As a Recruiter, one of my favorite groups to work with is recent grads breaking into the life sciences industry. Their passion and excitement for science, manufacturing, and engineering are what make my job invigorating and worthwhile.
However, as is the nature of recruiting, I don’t often have the chance to speak with these candidates while they’re still freshmen, sophomores, and juniors in college – at the peak of possibility in their learning experiences. And in my opinion, one of the most vital characteristics of a resume for any entry-level candidate is a unique list of skills. So, if I could speak to these undergrads, my advice would be to hone their skills while they’re still in an academic setting.
The best way to do that? Life sciences internships.
Do you really need life sciences internships?
Now, there are plenty of entry-level positions in the life sciences industry that don’t require extensive, or even any, science or laboratory expertise. But let’s face it, at a basic level, every life sciences employer would rather have employees who have worked in a lab environment. Students learn so much while interning at a lab, from very basic safety knowledge to more advanced skills like aseptic technique, working under a hood, and managing lab equipment.
For these reasons, students in their early years of college should jump at every chance they get to be in a lab. Learning new techniques and observing other qualified technicians will only help candidates excel in future interviews and make a memorable first impression. Mentioning lab-based skills might even land a prospect a higher-level position right off the bat. Instead of coming in as a Laboratory Technician, Laboratory Assistant, or Quality Control Associate, they may jump straight into a Research Associate role, which typically requires a year or more of post-graduate experience.
Getting life sciences internships
Many people ask me how to land a life sciences internship, and it’s easier than you think. In my time interacting with recent graduates, I’ve realized there are so many ways to start developing useful skills in the life sciences arena. While you’ll naturally get some lab experience due to degree requirements, you can get more hours in by volunteering to be a teaching assistant or asking your professor if you can come early or stay late to help them set up apparatuses or dispose of hazardous materials.
Outside of class, look for opportunities for work-study or paid roles in science departments as lab assistants. Many universities have animal husbandry opportunities where students can care for rodents during off hours. These activities translate directly into an important sector of drug development, in vivo research. More traditional internships at biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and medical device companies are valuable, too. No matter how you do it, try to work in some form of a GMP, GCP, or GLP environment every summer.
Skills to highlight
Internships, however brief, can be the difference between hands-on experience and theoretical knowledge. Even if you feel you’re not doing life-saving work, life sciences employers want to hear what you gleaned in your internships and how they prepared you for a bioscience job. Emphasize the fact that you gathered and handled human samples, cleaned glassware, collected water samples, or recorded data in a lab notebook, LIMS, or ELN. Gathering samples will come in handy for environmental monitoring, and working in a clinical lab with human samples is something many therapeutic companies want.
Show that you are comfortable following standard operating procedures by authoring or revising them. Take the time to get familiar with the not-so-glorious parts of running a lab, like inventory and stock management or preparing buffer solutions. If you can, learn common procedures like gel electrophoresis, cell and tissue culture, spectroscopy, PCR, and DNA or RNA isolation.
Other skills to consider
Don’t forget to highlight soft skills, too. Employers like to see that you took initiative, wore multiple hats, and demonstrated critical thinking. They also want to be confident that you’re not afraid to ask questions or report mistakes, particularly when it affects safety or compliance. Illustrate your proficiency with data analysis by taking a bioinformatics class, or explaining how you used Microsoft or Google suites to make processes more efficient.
There is no way for students to get all these skills from just a few internships. That said, the more valuable skills someone has, the more competitive they are in the job market. Life science recruiters are looking for candidates who match a general list of skills and techniques, so when someone goes above and beyond that list, they set themselves apart. A word to the wise – get those life science internships while you can. They will pay off in the long run!
Photo credit: Adobe Stock
by Maggie Krause, National Recruiter, Planet Pharma