Saturday, April 22, 2006

Re-thinking biotech student internships, part I

Jobs can be learning experiences, too

I read an amusing story yesterday about a summer job packaging ice in plastic bags. I had jobs like that, too, when I was in high school. I waited tables, sold popcorn at a theatre, sold plants at a garden store, and did lots of babysitting. I learned something from every mindless part-time job, but mostly I learned that I didn't want to do them.

So when I started college, I started looking for jobs that would do more than pay the rent. I wanted first-hand impressions of potential careers. As a receptionist in a veterinarian's office, I learned that small animal vets needed to be good with handling animals and even better with handling people. As an autopsy assistant, I learned about anatomy and pathology. Working as a phlebotomist in a plasma center, I learned to spot needle tracks and find good veins. My medley of part-time and volunteer jobs were eye-opening forays into the working world.

The job that I wanted the most though, was the hardest to get. I really wanted to work in a science lab. Every now and then I would go to the student employment center and look at the job postings, but I was never eligible. The lab positions at my University required either work-study funding or work experience and I had neither. This was before the age of biotech, but I spent five years looking, and didn't find a lab job until the middle of my senior year in college.

Learning about careers

Making career choices as a young person is a challenge. It's hard to commit to a future and focus on education when you don't have a clue what a future job might involve. Some students never even consider that studying science could lead to an interesting job. They think that you need a Ph.D. or they get the interesting notion (that I heard from one of my kids) that science would be a really boring job because all you did in middle-school science class was read textbooks.

The part-time jobs that I collected were pivotal in helping me decide what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it. For me, working as a lab technician convinced me to go on to graduate school and study science more seriously.

Over the years there has been a greater and greater push, at least in our area, to find internships in science labs for both high school and college students. Teachers want their students to know that people of all sexes, shapes, colors, and sizes work in biotech companies and that studying science can lead to an interesting career.

At the same time, internships in the biotech industry have become harder to get (especially for high school students!). As the local industry has shifted from research to production, the environment has become more controlled and closely regulated. Even though some business leaders might recognize the long-term benefits of contributing to a scientifically literate society, and inspiring future employees, few companies want to accept the risk of having an $80,000/year employee spend the summer babysitting a student intern. (The $80,000 yr/number comes from salary + benefits).

I'm on advisory committees for some high school biotech programs, and I've had student interns, so I know these students have an excellent track record and can be a great help. But, I also know how people in companies think. Hiring interns presents a risk for employers in terms of lost time and productivity.

Learning skills

Not only are internships important for investigating future careers, sometimes internship experience is essential for getting a job.

We still have the same catch 22 that I experienced in college. Biotech companies and University research labs want to hire experienced people, but they're unwilling or unable to provide that experience. Students need experience to get jobs, but they can't get jobs without experience.

Community college biotech programs have helped and Bio-Link centers have been instrumental in helping schools connect with companies. By focusing on marketable lab skills, those programs have become fairly successful at getting students into the workforce.

Many community college programs also require their students to do an internship.

But guess what, unless you have experience, those internships are still hard to get.

What can we do?

Stay tuned. We discuss different models in part II.


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Blogger vikram aka pogo said...

I am an undergrad studying biology.
The guidelines that you have suggested as well as your life has motivated me a lot.

Thank You madam
All the very best


PS Have you heard about "codon bias". I am doing a reserach project here in India.

10:35 AM  

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