If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Undergrads Prep For Working World

Students who choose industry over grad school can improve their hiring prospects through internships and other training

by Emily Bones
September 10, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 37

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Howard
Howard, seen here with a snow chemist she helped construct at Bates, now does research for Albany Molecular Research Inc.
Jessica Howard poses with a snow-chemist.
Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Howard
Howard, seen here with a snow chemist she helped construct at Bates, now does research for Albany Molecular Research Inc.

After four years of making decisions such as what dorm to live in or which intramural sport to play, new graduates carrying a hot-off-the-press bachelor’s degree must tackle some weightier decisions. The first question to consider is whether to apply for graduate school or wrestle with the challenging job market.

According to the American Chemical Society’s 2011 survey of new graduates with a degree in a chemistry-related field, 41% of respondents with a bachelor’s degree chose to pursue a graduate degree and the same percentage found employment. Not all graduates who opted to search for a job were successful—14% reported that they were unemployed, up from 6% just five years earlier (C&EN, June 4, page 36).

Undergraduate students can do many things to prepare themselves to be a tough competitor in the job market, however. Through career services offices at their universities, they can take résumé-writing workshops and seminars on how to compose a top-notch cover letter. But landing a job as a new graduate starts long before spring semester of senior year, when soon-to-be grads start submitting job applications.

Many schools have programs that give students hands-on experience. Some are internal and pair students with professors. In others, students venture outside campus boundaries and gain experience in a lab at another university or in industry.

Timothy Boman, for one, took advantage of opportunities offered by his alma mater. During three summers of his undergraduate career at Hope College, in Michigan, he conducted research. Each summer he did something a little different. In fact, halfway through his program he added chemistry classes to complement his mathematics degree. He ultimately stayed at Hope a fifth year to complete a B.S. in chemistry and a B.A. in math in 2010.

Boman credits his research in organic chemistry, under Jeffrey B. Johnson, as a major factor in successfully finding a job after graduation. Boman is now a process development chemist involved in cancer drug discovery research at Ash Stevens, a contract research organization in Riverview, Mich.

“During my interview, I was able to give a presentation about the project I worked on with Dr. Johnson,” Boman explains. To get ready for the job interview, he did a mock presentation for people who were working in his adviser’s lab group.

Boman learned basic lab protocol, including assembling equipment and manipulating reactions, from his undergraduate organic chemistry research. But once left to his own devices on the job, he found he still had a lot to learn. “The job itself is fast paced,” Boman says. “Having no experience and going into an industrial job, it’s tough. You’re not just worried about what’s in your flask.” People will ingest the drugs made in the lab, so it’s important to know about Good Manufacturing Practices, he emphasizes.

One way for undergraduates to gain experience in an industrial setting is to find an internship, which is what Jessica Howard did. Howard is a 2012 graduate from Bates College, in Maine, where she earned a B.S. in chemistry. A few weeks ago she began her first permanent job as a research scientist. She is working on a drug discovery project at Albany Molecular Research Inc., in Indianapolis.

The summer before she graduated, Howard worked for Lexington, Mass.-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals. “I loved my experience there—the people, the work environment, and seeing the impact of my work by producing drug candidates,” she recalls.

She also picked up lab experience in an academic setting. Howard spent a summer doing bioinorganic research at Bates, and during her senior year she did a yearlong project for a thesis in analytical chemistry under Thomas J. Wenzel. “Being able to form a relationship with a professor who knew me both in the lab and as a student, that gave me a leg up in my interviews,” she says.

Having research experience gave Howard the courage to search for a lab position right after graduation. “I love being in lab, so why not do it 40 hours a week?” Graduate school was a consideration for her, but she “loves the hands-on piece, the actual synthesis,” she says. For now, Howard wants to focus on research and not the peripherals that come with being in grad school, such as teaching and taking classes.

Howard did apply for quite a few jobs—for many more than invited her for an interview. “It was definitely a process,” she laments. In the end, she was brought in for four interviews and offered three positions.

Her senior research helped Howard get a job, but having the hands-on research experience from the internship at Cubist made her a more skilled candidate, she explains. “I could start working right off the bat, rather than being trained.”

Oftentimes company internships are really a summerlong job interview. Such is the view of Watson Pharmaceuticals, a generics drugmaker with headquarters in Parsippany, N.J. “Our entry-level recruiting is focused on the interns,” says Celeste R. Chatman, associate director of university relations and inclusion at Watson.

The firm prunes its entry-level candidates by assessing their performance during summer internships. And it only hires interns who are “in the academic program that supports the type of position we’re looking to fill,” explains Chatman.

