Young female scientist
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10 pieces of advice from science graduates

17 Nov 2016

New graduates have probably heard plenty of sage advice from their professors and lecturers, received guidance from their families and insider knowledge from long-standing members of the science community. But they might still not know what it’s really like out there for fresh new science graduates.

After four or more years studying and training as scientists in the safety of their college building, new graduates are suddenly brought out into the real world, expected to have their next plan of action at the ready.

New graduates might have an idea of where they want to work. They may have decided they want to further their study. They could even have a position lined up. But what is it really like for brand new science graduates with their degrees in hand?

Experts, lecturers and respected scientists might be able to talk to you about the industry as a whole, but how long has it been since they themselves were fresh-faced science graduates? That’s why we spoke to five young scientists who graduated in the last few years to pass on their pearls of wisdom about what they’ve learned since leaving college.

Go straight to recruitment agents

Katherine O’Gorman graduated in 2014 with a degree in biotechnology. If there’s one thing she’s noticed from working in the industry for a couple of years, it’s that her jobs so far haven’t required a specific science degree. “I could have done any of my jobs with a biology degree or a chemistry degree or an environmental science degree. I have yet to work in a job where they have specifically asked for a biotechnologist.”

O’Gorman currently works as a quality control analyst for MP Biomedicals in New Zealand. She advises new graduates to go to recruitment agents when applying to large companies, as she says that’s how they normally look for graduates.

“You waste a lot of time applying for things online and sending CVs to companies when you’re actually not going to hear back from them. Look at recruitment agents if you’re looking at the bigger companies to save some time, especially if you’re a new graduate with no experience.”

Apply, even if you don’t have experience

24-year-old Jordan Traynor also praised recruiters and advises new graduates to apply for any jobs they like, even if they don’t have the specified experience. “What you’ll find when you start job hunting is that most jobs request two or more years’ experience.”

Traynor, who now works as a sample management and antibody purification analyst in the biopharma industry, says she frequently thought she was underqualified and never even bothered applying.

“A recruiter told me that people who have the desired experience often don’t apply for such roles as they are seeking something with more of a challenge or wish to change roles completely. Chances are, the recruiter will look at your CV and give you a chance at an interview as they recognise that every student needs to start somewhere.”

From working in the industry for a couple of years, Traynor has learned that the size of the company you work for can give you very different experiences. She cited that, while working for a large multinational company will be impressive on your CV, you could end up in a very specific role. “You’re doing more or less the same thing, day in day out, for as long as you stay in that role. This can become very mundane, unchallenging and a struggle,” she says.

Broaden your skill set

Not all science graduates end up in labs. Steven O’Connell is the associate director and programme manager of IndieBio EU, the world’s first synthetic biology accelerator. Like Traynor, O’Connell wishes he knew not to be disconcerted by entry-level jobs that appear to require two or more years’ experience. “Apply anyway and show what makes you special enough to become part of their team,” he said.

He also advises new graduates to learn new skills outside of science. “Broadening your skill set will make you more employable. Skills like business, finance, marketing, sales, social media and even coding if you have a knack for it.” If the jobs out there don’t tickle your fancy, O’Connell suggests “getting your own team together and build a world-changing start up”.

Networking is more powerful than your grades

Shama Chilakwad has a bachelor’s degree in genetics and a master’s degree in biotechnology, both from UCC. She says she didn’t realise the importance of networking early enough, but she got her current job as an associate scientist in London through those very connections. “They’re more powerful than your grades.”

Even if you haven’t had a chance to network while in college, now is the time to maintain connections you made during your time in college, while you’re still a new graduate. “Be confident in what you know and speak to people who are working in fields you would like to be a part of, whether that is in person, via email or LinkedIn.”

Take your time

Not all graduates head straight to industry. In fact, many science graduates in particular, head straight into research. Alan Costello is a PhD student at the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology. According to Costello, if there was one thing he wish he knew about before heading into his PhD, it would have been about the heartbreak. “As a PhD student or research scientist, your job is to challenge the boundaries of knowledge in a very niche area. This inevitably leads to a lot of failure.”

He also says life in academia is not comfortable, with contracts that are short-term and academic positions few and far between. “Jobs arise so infrequently, most likely due to someone’s death or them being forced to retire.” Costello’s major piece of advice for new graduates is to take their time. “You don’t have to jump on the first opportunity that comes your way, especially those who wish to pursue a career in research. Short-term internships are a great way to get your foot in the door of a lab,” he says.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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