A Guide to Chemistry Internships & Placements
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There’s so much more to a career in chemistry than working in a lab.
As a chemist, you could find yourself working on some seriously cool projects. Like the team of chemists who created an artificial tongue that can taste subtle differences between whiskies.
You could develop new antibiotics to combat infection. Find innovative ways to protect the planet from plastic pollution. Or even advise the government on policy and regulation.
In other words, stick with chemistry and you could make a real difference every time you go to work.
BUT you’re going to need more than a degree to get there. You can’t just toss your graduation cap into the air, like you just don’t care, and expect to walk straight into a graduate job in chemistry. Success starts with experience.
So, here is your one-stop guide to finding quality internships and placements in chemistry.
Get inspiration from this trippy video by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Party on.
Getting chemistry work experience
You might be an authority on computational chemistry and Ligand field theory. But that alone won’t be enough to secure you a decent job in chemistry.
The trick is to bank as much work experience as you can whilst you’re still at university. Otherwise you risk graduating with a head full of ideas, but no industry knowledge or practical skills to back them up.
(Plus employers go WILD for experience).
So, let’s take a look at your options…
Chemical engineering placements
On an industrial placement, you’ll spend a whole year working full-time for an employer.
If you are doing a sandwich degree, this will be incorporated into your course. It’s the dill to your salmon and cream cheese bagel, and the start of your career in chemistry.
Some placements will have you working on a single project, whilst others will allow you to rotate between different departments over the course of the year. This will give you a chance to figure out where your strengths and interests lie. For instance, you may have had your heart set on working in R&D (Research & Development), but then discover you have the analytical mind of a chemical engineer.
A placement in chemistry is an opportunity to develop your technical and transferable skills, create a strong professional network, and start earning a real salary. And if you do well, you might even get a graduate job out of it.
Internships in chemistry
An internship is a golden opportunity to find out what a practical chemistry career actually entails. It will help you answer important questions like ‘what am I good at?’ or ‘what do I enjoy?’.
This is a great option if your course doesn’t include a placement year, or you want to get experience with a few different companies before you graduate. Internships tend to last anywhere from a couple of weeks to four months, and are open to students from all years.
As an intern, you will be trusted to work on real projects. Just like this Unilever intern.
“I was given a lot of responsibility and a real experience of what it would be like on the Unilever Future Leaders Programme. I contributed to three on-going projects, and was even given my own experiments to conduct within each.” Research Scientist Intern at Unilever
Chemistry summer internships & placements
Most companies take students on during the summer, so the old ‘I didn’t have time for work experience at uni’ just won’t cut it anymore.
If you can’t commit to a long placement or internship, these shorter schemes are a fantastic way to fill the long stretch between semesters. After all, there’s only so many festivals and Ibiza trips you can afford.
Chemistry summer placements tend to last between six and twelve weeks. This is long enough to get a taster for the role and industry, and will add real value to your CV.
“I was given meaningful and useful tasks to complete, and was able to see a project through from beginning to end and know that I had a tangible impact on the business. The experience was invaluable and will help me throughout my next few years studying Chemistry at uni.” Summer Student at Lifescan Scotland
Securing funding for chemistry work experience
The average science placement student earns £18,118 a year - but not all experience is paid.
However, a number of organisations help interns cover their costs with research grants, departmental projects and research scholarships - so you won’t miss out on a salary.
For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry Undergraduate Bursary - worth £250 per week - supports undergraduate students carrying out chemistry internships in the summer holidays. All interns are paid the UK National Living Wage of £8.72 an hour, for up to 8 weeks.
These are just a few other organisations that offer bursaries:
- Biochemical Society
- British Lichen Society
- UROP placements
- UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health
- Universities (e.g. The University of Manchester)
It’s best to start by speaking to your tutor - they should be able to point you in the right direction when it comes to finding a suitable grant and supervisor.
Make sure you carry out thorough research on each bursary, as the eligibility criteria can vary.
Just because you're doing a chemistry degree, doesn't mean you can't branch out into other areas of science. Check out our guide to Science & Research Internships 2020.
"What did one ion say to the other?... I've got my ion you."
What you can do with a chemistry degree
Developing medicines, cutting air pollution, working in antibiotic resistance, progressing medical devices and prosthetics - chemistry plays a vital role in prolonging and improving life.
Brian, for example, is a Sports Scientist for the British Olympic Association. He analyses the biochemistry of Team GB athletes, and uses the results to tailor training programmes that fit their needs.
Fix the future
Climate change. Pollution. Energy crises. Deforestation. All of these will seriously impact the lives of future generations. But chemists work tirelessly to create a better, sustainable world.
Margot is a Research Innovations Manager at Polymateria. She’s part of a team developing a molecule that can be added to plastic, and that when triggered by sunlight, heat or rain, will break the plastic down into small fragments.
Politicians rely on science policy experts to bridge the gap between researchers and the public. It is their job to show how discoveries in the lab will benefit people in real life, by translating highly technical scientific issues into good policies.
Take Harriet. As a Policy Researcher for Cancer Research UK (the largest independent funder of cancer research in the world), her role is to ensure that government policy supports researchers in their important work.
DID YOU KNOW?
You’ve probably heard of the Nobel Prize, which has been awarded to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Marie Curie and Sir Alexander Fleming.
But have you heard of the Ig Nobel prize? This parody award honours trivial achievements in scientific research that ‘first make people laugh, and then make them think’.
2015’s Chemistry Prize went to a group of Australian chemists who invented a vortex fluid device that can partially unboil an egg. This finding has the potential to significantly reduce costs of cancer treatments and food production.
Top employers in chemistry 2019-2020
One of the most important decisions to make when looking for chemistry-related work experience is WHO you want to work for.
There are lots of factors to consider when choosing the right employer for you; including work-life balance, job security and company values.
Also, if you’re the right fit for a company, you are much more likely to be offered the position. There is a 99.9999% chance that the interviewer will ask you ‘Why do you want to work for us?’. If you’re truly passionate about working for that specific company, this will shine through in your answer.
Every year, we announce the Top 100 Undergraduate Employers, as well as the Top 50 Medium-sized and Top 10 Small to Medium-sized Employers. Each of these tables is based on the thousands of student-written reviews on RateMyPlacement.co.uk. They are the Olympic gold medallists of work experience.
There are hundreds of companies across the UK that offer everything from summer internships to industrial placements in chemistry. But these are the best ones:
Get a sneak peek into what it’s really like to do a chemistry placement, internship or insight scheme with one of these employers...
Quick-fire application advice
1. Talk to your university tutor and lecturers
If you’re struggling to find a chemistry internship that you want to apply for, it’s worth talking to your university chemistry department. They may have contacts you can reach out to or even offer you some work themselves!
2. Think outside the box
There are other ways you can get experience besides applying to well-known corporations. For instance, The Royal Society of Chemistry runs an eight-week science writer internship, giving aspiring writers an opportunity to work for two publications: Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry.
3. Be proactive
Not all organisations advertise their opportunities online, simply because they don’t need to. If there is a company or academic researcher you’re interested in working for, there’s nothing stopping you from approaching them directly and making a speculative application.
What you can expect to earn
Based on the 5,117 reviews on RateMyPlacement.co.uk, the average salary for a science intern was £17,390 in 2018.
Placement students earn slightly more, averaging at £18,118 for a year-long scheme.
Whilst salaries depend on a large number of factors (such as experience, location and type of organisation), there is the potential for you to rake it in once you progress in your career…
The Royal Society of Chemistry’s 2019 Pay & Reward survey revealed that the median salary for members is £45,500 a year (plus bonuses).