Gaining experience to prepare for an internship isn’t a bad idea either. “We like to tap into students who have had previous experience, either in research or another internship,” Chatman says. “But I have seen some students who haven’t had any experience and who perform well.”

Currently, Watson recruits from specific schools that are close to its facilities. For example, the firm’s lab in Salt Lake City recruits chemistry and chemical engineering majors from the nearby University of Utah and Brigham Young University campuses.

Credit: Jennifer Hampton/Hope College
Through his connections at Hope, Boman landed a job at Ash Stevens.
Timothy Boman
Credit: Jennifer Hampton/Hope College
Through his connections at Hope, Boman landed a job at Ash Stevens.

Instead of taking students out of academic labs and putting them in industrial labs, biotechnology firm Amgen supports a program that keeps students in university labs. The company established the Amgen Foundation in 1991, with goals of advancing science education, improving the quality of health care, and creating sound communities. As part of the education objective, the foundation started the Amgen Scholars Program in 2007, says Scott Heimlich, Amgen Foundation’s senior program officer in science education.

Ten top-tier schools across the U.S. host approximately 250 Amgen Scholars each year, and three renowned universities in Europe host some 75 participants; all are undergraduates. The U.S. program provides an eight- to 10-week experience where students work in a lab with a mentor and attend a weekend symposium in Los Angeles in July.

For students at schools with limited facilities who want a chance to try research, this type of program provides them the opportunity. Almost 4,000 students from 775 schools around the world applied to the program this year, Heimlich says, and every year there have been more applications than the previous year.

The foundation has committed $34 million over eight years to the program. “Essentially it’s fully funded, so your financial status isn’t a barrier to your participation,” Heimlich comments.

“We knew this type of experience—a compelling, hands-on opportunity over the summer at a top university”—could get students excited about science, Heimlich explains. But he isn’t concerned about whether they ultimately choose a career path in academia or industry. As of C&EN’s press time, 140 of the 1,050 Amgen Scholars who have completed a bachelor’s degree immediately obtained a science-based industry job after graduation. Most of the scholars—761 in all—have continued on to science-related advanced degree programs, 19 have taken up science industry jobs after obtaining an advanced degree, and 149 have pursued a nonscience pathway.

Although companies like to see research on the résumés of job applicants, many undergrads don’t seek out this experience. According to the 2011 ACS survey of new graduates, only 17.7% of respondents who obtained a job with a B.A. or B.S. had some kind of summer research experience, 20.5% completed research during the academic year, and 31.5% participated in an internship or co-op experience. These survey categories are not mutually exclusive, notes Gareth S. Edwards of ACS’s Department of Research & Member Insights.

The survey also indicates that the most effective way for new graduates to find a job is through an electronic posting, or through a faculty adviser or another informal channel.

In fact, recent graduates recommend that students seeking a job make use of their connections, for instance by asking those they know if they have heard of any job openings.

“If you know somebody who knows somebody, that makes a difference,” Boman says. He heard about the opening at Ash Stevens through another Hope graduate. Boman recalls from his job interview with Ash Stevens, “I made it clear I wanted to learn how chemistry works in industry. I wasn’t just doing it for the money or because I was bored. I actually wanted to learn. I think that helps.”

“Don’t be afraid to seek help from professors,” Howard advises. “Even in terms of, ‘What do I wear? They say it’s business casual; what is business casual?’ ”

Friends and colleagues can also pass on insider tips about the application process. For instance, it’s never too early to start the job hunt. Howard began her search in February of her senior year; Boman also began his search during the spring semester. If he had it to do over again he admits, “I would have started earlier, and I would have taken my time a little bit more. I felt like I needed to get a job right away.”

Another tip: Howard found that most companies that interviewed her didn’t ask chemistry questions until she was invited back for the second round. “A lot of times the first question was, ‘How did you hear of us?’ ” In other words, companies want to know how applicants have gone about the job hunt.

When interviewing, Boman and Howard recall that it wasn’t just their research experiences that made them stand out. Leadership, organization, and communication skills were traits they both highlighted throughout the process.

In evaluating job applicants, “we’re looking for future leaders,” explains Andrew S. Zalusky, Dow Chemical’s R&D strategic recruitment leader. Valuable candidates are smart, talented, and technical, and they contribute to society, he says. Internships and traditional experience are all fine and good, he continues, but it’s those other skills that set a top candidate apart from the rest.

Additionally, the world as a whole is collaborating now more than ever, Zalusky stresses, so international exposure and experience are desirable qualities in a candidate. “It’s a multicultural world,” he notes. “Meaningful time overseas can also be an insight to a candidate.”

When it comes time to spruce up the résumé and get ready for the job search, don’t be phony about it. Zalusky urges, “If you’re going to do something, really do something. And make it meaningful.”


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.