By: Jennifer Casiano-Matos
Edited By: Eileen Oni and Paulina Krzyszczyk
This summer I had the opportunity to complete an internship at Novavax; a vaccine development company in Montgomery County, Maryland. My position was Analytical Development Intern and the experience was everything I imagined it was going to be! I learned new techniques that were outside of my existing skill set, such as reverse-phase high-performance liquid chromatography (RP-HPLC), drug product quality control, how to work in a Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) setting and so many lessons that I will apply in the future. The key lessons that I learned during the course of the internship are summarized below.
- Plan your career development strategy. As graduate students, our main priority is to successfully complete a research project. Therefore, taking a break to participate in a career development opportunity, such as an internship, can be challenging. First, discuss your plans with your mentor and committee members, and keep them updated. Second, plan ahead for future experiments; prioritize what needs to be done before your internship and what can wait until you return. Some mentors may not be supportive of your decision; however, it is important that you present a solid plan for the upcoming months and demonstrate how much you will benefit from an opportunity like this. Remember that you are working towards your future beyond the Ph.D., so it is important to take advantage of career development opportunities, despite barriers and obstacles that may arise.
- Apply to anything that interests YOU. It is common to receive a piece of career advice from peers, mentors, and family; however, you are the one who is going to benefit from it! My suggestion is to go for anything that interests YOU. Even if you are hesitant about a certain opportunity, you should apply! If not, you will never even have the chance to learn if you are truly interested in working in that field. Internships are perfect opportunities to try things that you are not familiar with and expose yourself to different people and work environments.
- Once you have decided that you want to explore a certain career path, it is a good idea to join local professional networking groups. Meeting new professionals is a good way to identify opportunities within their companies. Also, share your career plans with friends and peers; they may know someone that can help you! In my own experience, it was a friend that helped me during my internship search and recommended me to the hiring manager!
- Practice and study. If you are lucky enough to receive an interview for an internship you have applied for, you should practice your answers to common questions that can come up. Some examples are: “What are you expecting from this internship opportunity?”, “How do you handle pressure during difficult situations?”, and, “How do you ensure that deadlines are met?”. In addition, studying the company and the position that you applied for will give you confidence and help you develop questions for the interviewer.
- Be specific. As a graduate student, the time you spend in an internship is time that you will have to pause your thesis work. It is important that this time is well spent and that you learn new things that were not previously on your CV/Resume. Be specific to your mentor about the duration of the internship. Also, be clear with the company about your expectations in terms of what you want to learn and accomplish within that time frame. At the same time, ask the hiring manager what he or she expects from you. Keep in mind that time flies during a brief summer internship, so you should focus on one project at a time and find a practical method to achieve your goals. Also, remember that measurable goals are highly valuable in an industry setting.
- Prepare for deadlines, timelines, and goals. In our current positions as graduate students and postdocs, we sometimes have full control of our own time; we come in late some days, early others, or work on the weekends. As an intern, you will find that you need to manage your time more efficiently because you often have fixed work hours or a collaborative project that have sensitive timelines. It is common to work with other scientists on collaborative projects, so keep in mind that they have a busy schedule and possibly different work hours, too. Keep in mind that internships usually last between 10-12 weeks. Divide your time wisely! The first two weeks are usually for orientation, introductions, training, and planning. During the last two weeks, you start wrapping up your work and talking to the manager about the future steps of the project. This leaves you with 6-8 productive weeks. Be sure that you plan those weeks wisely and that you have the materials to work on the assigned project.
- When in doubt, ask. In the pharmaceutical industry, it is preferred that you take time to clarify any doubts and ask questions, rather than wasting your time working on things that are already known, understood, and well-established. Don’t waste your time on things that are known or changing the way they work. The goal of an internship is to understand the field that you are exploring better, work in teams, network and collaborate for a more productive company setting.
- Be confident. Take advantage of meetings to talk to other professionals about the project you are working on. Confidently speaking about your work can help you network with people from other groups. Sometimes at the end of the internship, you even have to present a poster or a section. This is the time to sell yourself and your project. Explain why the work that you completed during the internship was important to the company!
- Participate in activities beyond the internship. Many companies have additional training courses, journal clubs, and learning sections; take advantage of those opportunities. Communicate with company leaders during networking events and social lunches about your future plans. If you are interested in returning as a full-time employee do not be afraid to mention it.
- Completing the internship is not the end. When you are constantly learning and actively participating in events, you will notice that time flies by fast. Be sure that at the end you store all the data gathered and communicate where all the materials and notes are located. Be sure to make contacts that will be beneficial in the future and reach out to them! You should also let them know that you are looking for future opportunities. More importantly, an internship is the best opportunity to expand your network to include professional colleagues. Take time to ensure that the connections you made last beyond that summer!
As a graduate student, I understand how challenging it can be to take a break from thesis work for a summer and try something outside of your daily laboratory routine. Despite these hesitations, it was worth it! My summer internship at Novavax Inc. was an opportunity that gave me a boost of confidence and allowed me to get a glimpse of the great things that I can accomplish in a career in industry research after earning my Ph.D.