Thursday, January 31, 2013

How important is experience outside of school for a BA/BS position in chemistry?

My father, who I love dearly, never ceases to tell me the story of walking into a company many moons ago, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and getting past the receptionist and into the office of a hiring manager. Recently, on his 15001st retelling, he added the small detail that, in graduate school, he had been one of the few users of a very specialized piece of software -- one that the company he was visiting had purchased and could not figure out how to use. He noted the hiring manager had called a bunch of his own technical experts for an impromptu interview.

My father, who I love dearly, has been working for that same company for a number of decades now. His son thinks that he does not really comprehend the modern job market*, with all of its complexity in getting hired. I write this anecdote as an introduction to Susan Ainsworth's excellent and comprehensive article on the difficulties of BS/BA chemists in gaining employment in industry. As I noted on Monday, the (scattered, non-scientifically controlled) numbers suggest that it was difficult for new grads to find work in industry in 2011 and 2012.

Of Susan's sampling of successful job seekers, they had 3 things in common: time spent at industrial internships, REU-type experiences in academia and time overseas. It appears that these things were done in during the summer between school years. There were some comments about "thought leadership", but just means "showing you can get results or solve an actual problem." (I don't know what this "thought leadership" buzzword is, but it's new and I don't like it.)

To me, this could mean a couple of things:
  • Having academic or industrial internship experience is now more important than ever. 
  • The race for a job or a desirable graduate school starts the fall of your sophomore year and maybe sooner than that. (Incidentally, your grades in those years will probably affect your competitiveness for those internship/REU-type experiences.) 
  • "Summers off" past your second year could be lost time. 
Now that I've said that, I have an odd question: does anyone else think this is kind of nuts? Does it seem sort of crazy that in the 1960s and 1970s, our parents seemed to live in a world where they could more or less fall into a position, and now getting a job means starting to think/plan/do 2 years ahead? If it's a reality (and I think that it is), it is an unfortunate one.

Finally, for the undergraduates reading this, I would like to point you to ACS' new site listing undergraduate internships in chemistry. It's a touch tricky (click on the company name to actually get to an application page), but I think it will be a useful tool. Apply now!

*Broadly speaking about the working world, this isn't really true; layoffs, mergers, still-nationally-known scandals, they're all in those decades. 


  1. More adventurous US/Canadian citizens could even do two at once and try internships in the UK - many companies offer them, usually 11 months long earning about 16000 GBP (24000 USD). Not sure about visa rules though!

  2. It wouldn't be as unfortunate if more B.A./B.S. programs were structured to reflect this reality and required an internship or undergraduate research to graduate. At the very least, students should be told of their chances at getting a job or into a decent graduate school if they don't find an internship. Taking the tuition of an otherwise bright student and letting them enter this job market without a trace of experience seems wrong.

  3. Another frustrating aspect of this is that a lot of internships are unpaid. (And you might have to pay for living expenses on top of that.) I was lucky enough to go to school back when state schools were reasonably priced, but I needed to work in the summers to earn some money - and there weren't any chemistry jobs in the town where I grew up. There are some fields where unpaid internships are the norm, which tends to screen out people from lower income levels, but that didn't used to be the case for chemistry.

  4. Dear Son:

    I thought, since it's been a few days, that I'd tell you the story again of how I got hired, and the secrets it holds for long-term success. You see, I was in my favorite KC and the Sunshine Band T-shirt, and decided to pay a visit to my friends over at MegaCorp...

    1. Dear Dad:

      The story gets better every time. KC and the Sunshine Band? When I was a kid, you wouldn't stop playing that stupid "Bread" tape.

      Love, CJ

  5. This does not bode well for students who cannot afford to do all that. My summers were spent in retail for a reason, and it certainly was not a love of retail. :-/

    1. There are plenty of paid opportunities to do summer research, internships at biotech, chemistry/pharmaceutical, and engineering companies, and academic REUs.

      My engineering and chemistry buddies at NC State always found paid summer internships in RTP, and an internship on campus sponsored by an REU or similar program should pay at least $3000 (on top of room/board/travel being covered for you in advance), and at the very least, working in an academic lab should come with a sufficient stipend to cover living expenses for the summer.

      I was a first generation college student and spent four consecutive summers doing paid academic research via four different paid research mechanisms, which I openly credit with my success at getting into a top tier PhD program.

    2. I don't know what happened, but Blogger deleted my first comment. Sigh.

      What I believe I said was: "This might be a regional thing, with the biotech hubs having more and better positions available."

      Also, there's something about the cost of an undergraduate degree that a hard summer waiting tables or similar entry-level work (a food processing plant for my mom) used to be able to put a dent into it. Not so anymore.

  6. " about "thought leadership", but just means "showing you can get results or solve an actual problem." (I don't know what this "thought leadership" buzzword is, but it's new and I don't like it".

    I first heard the term "thought leader" in connnection with a useless SAB meeting when I was at a now defunct San Diego biotech in the early 00s. I thought it was stupid then, and still think it's equally stupid to "key opinion leader". Hate hate hate those terms.

    Re getting a job in60/70s. I actually think (ex rectum), that it was that easy. per capita university grads were less then as was offshoring. I assume less competition/more choices.

    That said, to follow B. Joel (I can't be that old, can I?):

    "Cause the good ole days weren't always good
    And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems"

  7. In addition to the ACS "Get Experience" database, the ACS also has a database of international programs for those who are looking to fulfill the "time abroad" component of their profile. This second database is located at

    The ACS International REU program current offers slots for its 2014 summer program in Italy, Germany, Singapore, and the UK. Apply at


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20