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Internships Provide The First Step Toward Career Success

Through internships, companies offer chemistry and chemical engineering students work experience that can lead to postgraduation jobs

by Susan J. Ainsworth
May 11, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 19

Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN
Illustration of an intern climbing a proverbial ladder.
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN

In today’s competitive employment market, savvy chemistry and chemical engineering students know that having industrial internship experience on their résumé is a real plus. Internships provide students with the opportunity to take the skills obtained through college coursework and apply them to real-life work situations. Being able to demonstrate success in the workplace will undoubtedly give them an edge over a sea of competitors when it comes time to seek a postgraduation job.

But in some cases, finding a coveted internship isn’t easy, notes Jamie Stacey, vice president for science at Kelly Services, which offers outsourcing, staffing, and workforce consulting services. In the U.S., many companies are cutting or holding steady the number of students they hire. That’s because companies view these programs as a pipeline into their entry-level jobs. And, in today’s weak job market, some companies are favoring more experienced candidates as they selectively hire permanent staff to fill those starting positions, Stacey says.

Nevertheless, some companies are still welcoming a healthy number of chemistry and chemical engineering students into their ranks. Students can move into either internship programs, which typically offer summer-long work experience, or cooperative (co-op) education programs, which usually involve two- to three-semester jobs that provide college credit. Others engage in long-term industrial work arrangements that their colleges require for graduation, but these schemes are more common in countries outside the U.S., such as Singapore (see page 36).

Through these internship and co-op programs, companies hope to find and begin to build relationships with the best STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) talent, Stacey says. “Companies understand that employees who started out working for them as interns have a longer tenure and demonstrate greater loyalty in the future.”

Within the School of Chemical Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, recruiting of chemistry and chemical engineering students into internship programs has been holding steady for the past few years, according to Patricia Simpson, director of academic advising and career counseling and placement.

To get tips for landing an internship or explore benefits for unemployed ACS members, visit

To access ACS’ Get Experience database that lists internships and research opportunities, visit

To access additional career information, go to ACS’ College to Career website, visit

Companies from a wide range of industries continue to recruit the school’s students, Simpson says. Employers include Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto in the agriculture industry; Kraft Foods Group, General Mills, and PepsiCo in the food and beverage industry; General Electric in manufacturing; BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Integrys Energy Group in the energy sector; and Elanco, Baxter, and Eli Lilly & Co., in the human and animal health care industry.

In particular, life sciences firms and natural-resource-focused companies are most actively recruiting chemistry-related interns, according to Kelly Services’ Stacey. Specialty chemicals and instrumentation companies also continue to maintain robust internship programs, she says.

Merck & Co., for one, is currently recruiting chemistry-focused students in the U.S. “Merck has had a long-standing commitment to its summer intern program, and support this year remains strong,” according to Scott B. Hoyt, a principal scientist in the chemistry group at Merck Research Laboratories (MRL), who manages MRL’s chemistry intern program.

Compared with last year, “we have seen a modest increase in the number of chemistry internships and have made placements in discovery, process, structural, and analytical chemistry and across all of our research sites,” he says. Additionally, the company’s animal health, manufacturing, and global services divisions bring in interns with STEM degrees, he adds.

This year, Merck will host 35 to 40 chemical engineering interns within its manufacturing division, plus an additional five to 10 chemical engineering interns in MRL. Another 15 to 20 chemistry interns will be hired within MRL.

Credit: BASF
Former BASF engineering intern Anusha Sivakumar is now a permanent employee. She works in the company’s new business development unit.
Former BASF engineering intern, Anusha Sivakumar, is now a permanent employee. She works in the company’s New Business Development organization within its Professional Development Program.
Credit: BASF
Former BASF engineering intern Anusha Sivakumar is now a permanent employee. She works in the company’s new business development unit.

“Paired one-on-one with a mentor/manager, Merck’s interns are engrossed in learning andhands-on application of their degree or discipline, whether it is at the bench, in a manufacturing plant, or behind a desk,” Hoyt says. While they are with the company, “they are making contributions, just like an employee.”

Chemistry interns work either on drug discovery programs or on independent projects such as synthetic methodology projects, Hoyt adds. “In either case, they are fully embedded in drug discovery teams and learn a great deal about modern drug discovery research.” Often, they are coauthors on publications that feature their work, he says.

At GSK, the average number of internship and co-op openings across the entire R&D function tends to remain steady at around 150 annually, according to Sylvia Court, graduate program manager for R&D. The actual number may fluctuate depending on the needs of the organization, and this year, the number of openings will total around 100. The majority of those jobs are in chemistry, she says.

The company’s internships tend to run for about 10 to 12 weeks during the summer, and its co-ops tend to run for four to 12 months.

Typically, GSK’s R&D interns and co-op students do laboratory work, and opportunities exist to support every stage of R&D. Some students may focus on discovery or early-stage preclinical development, while others may focus on late-stage drug development. “Ultimately, the goal is to give the students an opportunity to hone their laboratory skills while working on meaningful projects,” Court says.

