Charlotte is a Queen Mary graduate, having completed her Chemistry with Biochemistry degree in 2014 with a 2:2. Feeling that she didn’t have enough lab experience to successfully apply for a graduate chemistry role, and after a conversation with us at the Careers Centre, she decided to contact commercial laboratories in her area for work experience. Here she tells us how a speculative application paid off.
I didn’t find the 1st and 2nd years too difficult, but I really struggled in the final year, maybe because I hadn’t put enough effort into the first two years, and I got a 2:2. During my degree, I worked in a card shop and in my father’s printing/embroidery company to earn some money – I tried to get some chemistry work experience but was unsuccessful. As I was completing my degree, I applied to several chemistry jobs all over the country, but without the relevant internships or placements, I felt just another of the many UK finalists in that year and there was no way to stand out from the crowd. After a conversation with the SBCS Careers Consultant at the Careers & Enterprise Centre, I changed my approach and started looking for chemistry-related companies near where I lived, with the aim of writing to them and speculatively asking for work experience. Some time later, I found out that a big warehouse-style building in my area was actually a chemical analysis company – you really couldn’t tell from the outside! I was a bit hesitant to write to them out of the blue, but my parents encouraged me, so I sent my CV together with a request for some work experience of any length. Their answer was:
“[We] do not offer work experience placements, due to the nature of our business. [We] do however have a vacancy for a Graduate Chemist. […] If you would be interested in a permanent full time role please let me know and we can consider your application.”
Well, of course I applied. It turned out that because that position had become available quite recently they hadn’t updated their website, so I wouldn’t have found out about it any other way. I had already worked on my CV with Careers support, so the next step was the interview – I had two, the first a general one-to-one, and the second a lab-based test. In the first one, the owner of the company told me he had also finished his degree with a 2:2. In that interview he was mostly testing for the right attitude – the willingness to learn, rather than knowledge of specific techniques. The second interview was following a simple sample preparation in the lab, with techniques I had never done before! However, they were just testing if I could follow the instructions accurately so I got through and was offered the job on the same day. Result!
My day-to-day is physical and impurity testing of samples sent in from clients, so they can meet regulatory standards before going to market with their product. I am very often left on my own, and there are very strict protocols and requirements to follow (we work to GLP – Good Laboratory Practice), and it is quite pressured work as we have to meet the clients’ deadlines. Besides the actual lab analysis, I also need to do a lot of report writing to set templates. I started off at £17,000 a year and thought I would be on that for a while but they ended my probation early and I progressed to £20,000 after five months on the job. I quite enjoy the responsibility – it’s a small company so there’s nowhere to hide if you make mistakes – and the job. It might help that it is a nice 20min walk to my house!
My tips for current students are:
- Go to Careers for help knowing where to start and different ways to get a job; there is only so much you can get from a Google search.
- Try lots of different approaches in finding jobs, nothing is too weird. But you have to be proactive, just sending out your CV and waiting for a job to arrive won’t work.
- Start looking for work early in your final year. If you do it after you graduate you will be applying after everyone else.
- Getting Chemistry work experience is best, but it can feel like a vicious circle – you need lab work experience to get lab work experience. Just having something on your CV besides university can still be helpful as at least it shows you can work. The volunteering work I did with children at a conservation charity definitely helped.
Postscript: Since her conversation with us for this blog post, Charlotte has had an appraisal and her wage was increased again, to £23,000 per year.