How to benefit from internships, exchanges and scholarships

16. December 2013

Christian Reimer

Deciding where you want to conduct your graduate studies and on what kind of research are very difficult and important choices. Getting into the right program—ideally on a full scholarship—is even more challenging. Grades are certainly important, but there are other activities that can play a key role in starting your graduate studies on the right foot. Below are a few tips on how to make the most of these “extracurricular activities” to advance in your career.

Seek out new experiences

There are many ways for undergraduate students to get different kinds of experience and build a professional network, which will be helpful when applying to graduate school and other opportunities. Involvement with OSA Student Chapters, for example, offers valuable contact with other students and professionals with similar interests. Attending conferences and summer schools can broaden your scientific horizon and will help you to become more involved in your field. International exchanges are also valuable resources: a semester or year abroad will open your mind and provide new perspectives.

In my opinion, the most important activity is the acquisition of direct, firsthand research experience. Many research groups and companies offer internships for undergraduate students, which are a valuable addition to your CV and give you a glance into the academic or industrial world before you begin your graduate studies.

Apply, apply and apply

The lack of funds for research in academia is a fundamental and growing issue. It is therefore important to actively look and apply for as many scholarships and funding opportunities as possible. For example, there are many scholarships available to cover travel and other expenses for conferences, internships and exchanges. Even if these scholarships are small, there are very few reasons not to apply, and their impact can be significant for your CV. At first you may have to submit several applications to receive just one award, but after you have won a couple of scholarships and gathered some experience, you will find that success attracts more success.

Dare to ask

In my experience, there is a fundamental rule for a successful academic career: If you want something, ask for it. Being proactive and intelligently asking for what you want will help you throughout your professional life. For example, if you are interested in an internship, invest time and effort in writing a good and specific application letter, ask for help from someone who has already written successful applications, and apply even if no positions are advertised. The worst that can happen is that you do not get it.

The same applies if you want to collaborate with a research group, visit a conference or attend a summer school. If you do your homework and present legitimate reasons why you want to do it and how it will benefit your career or research, then do not be afraid to ask. You should be mentally prepared to have your request denied, but even then, the feedback and practice you receive will be valuable for the future.

While grades are certainly important, combining them with other types of experience will strengthen your CV and will help you get the right graduate position and succeed in academia. You can also take advantage of these opportunities without outstanding grades if you start small and apply often. The more you apply, the easier it will become.

Christian Reimer completed his German Diplom in Physics (equivalent to a M.Sc.) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany. During his studies, he participated in exchanges, research projects and internships at Draeger Inc., Germany; Heriot-Watt University, Scotland; the University of St Andrews, Scotland; Surrey University, England; the University of Glasgow, Scotland; and the University of Sydney, Australia. He is currently writing his Ph.D. at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS, http://www.uop.ca/), Canada, supported by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (www.vanier.gc.ca).

 

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Myths and Tricks from a Hiring Professional

18. September 2012

 Lisa M. Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by Jill Lynn, a human resources professional at BASi, which provides research to the global pharmaceutical industry. It’s always interesting to hear from someone on the other side of the hiring process, and she graciously allowed me to share some of her insights with you.

She began by debunking three myths about the job application process.

Myth 1: “My professional experience and skills are the most important thing, and that’s all that matters to get the job, right?” Nope, sorry! A lack of interpersonal skills is the most frequently cited reason for not hiring someone (2005 Leadership IQ Survey), so they are crucial. How well you fit into the corporate culture is a major factor in the hiring decision, and many companies will “hire for attitude and train for aptitude.”

Myth 2: “My resume should be unique, creative, and a reflection of my personality and style.”
Again, nope! Hiring professionals receive a huge flood of resumes. The thing they most want is an easy-to-read and electronically friendly resume (meaning one that scans easily and contains all the appropriate keywords). Resumes that are “unique” are often difficult to read. With so many candidates for companies to choose from, the less work the reader has to do, the better. Your resume should list your professional experience in reverse chronological order, using action words and phrases (not narratives). Make sure to use a professional email address. (
Hotbabe@domain.com may get you a date, but it will not get you a job.)

Myth 3: “A detailed job objective, and information about my hobbies and outside interests, will make me stand out.”
Perhaps, but they will not get you a job. Many hiring professionals view objective statements as “filler” for those who don’t have enough work experience, and hobbies can actually hinder your ability to land an interview because they distract from your professional experience.

Hiring professionals make their living researching and reading people. They may talk to your friends, family and co-workers, and they will read your online social networking profile and postings. Any publically available information is fair game (including your Facebook or Linked In profiles), so make sure you know what’s out there about you and start cleaning it up now, if needed. Be especially careful of whom you let tag you in online photographs or comment on your pictures or posts.

The interview begins not when you meet the interviewer, and not even when you enter the building, but the minute the company receives the first contact from or about you. From then on, everything you say and do is considered as part of the package. You are never off-stage.

Before you go in for the formal interview, make sure to research the company—and, even better, the person with whom you will be interviewing. Always be prepared with a few questions to ask when it’s your turn, and stay focused on the position and the organization.

During the interview, be professional. Dress to impress, matching the company style if possible. Try to connect to the people with whom you interview, but remember that they are investigating you, and may try to “trip you up” by asking the same question in a different way, to see if you give a different answer. Make sure to give a clear, concise, and always accurate, answer to each question. Before responding, think about what they are really asking. Do they actually care where you want to be in 10 years, or do they want to know what you’re most interested in now, and if you have considered your future? Are they genuinely concerned about what your biggest weakness is, or do they want to know how you are working to overcome it?

These few tips will go a long way towards making sure you shine during the hiring process. I hope you find the company that fits your skills, personality and ambitions.

Good luck!

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes (lisa@balbes.com) of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists, published by Oxford University Press.

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