My Year In Industry (Chapter 2: USA Winter-side)

OK, so I’d got my paperwork whittled down to a J1 visa stuck into my passport. I’d got my x-large luggage container and short-listed my attire and possessions. I’d wandered around my familiar Scottish haunts in an attempt to imprint them on my mind. Now, it was Airport-time.

Touch-down in Philadelphia: "Can you help me? I don't speak American..."

Some people seem to strike lucky. They land their first job at the age of 13, and can obtain and retain gainful employment continuously through secondary school and future studying. My first job was the summer of the year I finished secondary school; and I simply worked full-time for the following 2 summers to gain enough financial reserves to bide me through the academic year. What I now had to do was adjust to a full-time “proper” vocation for a whole 12 months: this would take some getting used to. I feverently consulted on acceptable “Business casual” attire (apparently the rule was that there were no rules – apart from no open-toed footwear). Etiquette for interns/new employees always focussed along such stereotypical lines as “be prepared to make the tea and coffee”: I was sure I could wing it.

Twelve months is a long time. The academic year usually covers about 9 months; most internships are based around 6 months – frequently less. A lot of the interns I came across from local universities were only here for a term, in fact. However, I almost instantly was of the opinion that a full year was the best option: simply because you could spend 6 months settling in and then you’d have time free to further capitalise on what you’d learned. I know a girl who did 18 months as an intern – that sounds brutal, but I think you’d really get your money’s worth in there.

Sure, I can’t pretend that I was perfect. Nobody is – you just have to minimise the risk to glitches and then work promptly to correct them. However, I learned lessons and viewed the examples of others to keep on the straight and narrow.

***

Why had I even been interested in an industrial placement in the first place? Well, I thought it would reap in the rewards: in terms of my degree marks, my CV points, my general character. I remember some of the conversations I’d enjoyed with a fellow chemistry student who’d actually spent a few summers working in an industrial setting.

Come to think of it, is one of the things that first made him an identifiable individual in my life: HE was the bloke who’d worked in an industrial placement for several summers. I recall back in the Organic Labs of Chem 3 where we had to synthesise a compound using specific chemistry techniques (recipe-stylee) and then hand it in. Most of us submitted a vial with the merest dusting of red material at the bottom…this fella handed in vial overflowing with crunchy crystals. His practical ability was rumoured to be LETHAL. When I chatted to him about industrial experience, he spoke about the flip-sides: the monotonous days spent with nothing to do/one reaction to monitor every 3 hours. This side of industrial placements didn’t sound very beneficial at all.

Another angle to the industrial placements pros & cons came from the distilled words of the grad students  who supervised out Chem 3 labs. I didn’t hear them tell me this directly, but they suggested that the average industrial placement would not be all that useful or beneficial if you wanted to do a phD/academic research. Other grad students I heard directly speak of the benefits of their placement year, so I can’t hold up this argument as a strong one.

Still, it got me thinking about what I wanted out of this internship long before I took that first “pre-paid” taxi ride to the office on Day 1.

***

A good chunk of the July –> December part of my internship was focussed around testing the water and working out the status quo. What was acceptable “Business casual” dress, when could I ask for help and when was I intruding? I got my brain into thinking like a scientist and by the time I was planning my Christmas break in Hawaii, things were fairly smooth.

It's COOL and SEXY to be the geeky intern who asks for more work. Honest...

Can I say anything constructive about the process of settling in to an internship? My main warning from personal experience is that it’s better to err on the side of caution and not go in for “expressing individuality” until you’re REALLY confident about how your behaviour will be viewed.

Oh, and this is a v. v. important point. Unless you ask, you will never recieve. How can a supervisor ever give you more (and more interesting/difficult) work if you don’t tell them that you’re about to finish the assigned tasks? I guess I tried to make a point in the beginning of getting things done snappily and then updating my supervisors on my progress –  it gave them a good measure of how quickly I work and what I find easy and difficult to complete. The amount of work an intern can get assigned (at least in this Med Chem context) depends upon the specific project: how many analogues are needed, when they’re needed, how difficult are they to obtain. Part of the job WAS kind-of treading water until the next batch of results came back, and then pushing to make a number of high-priority targets before the submission deadline, etc. That’s research, baby. But to have a good and useful internship…you’ve got to feel OK about a bit of pestering. Trust me, they’ll thank you for it.

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