After four years of making decisions such as what dorm to live in or which intramural sport to play, new graduates carrying a hot-off-the-press bachelor’s degree must tackle some weightier decisions. The first question to consider is whether to apply for graduate school or wrestle with the challenging job market.
According to the American Chemical Society’s 2011 survey of new graduates with a degree in a chemistry-related field, 41% of respondents with a bachelor’s degree chose to pursue a graduate degree and the same percentage found employment. Not all graduates who opted to search for a job were successful—14% reported that they were unemployed, up from 6% just five years earlier (C&EN, June 4, page 36).
Undergraduate students can do many things to prepare themselves to be a tough competitor in the job market, however. Through career services offices at their universities, they can take résumé-writing workshops and seminars on how to compose a top-notch cover letter. But landing a job as a new graduate starts long before spring semester of senior year, when soon-to-be grads start submitting job applications.
Many schools have programs that give students hands-on experience. Some are internal and pair students with professors. In others, students venture outside campus boundaries and gain experience in a lab at another university or in industry.
One way for undergraduates to gain experience in an industrial setting is to find an internship, which is what Jessica Howard did. Howard is a 2012 graduate from Bates College, in Maine, where she earned a B.S. in chemistry. A few weeks ago she began her first permanent job as a research scientist. She is working on a drug discovery project at Albany Molecular Research Inc., in Indianapolis.
The summer before she graduated, Howard worked for Lexington, Mass.-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals. “I loved my experience there—the people, the work environment, and seeing the impact of my work by producing drug candidates,” she recalls.
She also picked up lab experience in an academic setting. Howard spent a summer doing bioinorganic research at Bates, and during her senior year she did a yearlong project for a thesis in analytical chemistry under Thomas J. Wenzel. “Being able to form a relationship with a professor who knew me both in the lab and as a student, that gave me a leg up in my interviews,” she says.
Having research experience gave Howard the courage to search for a lab position right after graduation. “I love being in lab, so why not do it 40 hours a week?” Graduate school was a consideration for her, but she “loves the hands-on piece, the actual synthesis,” she says. For now, Howard wants to focus on research and not the peripherals that come with being in grad school, such as teaching and taking classes.
Howard did apply for quite a few jobs—for many more than invited her for an interview. “It was definitely a process,” she laments. In the end, she was brought in for four interviews and offered three positions.
Her senior research helped Howard get a job, but having the hands-on research experience from the internship at Cubist made her a more skilled candidate, she explains. “I could start working right off the bat, rather than being trained.”
Oftentimes company internships are really a summerlong job interview. Such is the view of Watson Pharmaceuticals, a generics drugmaker with headquarters in Parsippany, N.J. “Our entry-level recruiting is focused on the interns,” says Celeste R. Chatman, associate director of university relations and inclusion at Watson.
The firm prunes its entry-level candidates by assessing their performance during summer internships. And it only hires interns who are “in the academic program that supports the type of position we’re looking to fill,” explains Chatman.
“Don’t be afraid to seek help from professors,” Howard advises. “Even in terms of, ‘What do I wear? They say it’s business casual; what is business casual?’ ”
Friends and colleagues can also pass on insider tips about the application process. For instance, it’s never too early to start the job hunt. Howard began her search in February of her senior year...
Another tip: Howard found that most companies that interviewed her didn’t ask chemistry questions until she was invited back for the second round. “A lot of times the first question was, ‘How did you hear of us?’ ” In other words, companies want to know how applicants have gone about the job hunt.
When interviewing, Howard recalled that it wasn’t just their research experiences that made them stand out. Leadership, organization, and communication skills were traits she highlighted throughout the process.
In evaluating job applicants, “we’re looking for future leaders,” explains Andrew S. Zalusky, Dow Chemical’s R&D strategic recruitment leader. Valuable candidates are smart, talented, and technical, and they contribute to society, he says. Internships and traditional experience are all fine and good, he continues, but it’s those other skills that set a top candidate apart from the rest.
Additionally, the world as a whole is collaborating now more than ever, Zalusky stresses, so international exposure and experience are desirable qualities in a candidate. “It’s a multicultural world,” he notes. “Meaningful time overseas can also be an insight to a candidate.”
When it comes time to spruce up the résumé and get ready for the job search, don’t be phony about it. Zalusky urges, “If you’re going to do something, really do something. And make it meaningful.”