Science & Research internships & placements 2021: Expert career advice and a spotlight on the industry
Your one-stop guide to launching a successful career in science and research, including how to get work experience, top employers and much more.
No longer confined to laboratories, scientists have a hand in almost every aspect of our lives: be it getting everyone access to clean water, curing disease or tackling climate change.
Pursuing a career in science, research and development will see you pushing boundaries, making discoveries and developing new technologies - all in aid of improving the lives of others. It’s a fascinating and highly rewarding line of work.
But if you want to get that competitive advantage over your peers, you’ll need to equip yourself with first-hand experience in the workplace.
Not sure where to start?
Science is a galactic industry that reaches far and wide. So, we’ve divvied up this guide into nice bite-sized sections to help you navigate your way around:
Top Placements, Internships & Insights in Science & Research
Getting Science Work Experience
It’s all very well being an expert on gene cloning or molecular orbital theory. But if you don’t have the technical skills to back this knowledge up, you’re not going to get very far in the workplace.
So, it’s absolutely crucial that you take on an internship or placement in science whilst you’re still at university.
Employers flip out over students who have made the effort to get this sort of experience. In fact, they increasingly use work experience as a talent-spotting exercise for their graduate schemes.
If you stand out during your science internship, your employer might even offer you a graduate role at the end (or at least fast-track your application) - which would be a huge weight off your mind during your final year of university.
On the other hand, those without experience could struggle when it comes to applying for science jobs or graduate programmes.
“Over a third of recruiters who took part in the research repeated their warnings from previous years – that graduates who have had no previous work experience at all are unlikely to be successful during the selection process for their graduate programmes.” High Fliers: The Graduate Market in 2021
Bear in mind that scientific work experience is often unpaid, but most positions are funded through research grants, departmental projects and research scholarships.
For instance, the Royal Society of Chemistry Undergraduate Bursary - worth £250 per week - supports undergraduate students carrying out chemistry research internships in the summer holidays.
A number of organisations give out bursaries to help interns cover their costs. Make sure you do your research thoroughly as the requirements and application process vary greatly. Head over to British Neuroscience Association’s website for a comprehensive list of funding bodies.
Summer Internships in Science 2021
The majority of science internships take place in the summer months, lasting anywhere from a week to four months. If you really want to get ahead, you may even be able to squeeze more than one internship into your summer.
Not only is this a genius way of occupying those long university holidays, the more you do, the better idea you’ll have of where you want to take your career.
Keep reading to find out more about the huge variety of science internships on offer in the UK...
Science Placements 2021
These work experience programmes are essentially the same as internships - only they last longer.
Placements are typically filled by third-year university students. If you’re doing a sandwich degree - one that includes a placement year - you too will spend a whole year working full-time for an employer.
A science placement is your chance to show initiative, make a good impression and start building an invaluable network of industry contacts. You’ll also get an insight into how the company operates and what your specific role entails - all while advancing your own technical skills and academic knowledge.
Lots of major organisations offer placements, so stick around for a sneak peek at this year’s top employers...
“My placement year was an extremely valuable experience that enabled me to gain an insight into the industry, expand my professional network and develop skills that will help me in my future career. This has opened my eyes to the range of career opportunites available in the industry.” Undergraduate Community and STEM Project Manager at Pfizer
Science Top Employers 2020-2021
If you decide to embark on a career in science, you could be hired by a global corporation, research centre, charity, start-up, engineering firm or even a newspaper! Just like the multiverse, there are infinite possibilities.
To help you cut through the noise, we’ve compiled a list of the best companies to work for as an undergraduate or graduate in the science industry.
Each of these ranked in the Top 100 Undergraduate Employers 2020-2021, which is based on thousands of student-written reviews submitted to RateMyPlacement. This means they are the crème de la crème when it comes to company culture, work-life balance, employee perks and more.
Naturally curious? Want to be at the forefront of scientific development? As a research scientist, you’ll be responsible for designing, conducting and analysing the results of cutting-edge experiments.
However, research and development (R&D) is a tough field to get into. Employers look for bright candidates with inquisitive minds, and postgraduate qualifications - such as a Master’s degree or PhD - are often a requirement.
Not to worry, there are plenty of undergraduate research opportunities in the UK that can give you the experience you need to go far in this career.
A research internship or placement will not see you staring into Petri dishes all day long. Instead, it is a chance to work alongside leading scientists on actual research projects.
