This past week my parents and I attended my younger brother’s college graduation in Chicago. While we were very proud of him for finishing his degree in film production, we were also celebrating the fact that he’d already taken the next step.
Kevin took part in an internship for school credit during his final semester, doing film and print media for a Chicago-based hospitality company. He worked hard throughout, I’m told, going above and beyond, and impressing his would-be employers with the skills he amassed during his years in college. So when it came time for the internship to end they brought him on full time. The ink was barely dry on his new contract by the time my family arrived for graduation.
During the ceremony, the valedictorian of my brother’s class told his fellow students that each one of them is the “protagonist of their own film,” drawing on the process of screenwriting for an analogy. He likened their collegiate years to the life that a screenwriter must invent for their protagonist before writing a script—establishing their personal histories, as well as their wants and desires, strengths and weaknesses. Then, he went on, at the end of college is where the movie begins.
While I liked the speech a lot, I disagreed with him on this final point. I don’t think it’s enough to worry only about getting good grades, college is also a time to build your hands-on skills and personal contacts. Through a job, internship or volunteer position you can get your foot in the door and show a would-be employers that you not only have book smarts, but that you’re also a hard worker.
In the context of science, research experience in college or even high school is critical for getting into graduate school or going directly into a job. So here are a few of the many ways to gain experience:
Natural resource management: Walking beaches to monitor the nests of rare birds, tagging wild animals and removing invasive species are just a few of the great outdoor activities of a natural resource manager. My best friend spent his college summers getting paid to do just that on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and the expertise he built landed him a job with the state of Vermont after graduation. Click here and here for two natural resource management job boards.
Internship programs: A number of programs connect undergrads with scientists at universities, and many of them even pay students for their time. One such program is funded by the national government and is called Research Experienced for Undergraduates. Click here to see the wide range of disciplines and find a site near you.
Working in a lab for school credit of as a volunteer: Labs at universities and private institutions are always looking for volunteers to help with research. Often these opportunities aren’t advertised widely, so if you come across an interesting research topic or hear about a lab doing exciting work then look them up on the internet. A short email introduction can often lead to volunteer position, and be sure to try a few possibilities until one sticks.
Volunteering at aquarium or zoo: Zoos and aquariums rely heavily on volunteers for everything from taking care of animals to educating visitors. Volunteers can be a wide range of ages and both high school and college students are welcome. My girlfriend used to work at an aquarium and told me that they often hired their best volunteers when paid positions opened up. Click here to find out how to apply to be a volunteer at Birch Aquarium here in San Diego.
This list offers just a few suggestions for avenues to look down for hands-on research and outreach experience. Each one offers the chance to impress potential employers, all the while giving you a first-hand look at a potential career.