“Torn between a year in industry or studying at a university abroad, I decided to try and achieve the best of both…an internship in industry abroad!” Second Year Chemistry student, Gabrielle Newson, undertook a summer internship abroad and here she shares her top tips for success.
Getting the job wasn’t easy. I made many speculative applications and refused to allow myself to be depressed by silence and rejections. Eventually the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry agreed to take me on as an undergraduate intern for 8 weeks in the summer. Paperwork signed, plane tickets booked, bags packed, and off I went…
The best of being abroad
The weather! As a Brit, I loved the concept of working somewhere there was more chance of it being sunny every day. The working day doesn’t seem so long when you’re able to go and sunbathe afterwards!
On a serious note, living abroad gives you the opportunity to experience a different culture and a new area, all whilst being totally independent and doing whatever you like with your spare time.
I will now be able to demonstrate to employers that I’m confident to immerse myself into a totally unfamiliar situation. I’m someone up to face any challenges thrown at me. I’m confident that this is going to make a real difference to my employability.
Not being able to speak any German was the main challenge, but it really is true that you quickly begin to pick up the native language. Work colleagues will teach you words and phrases. Looking at bus timetables, menus, and food shopping will teach you even more!
There will be cultural differences. Embrace them – they are great conversation starters. I was thoroughly quizzed on the ins and outs of the royal family, teased about the rain, confused about why everyone wrote on squared paper instead of lined, and teased (again!) when I fell off my bike (you have to pedal backwards to stop instead of using a brake on the handle bar!). I took marmite into work, and in return fully embraced the tradition of ‘Kaffee und Kuchen’ (coffee and cake!) on Wednesday afternoons. I was also laughed at for typing slowly because a German keyboard has a different layout.
But don’t underestimate your skills! When the director of the institute wanted a paper proof read before publication, guess who was asked…
The best of working in industry
Although this was not my first time working in a commercial lab, it still presented many new challenges. Working in industry is very different to working in a university lab.
Firstly, you don’t know where things are or how anything works! Okay, so you’ll be shown this by your colleagues, but inevitably you will forget at least some of this new information. “The centrifuge at university doesn’t have this button… is it important?”, “Someone has labelled this is German, what on earth it is?”, “The bins aren’t labelled… where do I safely dispose of this?” ASK ASK ASK! Yes, you’ll probably annoy someone, but it’s definitely better to ask and get it right than to pour said liquid down the sink when no one is looking!
At university, you are working independently, therefore if you make a mistake the only person it will impact is you. In industry, there’s a group of you working with the same substances, and therefore you need to carry out your portion of the work carefully, in a timely manner, and as accurately as you can. If you make a mistake, it is important to be honest. Yes it’s embarrassing and you’ll probably feel a little stupid (I know I did) but again it’s important to own up before the mistake is amplified as other people keep on working.
Networking – one thing that took me surprise was just how many meetings there are in industry! Group meetings, department meetings, and less formal events such as early morning hikes, working dinners and an interdepartmental football match (safe to say I only cheered from the side). All these events give you a chance to meet people and talk to them about their role at the company. This is a great way to get a first-hand insight into a range of different job roles; people may even offer to let you shadow them for a few days.
Stay busy! You’ll probably have your own project to manage, and it’s likely you’ll be asked by your colleagues to help them with various different tasks. But in between there will invariably be times that you won’t have anything to do – don’t just sit there looking bored, or worse on your phone under the desk! Think about what you’ve got up and coming in the next week or two and prepare. Nothing looks more impressive than the fact that you’ve gone out and found information independently, instead of waiting for someone to explain it to you. Read papers published by the institute in the past – and ask questions! Chances are most researches are really keen on their topic and they’ll be impressed that you are too!