Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What makes a good intern/summer student?

The beginning of June is a time when summer students begin entering academic labs and industrial internships. I have a little bit of advice for them, but not much really new (stay safe, wear your PPE, listen to your mentors, work hard, blah, blah).

[Incidentally, here's a list of things you should do if you want to irritate your summer mentor.]

Also, I believe the main thing to ask yourself is this: Look around at what the other people are actually doing while you're there. Look at what you're doing. Do you like running reactions and purifying products? Could you do it every day, now that you've done it for a couple of weeks or a month?

If you do like it, then you might consider laboratory research as a career. If you don't like it, then perhaps you should think about another field.

So I'll throw it out to the readers -- what advice would you give summer students? 


  1. Figure out who's got the most clout with the professor and get on their good side. A senior post-doc or lab manager will usually be delegated significant authority and the PI will listen to their opinion. Don't be a toady or a suckup, but make sure that they can see you're a hard worker.

    If you're stuck or don't know what to do, ask for help. Nobody expects an undergrad to know every lab procedure. Don't try to muddle through. Trust me on this one.

  2. The Aqueous LayerJune 5, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    Go to medical school.

  3. be considerate to colleagues in the lab, try find out what is the purpose of what you are doing but try no to be too annoying - basic human skills are , well, basic. Clean after yourself, and around the balances, wash the dirty glassware as soon as you generate it and then re-fill the acetone bottles. Learn how to run NMR and HPLC. Eat lunch with your colleagues.

  4. -Don't assume that any task is beneath you. Don't ask when you're going to get to do something "important."
    -Learn to follow directions.
    -Recognize that your mentor knows far more about the subject you're researching than you are likely to learn in a summer.
    -Print or write down procedures the first time you do them, even standard techniques like setting up a column or taking an NMR.
    -Ask lots of questions about your project and the lab's work in general.
    -Learn to minimize "dead time" in lab giving some thought to the day's tasks in advance. Set up the experiments that take longest/require the least attention first.

  5. Vent your sep funnel with the tip pointed AWAY from colleagues and coworkers.

  6. If you are still enthusiastic about science after your summer stay of doing tissue culture and multiple plasmid mini-preps, then maybe its something you can do for a living. At least for a little while.

    Other than that, develop another talent outside of science. Like welding.

  7. Avoid conspicously wasting time. No facebook or the like. Your mentor may be busy and not be able to fill 100% of your day with items he or she feels you are capable of without help or instruction, which they may not have the time to provide that day. If you find yourself in thumb twiddling mode, do things like the following

    1: Find someone who is not your mentor, and ask if there is anything you can do to help them, however trivial
    2: Study chemistry (journal articles, texts, etc)
    3: Read industry trade magazines (online or in print....they are always lying around)
    4: Clean something. Anything. Every lab has its dust bunnies and dirty dishes.

  8. If you're doing a REU away from your home institution, get out and explore the area, try unfamiliar regional food items, etc. I was lucky to be with an especially sociable group of kids for my REU, and we did a lot of fun things and short trips on weekends. I regret that I didn't get out and explore my new surroundings more when I was in grad school, but I did make the most of my time outside the lab as a summer undergrad REU and I'm glad I did.

  9. Get a job somewhere OTHER than a university. Preferably doing a mixture of the science you love and a viable second (or third) field.

    Just when I thought I would get a chemistry job, I discovered that the job market was in bad shape (remember the early 70's?).

    Having worked in an Army lab for my summer job, I had an active clearance and a fair amount of computer programming and instrumentation development experience. Got a job at Naval Research Lab in military space. I've moved on into several other fields in the past 40 years, but it's all good... I've only had 2 weeks of unemployment since! It's important not to be a one-trick pony.

  10. Don't be afraid to ask questions! I've had my fair share of internships and now I have a gaggle of interns myself. I can promise you nobody actually expects an intern to already know how to do everything, and it is important to try and learn to do an experiment correctly the first time rather than guess blindly until it is apparent that you are failing. And while you are waiting for your experiment to run, use that time to talk to other employees and learn what they actually do.