COVID-19 Shakes Up Summer Internship and Research Opportunities

How companies, research experiences, and undergraduate students are adapting

Special to inChemistry and C&EN

When Sajan Bar learned he had received a paid summer internship with Trinseo through the ACS SCI Scholars program, he believed the position would introduce him to day-to-day work in the industry.

"I am not 100 percent sure if I really want to do chemical engineering as a career or I just want to learn it in undergrad,” says Bar, a rising junior at Columbia University majoring in chemical engineering. “I wanted this experience to let me feel out the field.”

Not too long afterward, however, Bar got a call from the global materials company saying they had canceled the internship. He wasn’t shocked. Some of his friends had already seen their summer plans upended.

In March, as it became clear that COVID-19 was spreading in the United States, companies, universities, and other organizations began to reconsider their plans to offer students the sort of career-guiding experience Bar had sought.

Nearly three-quarters of students with internships or post-graduation plans said they had been canceled, made remote, or delayed, according to a poll given in April by College Reaction. Meanwhile, a survey of employers later the same month by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported that nearly 22 percent were revoking offers to summer interns. And, of those who planned to maintain their summer internship programs, 83 percent were making changes, including 46 percent who said they were switching to virtual.  

Like many other students this spring, Bar began searching for alternatives. “My summer has taken a bit of a roller coaster,” he says.

A message to a previous mentor landed him a two-days-a-week, remote research position assisting with image analysis and paperwork at a Columbia bioengineering lab. And a last-minute offer from Sigilon Therapeutics in Massachusetts working with a team on a drug-delivery device has filled up the other three days.

Sajan Bar headshot
Sajan Bar, an ACS SCI Scholar whose paid internship with Trinseo ended up cancelled due to COVID 19.

Missed opportunities

As with internships and summer jobs, research experiences, too, have become more limited, and many were reconfigured to take place remotely. Safety restrictions intended to limit in-person contact, which can spread the virus, have kept many undergraduates out of labs and prompted researchers to alter projects so they can be done virtually. In some cases, such as in computational and theoretical research, that transition can take place with relative ease. 

But some opportunities are gone, including many spots in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which provides funding for students to participate in research and professional development at sites across the country.  

Of the approximately 60 active chemistry REU sites, only about 10 are proceeding in some fashion this summer, according to Melissa Olson, the chemistry REU associate program director. Nearly all of these have switched to remote. Only one is offering in-person research this summer, she says. 

The fallout in engineering has been similar: of about 125 active engineering REU sites, none are continuing in person, while 17 have gone virtual.

REU projects can connect graduate programs with potential students, just as companies use summer internships to find future employees. COVID-19, however, has thrown a kink, if a temporary one, into these pipelines. 

The company Ecolab, for example, bases the number of summer internships on projected entry-level openings for the following year, according to Lilian Lam Josephson, principal chemist on the hygiene team who oversees a summer intern. “If you have to cancel the internship, potential hires in the future might not consider your company, and if we really botch the virtual internship, they won’t want to come back anymore either,” she says.

For students, however, it can feel like the future is at stake. Riley Sasse, a rising senior and chemistry major at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville, applied to 15 REU programs—the maximum number of recommendations his faculty adviser would write. This spring, after a promising interview for an ecology-related REU project, he received some bittersweet news: an email telling him the program had been canceled that he would have been accepted.

“You know how a lot of the time you might get a great opportunity because you just happen to be at the right place at the right time and talk to the right person?” he says of the research experience he would have had. “I am missing that.” 

For Sasse and many other students, the cancellations have created another, more immediate problem: loss of summer income, which they may need to cover tuition, living costs, and other expenses.

After some searching, he put together a patchwork of replacements, including a couple of on-campus jobs and a part-time position as a quality control lab tech at a cheese factory. He has also been attending weekly online panel discussions about graduate school. Offered by one of the canceled REU programs to which he applied—at Texas A&M University—this series is the sort of opportunity students can seek out to make the best of changed plans. 

Students participate in a virtual professional development session on authorship and research ethics with the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN), facilitated by its assistant director and, Professor & Associate Head of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota Christy Haynes (top left).

Going all, or partially, virtual

Some programs have figured out ways to keep running remotely, although doing so often requires substantial changes to what they offer students. Sometimes, the transition means fewer openings for students, but other times, it creates new opportunities.

As professor Mark Griep prepared to cancel a benchwork-focused chemistry REU project at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, a colleague suggested an alternative: use computer modeling to study protein-RNA interactions. Griep and others then came up with other virtual projects, such as analyzing interviews to explore students’ conceptions of light, and designing a material then predicting how its properties could be verified. In the end, they were able to accommodate 8 of the original 14 students, and the other 6 are not participating.

Enrollment went in the opposite direction for the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN), which typically hosts 10 to 12 students in labs across a number of institutions. After going virtual, the CSN was able to accommodate 23 for the summer, taking on additional students who rely on other sources of funding, including that from their own advisers.  

While in a typical year most students with the CSN spend their time on in-lab experiments, the program is now structured around group meetings focused on professional development-related topics such as work-life balance, as well as tutorials, in which they learn about an instrument or technique. In addition to working with the larger group, students also participate in remote activities with their individual labs. 

The changes to programs’ formats, sometimes made last minute, have created confusion for some students who may be uncertain how, or even if, an internship will take place.  

