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Internships for life sciences students in undergrad

Here’s a great question from a reader:

I’ve been doing research for the past 5 summers now, and think going into industry would provide a fresh change and also build my resume. What bio-tech/pharma/engineering companies do you recommend going into? I’m currently studying biophysics, and I often worry that the skills I’ve acquired are irrelevant to these companies. How do I make myself an attractive candidate? By the same token, would I be able to apply myself to an internship at a management consulting firm (ie. McKinsey? ) I’m not familiar with consulting (in general), and was wondering if you could share with me some experiences you or your colleagues have had.

Internships are important because it gives you the real life work experiences that you don’t get in school. Furthermore, it also shapes your goals for the future as you learn more about about what it’s like to work in a certain industry. For example, as a freshmen I had been premed, so in the summer I worked in the radiology department of a VA hospital. It was a horrible experience and after that, I knew I did not want to be a doctor. On the other hand, some of my friends especially engineering related majors, have been offered job positions from their summer internships. Although, some of them had turned those positions down because they now had a better idea of the working environment there, and armed with more professional experience they were able to get even better jobs elsewhere.

It’s also helpful to apply to internships with a goal in mind. For example, if you plan on going into R&D side of life sciences industries, an internship experience in finance is not going to help that much. But research experience in university labs and in industry would give you the skills to make you stand out among the crowds, especially if you’ve worked in the research topic or know the techniques they need. Your internship experience doesn’t have to be specialized though. Some companies such as management consulting firms may like to see a breadth of experiences that you can leverage when working with clients from a large variety of industries. In the end it’s about exploring your options and finding out what you love doing.

Life science internships
Where to start when looking for internships for life sciences students

When looking for internship opportunities as a undergraduate, a great place to start is the career center at your school. There you can find out about the companies that usually hire from your school, and get the dates for any career fairs and networking events that are happening on campus.

Companies are actively looking for internship candidates at these career fairs, so go prepared with your resume. Do some research about the companies you are interested in ahead of time so you can ask them insightful questions about what working with them is like. In some cases, recruiters schedule same day or next day interviews as part of the career fair schedule, so dress professionally. To help you prepare for interviews and to make your resume stand out, the career services on campus is again a great resource.

And for bio majors, the undergraduate biology office might be a good place to check out as well, at least it was back in Cornell. There you might find advisers familiar with the process and opportunities available for your specific major, and get your hands on some additional materials on specific programs or companies.

In getting an internship with a large management consulting firms, it does seem like they focus predominantly on engineering students for internship positions. However that does not have to be the case. In fact, BCG and McKinsey are some of the firms that actively recruit PhD candidates in the life sciences field. Consulting firms work with a variety of clients from many different industries. Having a diverse background will help you as a consultant because you will have greater understanding of clients when you work with them. The life science industry is a huge one that includes biotech, pharma, medical devices, diagnostics, health care, and more. As a biophysics major, you would be able to provide different insights on life science industry clients than an engineer can.

For me personally, grad school was the clearest option for me. As a high school student, I had done research at the University of Buffalo, especially electrophysiology research in a biophysics lab, so it was easier for me to find a lab in undergrad. Then I got into the Hughes Scholar Summer Research Program so I didn’t have to worry about internships anymore. My thought at the time was that even if I am to apply to industry positions in the future, it’d be better to apply with a PhD so I’d be able to take on leadership/management positions.

But by the same token, having industry experience could help boost your chances at getting into a good graduate school program as well as a future position in industry. In fact, for my class at the Neuroscience Program, I was the only one that came directly from undergrad (which is not the norm).

In the end, no mater what you choose, each of your experiences will open doors. There is no set path, and if there’s something you want, you’ll be able to achieve it one way or another.

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