Are Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) the way forward when applying for internships?

I am currently undertaking a summer internship at an SME within the chemical industry called Reach Separations and before I submitted my application I hadn’t even heard of them. Whilst browsing through their twitter feed I came across a very thought-provoking article written by a biochemist and science blogger for the Guardian. The article outlined how vital but challenging it is for science students to find internships. As a chemistry student I understand the importance of obtaining lab experience and how hard it can be to do so, nevertheless there are opportunities out there. Yes, while I sit at my desk on my paid summer internship at Reach Separations it is easy for me to say that obtaining lab experience is possible. However during the four years of my degree I have found there are many chances to gain valuable experience in your field if you know where to look.

When applying for internships the first port of call is usually schemes organised by large companies, unfortunately these can be very competitive. Reach Separations is an SME specialising in purification and chromatography within the medicinal and agriculture chemistry industries and has found a home in the Nottingham Bioincubator, BioCity. Bioincubators are home to around half of the UK’s emerging bioscience companies and house between 5 and 50 different firms. Bioincubators offer flexible office and laboratory spaces which enable life science companies to conduct their research and business in the same location.

When applying for internships SMEs should not be overlooked, Bioincubators like BioCity can be the perfect place for undertaking a placement and gaining both lab and business experience. BioCity Nottingham contains over 50 companies that I, a local student, had no previous knowledge of. However, each of these has the potential to offer invaluable experience within their industries. Placements in small companies often expose students to cutting-edge technologies, allowing them to work on emerging products such as innovative drugs or new analytical techniques. In an SME you have more chance to be closely involved in the employer’s whole business process and gain a real insight into how they operate. A laboratory based intern here at Reach Separations expresses that he has been given significant duties as an important member of the small, dedicated team.

In a smaller organisation a spare pair of hands can undertake tasks no-one else has time for. Hopefully, I am providing Reach with an extra person to look at issues such as competitor analysis, marketing and market research, while the rest of the team are busy working hard on the core business and in the lab. This also gives me invaluable insight into the side of the business outside the lab.

Reach Separations often take on placement students and express how valuable they can be to their business. Phil Abbott, Technical Director states "All of the placement students we take on contribute positively to the business in one way or another. By having access to students whilst they are still undergraduates we are essentially getting a preview of the best talent our universities are delivering."

Reach Separations currently have a work experience student who has just completed his AS levels and will be applying to universities in September. Even a week-long placement here has offered him a priceless experience. He’s even getting the chance to visit some of the other companies on site.

Whatever stage you are in your science career, you may be deciding what to do once you leave education, or trying to gain some experience during your degree to put on your CV, a placement will always be extremely valuable.

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