The LCGC Blog: The Value of a Student Internship

Feb 27, 2017

In the summer after my junior year of college, after I had spent the previous summer working in the laboratory of Prof. Harold McNair at Virginia Tech, I was afforded the opportunity to take a summer internship in the quality assurance (QA) lab at S.C. Johnson & Wax in Racine, Wisconsin. Prof. McNair had been sending his students, one after another, for some time to this internship to provide them some meaningful industry experience. I packed up my car and made the long drive from Virginia to Wisconsin for a summer experience that I will never forget. My supervisors, Ed and Don, quickly indoctrinated me into the QA routine.

Samples of products ranging from shaving gel to bug sprays would come regularly into the lab, and I would follow carefully specified procedures to determine, primarily by gas chromatography (GC), that the active ingredients in the product met label claims within a close tolerance. It was not a glamourous job, but it was eye-opening. I was given a special project to test the stability of pesticides housed in massive (5000-gallon) storage tanks to ensure that they were not degrading over time. They had recently decided to heat these tanks to improve the solubility of their mixtures. Long story short, I was able to reveal a problem, and had great satisfaction in contributing in a meaningful way to the quality control of a major product line for the company.

What I did not realize going into the internship was the reason McNair had sent me there. I was a naïve ex-football jock, but somehow my time in his lab the summer before had convinced him that I might be good graduate school material. He ended up suggesting I take the internship to show me the most likely position that a BS degree in chemistry would earn me. I do not want to take anything away from the important work of the great people who hosted me at S.C. Johnson & Wax. I still have supremely fond memories of golfing on the weekends in impossibly windy weather, driving Ed’s 1967 Corvette down impossibly straight roads, and hanging out at beautifully rustic bars that might have a beach volleyball court or fire pit out back. It was exceptionally fun and educational, but I could not help but notice the monotony of the QA lab. That internship experience convinced me that I needed to go to graduate school to attain a higher degree and other opportunities. I played right into McNair’s hands, and I could not be happier as a result.

Regularly, I hear that of all of the things that employers seek in new hires, especially those right out of college or graduate school, is an internship experience. The first time I heard this, it struck me as odd. Why would such an experience be valued more than a portfolio of independent research, clear evidence of effective communication skills, or the quality of degree held? Thinking more about this, and bringing in my past experience (even if I was at the time admittedly a bit naïve), I began to realize what the internship signified.

Students who have an internship on their resume, and are seeking jobs in a particular sector, are doing so with an informed opinion. While an internship comes in many forms, that real-world experience has provided a clear touchstone of understanding of what it would be like to work in a given sector. Perhaps they are seeking a job in the same sector, or in a different one, but at least they have some first-hand knowledge of what that work world is like. It is no doubt that the industrial work world is very different than an academic setting. Employers want new employees who understand that difference, and will start their new job with a basic understanding of what it will take to succeed in a different environment than a college campus. In my case, my internship experience paved the way for me to enter graduate school, then pursue a post-doctoral fellowship, and on to the professoriate. Even so, that understanding of the QA lab has helped me immensely in my development of relationships with industrial partners.

For our chemistry PhD degree here at U.T. Arlington, we require all of our students to undertake professional development opportunities before they graduate. This is simply a fancy statement for pursuing an internship, broadly defined. As more than 90% of our PhD graduates pursue jobs in industry, the pursuit of an industrial internship to satisfy this requirement is a natural choice. That said, some students receive this credit through arrangements outside the United States (I currently have two PhD students who are for three months under the support of a European Union Erasmus Program at the Department of Analytical Chemistry in Palacky University, Olomouc, Czech Republic), or some might spend time at another academic institution or government lab in the United States. Most importantly, these students should take a break from their academic research at U.T. Arlington and get out into the world to gain career- and life-broadening experiences.

I could convey a number of great success stories from my own students, but one in particular stands out as a example of what can evolve. This particular PhD student took a summer internship at a major pharmaceutical company for a summer. He worked extensively on quality by design for high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) determinations of drug impurities. Following his graduation, he was immediately presented with a job offer by the company. While this would have been a fine choice, his desire was to be in another part of the country. He leveraged the offer from the first company to receive a second offer from his company of choice. In the end, he signed on for a six-figure salary and has never looked back.

Many professors could lament the loss of a top-producing graduate student for 3–6 months during their PhD training. To me, that is a selfish view, since we are in the business of training, to the best of our ability, the next generation of scientists. It is worth noting that without a doubt, students return back to the academic lab following their internships with a changed mind-set. Having a taste for the real world, they begin to apply these ideals in their academic research. The change is often astounding and beneficial for all those involved. The professor receives a seasoned student with renewed motivation, the student has the internship experience to change the way they look at the value of their remaining research and to help them in future job searches, and the rest of the group learns from the student’s experiences.

There are many more-detailed accounts in the literature of the value of an internship to one’s career. If you are a student, undergraduate or graduate, please consider pursuing an internship, even if your school or program does not require or advocate that you do so. The frame of reference is a valuable asset for you to make future decisions about your career path. For me, it was an essential step in the path to where I am today.

 

Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGCEmerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.

 

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