Some companies that are involved in petrochemical expansions along the U.S. Gulf Coast are stepping up hiring of chemistry and chemical engineering ­interns. The move is meant to support new business opportunities that have arisen from the U.S. shale gas boom, which has made low-cost fuel and feedstocks available.

BASF is a case in point. “Overall, the number of BASF summer internships, which are primarily in the U.S., has increased over the past two years, mainly due to the investment we are making along the Gulf Coast,” says Lydia Everitt, manager of university recruitment.

The majority of BASF’s interns are assigned to the corporate engineering group, which is located at its Gulf Coast sites. The group is made up of people in project and cost management, maintenance and reliability, manufacturing support services, and automation engineering roles.

“Engineering interns at BASF are offered a variety of experiences to choose from when they join the company, and all projects are based on a true business need,” Everitt says. These internships are aimed at boosting the interns’ skill sets and helping them develop as professionals in engineering. “From enzymes to catalysts, there are almost unlimited opportunities to contribute to the exciting work happening at BASF.”

Dow Chemical, too, continues to welcome chemistry and chemical engineering students into its internship program. This year, within its manufacturing and engineering group specifically, the company will offer roughly 415 summer internships globally to college students; approximately 220 of those openings will be located in the U.S., according to Ronnie Chen, global workforce planning and talent acquisition director. Dow says its recruiting efforts continue to be robust. Last year, however, they were somewhat stronger: The manufacturing and engineering group hired about 460 summer interns globally; about 380 of those interns were placed in North America. “Workforce needs are dependent on the number of experienced hires, new hires, and attrition rates, which may cause numbers to fluctuate.”

Dow’s manufacturing and engineering group summer internship program is aimed at university or college students who have completed their sophomore or junior years. Interns are given challenging assignments that provide hands-on experience with specific equipment or areas of the plant, Chen says.

Credit: Strem Chemicals
As an intern at Strem Chemicals, Michael deKanter supports marketing and sales of the company’s products.
As an intern at Strem Chemicals, Michael deKanter supports marketing and sales of the company’s products.
Credit: Strem Chemicals
As an intern at Strem Chemicals, Michael deKanter supports marketing and sales of the company’s products.

The company’s interns perform operations-related activities assigned by their mentor. They use standard Dow processes and chemical manufacturing practices to gain experience in how to operate a plant in a safe and optimal manner, Chen adds.

At Dow Corning, hiring of summer interns has been stable this year compared with last year, according to Teresa Billingsley, student programs coordinator. Recruited mainly to support the company’s manufacturing operations, each student is assigned an individual project to work on during the course of a 10–12-week summer internship, she says.

Smaller chemical companies also bring in interns, albeit often in smaller numbers. Strem Chemicals, for example, is hiring one intern for the summer who will work with the company’s new products technologist, drawing and designing structures using software tools, says Michael Strem, the company’s founder and president.

In the past, Strem’s interns, who typically work under close supervision, have done synthesis work, gained hands-on experience using gas chromatographs or infrared spectrometers, or worked in its sales and marketing department, Strem says.

Companies in other fields, such as instrumentation, also continue to usher chemistry and chemical engineering students into their ranks.

At Thermo Fisher Scientific, for example, hiring of interns remains stable. The company typically hires about 150 to 200 interns globally each summer, according to Nikki Soares, director of talent acquisition for customer channels and BioPharma Services, who leads the company’s internship effort.

Thermo Fisher hires into a variety of disciplines including R&D, operations, software development, and marketing, Soares adds.

Credit: ThermoFisher Scientific
Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Bay Area interns take a break to enjoy an excursion through San Francisco.
ThermoFisher Scientific’s Bay Area interns take a break to enjoy an excursion through San Francisco.
Credit: ThermoFisher Scientific
Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Bay Area interns take a break to enjoy an excursion through San Francisco.

Those who are studying chemistry or biochemistry might be involved in assisting in the development of DNA methylation detection methods or performing organic synthesis experiments, for example.

The internship experience involves more than just project work. “Our summer program includes exposure to senior leadership, professional development, networking with peers, and community service projects,” Soares says.

Like many companies, Thermo Fisher has a vested interest in helping its interns build skills they might apply in a future job within the company. According to the University of Illinois’s Simpson, many of the companies that recruit at the school will hire 70 to 85% of their entry-level employees from their internship pool.

“Thermo Fisher views the intern program as an integral part of our entry-level hiring strategy,” Soares says. The program is used as a feeder pool for its direct-hire opportunities and its leadership development programs, which allow graduates to gain exposure to on-the-job experiences, mentorship, and structured learning opportunities.

The same is true at BASF. “Our internship program provides a great avenue for ambitious university students to join our professional and leadership development programs,” Everitt says. Participants in these programs tackle real-world rotational assignments within different U.S. and international locations. They explore career options and develop technical and professional decision-making skills. They also have the opportunity to assess their capabilities, skills, and interests and to gain exposure to BASF’s culture, values, and decision-makers.