Here are just a few of the companies that offer research internships in London and elsewhere:
Cancer Research UK
Cancer Research UK runs a 12-week cancer research internship in the summer. As well as paying the National Living Wage, this programme offers undergraduates the chance to develop key business skills whilst fighting cancer.
This fast-moving consumer goods company runs both a 12-month industrial placement programme and a 12-week summer research internship. Top performing students at Unilever can earn themselves a place on their future leaders programme for graduates.
British American Tobacco
Making significant investments in R&D to develop potentially less risky alternatives to cigarettes, British American Tobacco offers 12-month research placements to undergraduates. As an R&D intern, you’ll play a part in discovering, developing and deploying their innovative products.
“There’s so much exciting research at the moment: you’ve got extraordinary telescopes being built all over the world; opportunities to create bespoke medicines and even chances to design new chemicals using artificial intelligence.” Dr Jessica Wade, Future Talented Magazine
Touching millions of lives every day, this innovative industry develops, tests and manufactures lifesaving drugs to combat everything from HIV and AIDS to high blood pressure.
Around 61,000 people in the UK work for pharmaceutical companies; including research scientists, pharmacists, lawyers, engineers and marketeers. Depending on your skill set, you could end up doing anything from running clinical trials to selling pharmaceutical drugs.
Why you should get pharmaceutical work experience
Firstly, a pharmaceutical internship or placement involves working on projects alongside some of the world’s top experts in their field.
This is an excellent opportunity to develop essential soft skills and technical knowledge; something that will both complement your studies and boost your CV.
Secondly, competition for pharmaceutical jobs is intense. According to High Fliers: The Graduate Market in 2019, applications to chemical & pharmaceutical companies went up by 12%.
You can bet your student loan that the majority of those applying will have some form of experience under their belt. If you want your CV to stand out, you need to do the same.
How (and where) to secure an internship in pharmacology
Pharma companies usually ask that you are on track to achieve a 2:1 or above in a relevant degree discipline. For instance, if you want to work in drug research & development, you’ll need a degree in chemistry, biology or pharmacology.
Here are just a few employers who offer pharmaceutical internships in the UK:
You can also find jobs in public sector bodies such as the Department for Education, the Ministry of Defence (MOD), Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the National Health Service (NHS).
Want to find out more? Head over to our Overview of Pharmaceutical Internships & Placements for expert advice, employer case studies and a few mind-blowing facts.
Chemistry Internships and Placements
Knowing everything there is to know about quantum mechanics and spectroscopy won’t be enough to guarantee you a graduate role in chemistry.
Luckily for you, there are plenty of companies giving undergraduates an opportunity to gain first-hand experience in a real scientific setting. Not only will this help you stand out to future employers, working on real-life projects will allow you to build on your technical know-how.
Chemistry internships come in all shapes and sizes; from a few days spent shadowing a researcher in a lab, through to a 12-month industrial placement...
Placements in chemistry
If your course has an integrated placement year, you’ll spend a whole year working for an employer. Most companies will allow you to rotate between departments to broaden your horizons.
Chemistry summer internships
Shorter periods of work experience that take place - wait for it - during the summer (between each academic year). You should be able to fit a few of these in over the course of your degree.
Where to find chemistry-related work experience
Start by talking to your university tutors and lecturers - they may have contacts you can reach out to or even offer you some work themselves!
Here are a few examples of organisations offering chemistry internships in the UK:
Royal Society of Chemistry
This professional society offers a range of internships for undergraduates, including a science writer placement. This eight-week position gives budding writers an opportunity to work for two publications: Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry.
Backed by the British Council, this scheme arranges paid international engineering and science placements for students. With over 4000 opportunities across 80 countries, the IAESTE is a great opportunity to spend a summer developing your skills in another country.
A science-led global healthcare company with heaps of opportunities for students, including an industrial placement in chemistry. This is aimed at ambitious candidates who have completed at least two years of a degree in a related scientific discipline.
To bag yourself some chemistry work experience with one of the UK’s top employers, have a read of our Guide to Chemistry Internships & Placements.
Physics Work Experience
As there is no stand-alone physics industry, you may be wondering what you can actually do with a physics degree. However, a well-trained physicist, complete with first-rate teamwork, communication and leadership skills, is a force to be reckoned with. As such, they can find work in almost any sector.
