Making the Most of Your Summer- One Chemist’s Experiences

Kortney Rupp is a junior at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. She enjoys analytical chemistry and wants to be a chemistry instructor. She is pictured here with ACS President-Elect Miranda Wu.

Hello fellow undergraduate chemists!

If you feel overwhelmed by your chemistry studies, I can relate.  I became a chemistry major about a year ago, and with only 2.5 years to finish, I had to learn fast.  In the process, I discovered that, since our time in university is so short, we all need to make the most of our summers if we’re to succeed as undergraduates and in our future careers.

Therefore, I would really like to share my experience with all of you. It can be really daunting to begin building yourself up as a chemist but I am here to help. So lets get started!

Spending your summer doing scientific work as opposed to, say, lifeguarding, benefits your average chemistry/biochemistry major. I know you just spent 9 months fighting for a high GPA, but you can not ever stop. Research experience is very hard to obtain before graduate school and it offers insight into  your future professional possibilities. Summer gigs also test your potential to make it through a graduate program and offer valuable networking opportunities.

Here are three ways to gain that precious, precious experience:

1. Get a Summer Internship

Getting a summer internship at a company for an undergraduate chemist is not as common as researching at an academic institution, but its every bit as valuable and potentially pays better. I applied for my internship at Abbott Pharmaceuticals after touring the labs and after seeing the facilities and all of the pretty HPLC’s all in a row, room after room of instrumentation I knew I should spend a summer there.

Always looking forward to learning new instrumentation. Taken from http://stoltz.caltech.edu/labtour.html

If you go on field trips with your department to tour chemical or pharmaceutical companies and you are interested in applying for an internship there you should speak with the faculty member who planned the tour and ask them for contact information with whomever they set up the tour.  You can also ask your professors for contacts they have at local businesses.  Send that person a brief email (with proper spelling and grammar-proofread!) stating your interest in an internship.

Many applications are now online so you should upload a customized, I repeat, customized, copy of a cover letter prepared especially for that company, and a resume with a custom objective. If you need help preparing these things you can talk to faculty or ask older students for a copy of their resume.  You can also check out the ACS Resume Workshop.

2. Take part in Research Experience for Undergraduates.

You need to start applying for these over winter break.  I know many applications are not due until March 1st, but it will save you hassle to focus on these when you are not in school. You should have an official and unofficial transcript handy as well as keep a chronological list of each REU, the components of each application and the due dates. You will also need letters of recommendation, so be sure to acquire those early.  Send copies of the timeline to the people who are writing recommendation letters for you.  In addition, be sure to remind those writing the letters of recommendation just before they are due-don’t count on them to remember.

After the agony of waiting  you’ll begin receiving responses to your applications, and I hate to tell you, but most will be rejections.  As more and more people apply for these REUs, more and more people are rejected. I applied for almost 20 and was rejected from almost all of them. Try to remember that a rejection is not a measure of your self worth and continue to apply.  You send out 20 applications to receive one yes, even if it means receiving 19 “no’s”

Nebraska Summer REU

Students from the 2011 Nebraska REU Programs. 

It is also important to note that it is more common to get accepted as a sophomore or junior. You need several chemistry classes under your belt and many younger students have no research experience simply because they haven’t made it that far yet. Some schools are able to offer summer internship positions for their own students and will often be the break many inexperienced students need.

3. It’s April and I Still don’t have a summer position.  Help!

If summer rolls around and you have not been accepted into an REU program or an internship you can talk to your department about any opportunities: at this point even unpaid research experience is research experience. Moreover, you can get experience in a different department, you just need to ask.  And don’t be afraid to make inquiries: if your professors have an open position or know someone who needs a hand, they’ll happily point you in the right direction.  Last summer I got involved with College for Kids as a teaching assistant, which was unpaid but it led to my position as a teaching assistant in the biology department for the fall semester. Everything is connected. Even if you have to spend some days working a less than perfect part time job, your department may let you do research on the other days. If you live on campus in the summer there is no reason you should not regularly visit your department.

(Editor’s Note: As this post was going to press, we received word that the ACS is looking for summer interns.  If you still don’t have a summer job and want one, go to our employment website and click on “search openings” followed by the “Summer Internship Link”.  And now, back to Kortney.)

Finding a summer position can be extremely frustrating and often does not turn out the way you expect it, sometimes better and sometimes worse. Keep an open mind and try to have realistic expectations. Also be willing to do anything including washing glassware. Even if you end up working somewhere completely unrelated to science, read papers during the summer and try to keep up on your chemistry. Good luck everyone!

If you have any questions I can be reached at krupp@monmouthcollege.edu and I am always willing to help.

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