This summer, Faith Chen, a rising senior at Cornell University, is using funding from Cornell to get lab experience in inorganic chemistry at another institution. But about a week before a delayed start date, she wasn’t certain of the format. “So, my assumption is that it’ll be all virtual because they only are allowed to have a few people in the lab at a time,” says Chen, a chemistry and chemical biology major. She planned to reach out to clarify but felt guilty because “I feel like all researchers are under a lot of stress right now.”

Meanwhile, after Bar’s chemical engineering internship was canceled, he at first thought he had another offer to replace it: working on a biochemistry project with the US Naval Research Laboratory. However, believing this internship would fall through too, he began looking for other positions. On June 3, after he had found work at the bioengineering lab and the therapeutics company, he received an offer for a virtual internship with the NRL. “While the process was stressful, in the end I was just grateful to have a bunch of opportunities,” Bar says.

Some institutions are choosing to split the difference between on-site and remote work. Before the pandemic, Josephson, at Ecolab, had planned to work with her intern to examine how ingredients in hand soap affect its antibacterial properties. Months later, the internship and project are still going forward, but with much less lab time. 

Instead of coming into the lab 5 days a week for 12 weeks, the intern will now come in about twice a week for 8 weeks. Josephson also significantly reworked the project, eliminating experiments and bringing in old data. The intern will have plenty do while working at home, such as orientation, training, data analysis, and meetings, including networking events, she says.

Josephson sees a benefit to the changes. “After the pandemic is over, we will still have a large component of virtual work,” she says. “It’s a good time to start getting used to that.”

Others, too, see this as an opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons. The chemical company LyondellBasell Industries was among those to cancel its internship program. Chuck Holland, a site manager with the company, suggests that changes like this give students an opportunity to explore and to reflect. “What I would ask as an interviewer after this summer is, ‘What did you do with your time?’ ” he says. “That question would give me insight into the student’s character and their motivations as an individual.”

How to get the most out of a disrupted summer

A dream internship may have been canceled, or a research project went from lab-based to remote, but no matter how much COVID-19 has interfered with summer plans, there are ways students can continue working toward their goals.

Keep learning

Maybe you can’t work at the bench or in a plant, but you can still develop important skills. Cheri Barta, undergraduate research director at University of Wisconsin–Madison, suggests asking how you can make yourself a stronger applicant for the next step in your career. The answer could be learning how to design a website, practicing writing, or reading scientific literature, she says.

Potential resources that can help you gain skills include virtual classrooms and webinars offered by ACS and other professional societies, and online courses offered by MIT or Coursera, as well as LinkedIn Learning, which you may be able to access through your institution. Consider joining the CSN’s weekly professional development series, which runs through July.  

Make connections

Tascha Knowlton, academic advising coordinator for chemistry at the University of Utah, recommends using your time over the summer to network—meaning reaching out to potential research advisers, employers, and others, such as your programs’ alumni, in the field that interests you. Whether you’re sending out emails or messages on LinkedIn, making these connections can give you a leg up on your search, Knowlton says. “That's how you get a job, and that's how you make opportunities happen just by knowing people.”

Some institutions, like the University of Utah, will begin on-campus classes again in the fall and are beginning to reopen labs, so opportunities for lab-based research could be available as early as the fall. “I still encourage [students] to reach out, as they may be able to read literature and make plans for future projects, as well as attend virtual group meetings,” Knowlton says.

For those interested in virtual research, she recommends reaching out to groups working in computational chemistry, which is more easily conducted remotely.

Arrange informational interviews

Likewise, if you are looking to land an internship down the line, you can start preparing now. Knowlton and others recommend informational interviews. Unlike job interviews, these are informal conversations with potential employers in which you can get information about the field and the positions available, as well as introduce yourself. Students can use informational interviews to build a network of contacts to whom they can reach out once they are ready to find a job or internship, she says.

Many institutions have career centers dedicated to helping students land internships and jobs. She and others recommend leaning on the career center to set up informational interviews, learn about openings, polish your resume, and improve your job-hunting skills.

Explore new options

Holland, the site manager at LyondellBasell, recommends taking the time to consider career alternatives by researching trends in industry, such as sustainability or solar technologies. Perhaps what you find will motivate you to do something beyond the standard academic path, such as declaring a minor or taking specialized courses, he says. Or, he suggests pursuing a passion, such as art or volunteering. “It still grows you as a person and it shows some character,” he says. “These are some of the things that I would listen for as a hiring manager.”

For those looking to learn about career options, next month @ACSUndergrad will run the  #JulyJobTour challenge on Twitter in which students name jobs they can get with a bachelor’s degree.    

Consider letting future employers or advisers know about canceled opportunities

Earning a spot in a competitive program like the REU program is an accomplishment, so it’s OK to list it on your résumé—just make sure to make it clear that the program was canceled, Barta says. When evaluating applications, one of the questions that will be asked, she says, “is not only what you did with this time, but also what your plans were going to be.”

NACE offers some other suggestions too, such as mentioning it on your LinkedIn profile or working it into your cover letter.

Finally, keep perspective

Remember, the pandemic has disrupted students’ lives across the world, “so [don’t] stress out that you're losing an opportunity that somebody else might have,” Barta says. “We're all just trying to manage this together.”

If the disruption has caused you to question whether the path you had envisioned for yourself is feasible, Mary Jo Ondrechen, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University who is running a virtual REU program this summer, has a response: “I say don't give up your dreams. We'll get through this.” 

This article is copublished in C&EN magazine.