Help For Unemployed Chemists

Many chemists are still struggling to find jobs. To address the urgent needs of its unemployed members, the American Chemical Society offers an extensive suite of career assistance tools and discounts. ACS offers all of its members a number of other free career assistance tools. For links to the career-related benefits and resources for members, visit

When BASF hires former interns into permanent roles, it benefits from “a shorter onboarding process because the individual already has a working knowledge of BASF’s businesses, markets, and customers,” she adds.

In its ongoing effort to create a sustainable pipeline of talented individuals, BASF’s internship program helps the company stay connected to its core recruiting schools, Everitt says. Another benefit to the program, she says, is that interns serve as “brand ambassadors” for the company. “They often return to their schools and share their positive experiences with fellow students and potential new hires.”

While they are working within the company, interns make other valuable contributions too. “The company benefits from the innovative ideas, unique experiences, and diverse perspectives of tomorrow’s workforce and from learning what matters most to them,” Everitt says.

Likewise, GSK’s Court says its internship program provides the company with “bright, enthusiastic, and innovative individuals who can deliver enhanced perspective and challenge current ways of working.”

At the same time, “internship and co-op programs are long-term investments which allow both the employee and employer to ‘test-drive’ the experience,” Court adds.

Dow’s Chen echoes this point. “Internship programs serve as a key hiring pipeline for future roles in all areas of our company,” she says. “At Dow, we believe that top talent acquisition starts with great student internships.”  

Winning A Chemistry-Focused Internship: A Student Playbook

For chemistry and chemical engineering students seeking an internship, there’s a dearth of openings, and competition is fierce. But the situation is not impossible.

To help eager students gain an edge, C&EN contacted a sampling of experts to gather tips and advice for snagging one of these precious, résumé-bolstering positions.

Know when to apply. For most internships, fall is the prime recruiting season, according to Patricia Simpson, director of academic advising and career counseling and placement at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Most big companies visit campus in September and October to attend career fairs and conduct interviews as they often need to hire large numbers of interns, she says. Smaller companies also typically make campus recruiting visits in the fall to secure the best candidates.

However, students who don’t land something in the fall should not give up. BASF, for example, recruits summer interns in the late winter and early spring, according to Lydia Everitt, manager of university recruitment. And other companies will still be finishing their summer intern selections in late spring, Simpson points out.

In addition, companies may develop hiring needs throughout the year as a result of a lower-than-expected acceptance rate from their first round of offers to prospective interns or because of unanticipated new projects, Simpson adds.

Merck & Co. echoes this point. Although the company posts most of its internships as early as the fall and typically makes its selections by February, the window of opportunity doesn’t close at that time, says Scott B. Hoyt, a principal scientist in the chemistry group at Merck Research Laboratories (MRL), who manages MRL’s chemistry intern program. “The large, dynamic environment of Merck means that new postings can happen nearly any time.”

For co-op positions, which usually require a two- to three-semester commitment and result in college credit, application periods vary and are often dictated by the student’s college or university, says Sylvia Court, graduate program manager for R&D at GSK. Some schools’ co-op application window may be in the spring for the following fall semester or in the fall for the following spring semester, she notes.

Connect and reconnect.Simpson advises students to find multiple ways to interface with potential employers. “Talk to them at a career fair, luncheon, information session, or student-organization-sponsored event; apply online; and find and connect with alumni or other contacts who work for the organizations,” Simpson says. LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media sites can provide useful avenues for making connections to people students might not know or have no other way to meet or contact, she adds.

In addition, students should start connecting with companies as early as possible in their college career to demonstrate their enthusiasm. “Some of the companies will send the same recruiters to campus year after year, and if you are memorable—in a positive way—then they will be more interested,” Simpson says.

Stay focused. “Know what you want to do, and apply only for those jobs that interest you most and that mesh well with your skills,” says GSK’s Court. “Read job descriptions carefully, and don’t apply for too many different internships/co-ops at the same company as this could suggest that you lack focus,” which is a turnoff to prospective employers.

Hone and promote your skills. “The strongest candidates often will have earned good grades, taken appropriate courses, and have prior research or lab experience either at the college or in a prior internship,” says Merck’s Hoyt. And in his firm’s case, those candidates will also “have a desire to apply what they have learned to a health care environment.”

GSK’s Court advises students to promote not only their technical skills but also their soft skills, which she says are equally important. GSK looks for evidence of teamwork, leadership, customer service, communication, and presentation skills, she adds. “Remember to highlight your life experiences as these are great ways to show how you’ve developed and applied these softer skills.”

Differentiate yourself. “Figure out what makes you stand out from everyone else and ensure that your résumé reflects that,” advises Teresa Billingsley, student programs coordinator at Dow Corning. “In other words, make it clear to us that we should hire you over all the many other applicants.”


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