If you want to figure out if a career in physics really is the right path for you, you can test the waters by taking on a physics internship. This will give you a better idea of how your scientific knowledge might translate to commercial success in the future.
Below is a list of employers offering work experience opportunities...
Institute of Physics (IOP)
The IOP runs an 8-week summer internship for physics students in their penultimate year. Successful applicants receive a £2000 bursary in addition to whatever the placement might pay.
Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL)
This government agency offers paid year-long placements to students. You’ll work closely with expert engineers and scientists on projects that support the Ministry of Defence (MOD), UK armed forces and other government departments whilst on placement at DSTL.
CERN (The European Organisation for Nuclear Research)
Looking to go abroad for your physics internship next summer? Imagine learning on-the-job at the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. Based in Geneva, CERN runs 4-12 month programmes for undergraduates in Applied Physics. The one snag is that only 120 students are admitted each year.
“Around 60% of the physics graduates from Imperial go on to work in investment banking, and a physics degree is just as useful if you want to work in the government or journalism.” Dr Jessica Wade, Future Talented Magazine
Biomedical Science Placements and Internships
From providing doctors with vital scientific research to investigating causes of infection, biomedical scientists play a pivotal role in our society. In fact, biomedical science, AKA ‘the science at the heart of healthcare’, underpins much of modern medicine.
Here are some enjoyable facts about biomedical scientists in the UK:
- 70% of all medical diagnoses are attributed to their work
- They make up 5% of the NHS workforce
- 150 million samples are handled by laboratory services every year
Finding laboratory work experience
To kickstart a career in a sector as technical and integral to public health as biomedical science, it’s crucial that you gain as much relevant experience as possible before you graduate.
Employers will expect you to have undertaken some kind of work experience, whether it’s biomedical science internships or placements. You’ll also need a strong foundation of scientific knowledge, in the form of relevant GCSEs, A-Levels and a biomedical science degree (or a similar discipline) that’s been accredited by the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS).
Most IBMS-accredited university courses have an integrated placement year. If that is not the case, you’ll find plenty of short-term placements running throughout the summer.
Let’s take a look at a few places you can find work experience in biomedical science:
The National Health Service (NHS)
Biomedical placements, internships and assistant roles for students are advertised on the NHS Jobs website.
This global research charity runs two programmes for those studying biomedical sciences: a summer internship based in their London office, and a 6-8 week biomedical vacation scholarship that pays the National Living Wage.
Many run their own biomedical science placements in the summer, giving students the chance to work on research projects being carried out by in-house academic teams. For example, students of Dr Claudio Scotti at the University of East London aided his research into health claims made by manufacturers of probiotic foods.
Biology internships in the UK
If all of the DNA in one human body was lined up, it would stretch from the sun to Pluto and back - 17 times!
Human DNA is a colossal subject to cover. But that’s just one element of this incredibly vast field. Biologists study everything from single-celled amoebas to the 100 billion-celled human brain.
Whether they have a degree in human biology, marine biology or biological sciences, biology graduates can be found in a dizzying range of careers.
So if you’re not sure what to do with your biology degree, we get it. It’s pretty mind-boggling.
Securing biology work experience
Work experience is by far the best way to get a real insight into a role, company or specialist area. You can find out if you really like working in a lab or if you’d rather be in a museum, botanical gardens or even academia.
Here are just a few ways you can secure a year-long internship in biology:
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Each year six budding scientists join the plant science and information technology teams at Kew Gardens. Interns have access to world-renowned collections of plants and fungi, as well as their library and research facilities. You must have completed two years of undergraduate studies in biological sciences or bioinformatics.
Your university may organise Undergraduate Research Opportunity Placements. You’ll receive around £180 a week to spend your summer (4-8 weeks) working alongside a university researcher on a project of their choice. As an added bonus, most UROP supervisors will be happy to give you a reference when you look for biology graduate jobs.
BBSRC Research Experience Placements
If your university doesn’t run an ‘UROP’, this scheme also supports students undertaking research-based biology internships in the summer holidays. 100 of these placements are available each year, with students typically receiving £200 per week to cover their expenses.
If your degree does not include a placement year, it’s worth applying for biology internships in the summer. Get ahead of the game by doing as many of these as possible throughout your degree.
