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4 Ways for College Students to Prepare for Science Internships

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Science internships can be very rewarding.

Science internships can be very rewarding.

Science internships, like all internships, come with their own unique challenges. Each lab has its own quirks, and figuring them out can be quite difficult! In my experience, though, science internships are the most rewarding experiences I've ever had — both academically and personally. Here are some of my tips for succeeding in your first week at the lab:

1. Know Your Advisor

It is important to remember that a science internship is an academic endeavor. Prepare for your first day like an exam. In most cases, you'll be matched with a primary investigator (PI) — usually an experienced PhD-level scientist. As soon as you find out who this person is, google him or her. Read as much as you can, but don't expect to understand it all. That's why you have the internship! If you can, send him/her a quick email introducing yourself. The idea here is to get a big picture of what the lab is working on. This will help you follow later conversations (scientists talk quickly!).

2. Understand the Chain of Command

Most groups have unspoken lab rules. If there is a lab tech, postdoc or graduate student in your lab, chances are you will work more closely with him/her than your PI. Rachel, the tech I am currently working with, is invaluable. She understands the big picture of the research — what I was getting to earlier — because she helped with most of it. Graduate students come and go, but most technicians stick around. As a result, they know where everything is, understand the personality of your PI ("don't ask him a question before he's had his coffee"), and are generally really cool people (Rachel has traveled the world collecting water samples for oceanographic analysis).

3. Dress Professionally — But Don't Overdress!

I learned the hard way what kind of impression that overdressing can make on new coworkers. Unless the dress code specifically says "business attire," dressing too formally is probably a bad idea. Later, one of the grad students in my lab told me that they thought I was snobby at first because I wore a business suit on my first day.

We laugh about that now, but it is difficult to navigate a lab because it is both informal and professional at the same time. You're probably safe with dark jeans, a nice shirt, and closed-toed shoes on your first day.

4. Take Your Work Seriously

The most important way to show that you are a serious intern is with your attitude and actions. Leave your phone on silent, stay off Facebook on the lab computers, and be inquisitive and eager to learn. Your co-workers value your attention much more than fancy attire, trust me.

The first few days at the lab can be a little intimidating. You will make mistakes! But by preparing yourself ahead of time and understanding the casual (but not too casual) lab environment, you'll be well on your way to a successful experience. If you don't have an internship lined up yet — find one! NSF's REU webpage is a good place to start.

Photo credit: Bruno Colméia via Wikimedia commons.