experience.”

For other articles in this series, read Thinking About a Summer Placement? And My Experience of a Summer Placement.

Acknowledgement: For helping me and donating their time and effort I’d like to thank Rosie Upton, Gina Smith, Dr. Colin Campbell and Dr. Michael Seery for their input to this article.

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