Busaries or Grants for Biologists
If you’re offered an unpaid position, you may be able to apply for a bursary or grant to cover your living expenses during the placement. Several learned societies offer ‘undergraduate studentships’, which are fully-funded research internships for biology students.
For instance, The Biochemical Society gives grants of £200 per week for a period of 6-8 weeks. This is to support a student undertaking biochemistry work experience in a lab.
The following organisations offer similar grants:
- Genetics Society
- Society for General Microbiology
- Sanger Centre
- British Society for Cell Biology
- The British Lichen Society
Internships in Renewable Energy
In the last decade, low carbon generation has increased from 20% to 51% of the UK’s total power production, with renewable sources representing 30% of that.
This is fantastic news for both the environment and the job market. There are now almost 400,000 green jobs across the UK.
However, there is still a long way to go. The energy sector faces a threefold challenge - how can we make energy supplies secure, low carbon and affordable? As a scientist, you could play your part by carrying out fundamental research, inventing new technologies or advising government on policy and regulation.
This world-changing industry seeks problem-solving pioneers, leaders and dreamers to work on impactful projects.
The only way you’re going to make the cut is if you have relevant industrial experience. So, which employers offer renewable energy internships in the UK?
GE Renewable Energy
This $15 billion business powers one-third of the world’s electricity! 70% of GE’s interns get accepted onto one of their graduate leadership programmes, with 20% of those climbing the ladder to senior leadership positions. Apply to one of their early talent programmes to fire up your career.
The UK’s leading generator and supplier of low carbon electricity is always looking for students to fill their 12-month industrial placements (Nuclear Science and Engineering or Research & Development). Promising hands-on experience, an EDF Energy internship is a great opportunity to get a feel for life in the energy industry.
ExxonMobil is looking for innovative thinkers from STEM backgrounds to help meet the world’s growing energy needs. Lasting either eight weeks or 13 months, each of their renewable energy internships will see you work on real company projects, interact with a variety of disciplines and receive professional mentoring.
Psychology Internships and Placements
Wondering what you can do with your psychology degree?
Psychologists can be found in any number of places; including hospitals, mental health clinics, schools and universities, government agencies, businesses and private practices.
As well as treating mental illness, psychologists carry out pioneering research that influences public health policy. Their understanding of what makes people tick plays a crucial role in tackling major issues in our society, such as violence, discrimination and widespread anxiety.
Why you need psychology work experience on your CV
Firstly, psychology is seriously tough to get into. If you want to practice as a psychologist, you’ll need the trifecta of a degree, postgraduate qualifications and as much work experience as possible. This whole process takes at least six years!
Secondly, professional experience - whether it’s a few short psychology internships or a 12-month placement - can help you get onto the postgraduate course of your choice.
Fresh grads fight tooth and nail for places on the best programmes. At the University of Southampton, there are an average of 24 applicants per place for their MSC Foundations of Clinical Psychology.
Finding placements in psychology
It’s likely that your psychology degree will include a work placement, in which case your university should help you find a position. For example, London South Bank University organises voluntary psychology placements for their undergraduates.
Alternatively, you can arrange your own placement, providing you clear it with your course leader or university employability service. You will need to be proactive and creative in your search as formal psychology internships aren’t always advertised.
Bear in mind that psychology students typically have to complete voluntary work before they can obtain paid work. Look for opportunities working with the prison service, police or youth offending teams, as well as mental health wards, victim support and charities supporting refugees, asylum seekers and homeless youths.
Below is a handy list of organisations to get you started:
It can be difficult to find work alongside qualified psychologists until you have graduated. However, the British Psychological Society has a directory of chartered psychologists across the country to help you find psychologists in your area. It’s always worth reaching out to industry professionals for advice and opportunities.
Science Work Experience Reviews
There are so, so many opportunities for students looking to get first-hand experience in science and research. It can be tricky to find the right one for you.
Here at RateMyPlacement, we’re dedicated to helping young people make informed decisions about their futures. Which is why we host thousands of reviews of work experience in science. Over 4000 of them in fact.
All of these are submitted by students who have carried out some form of placement or internship in science or research. The reviews are their chance to shout about their time with an employer; be it positively or negatively!
This is an incredibly useful resource for those who are still figuring out what they want to do.
It may be that you’re not sure you want to stick with science, or perhaps you’re torn between working for a global corporation or an SME. Whatever your concern, nothing beats hearing the truth straight from the horse’s mouth.