Going into her first and second years, she wasn’t sure what type of career she wanted or how she could get there, but she knew she was interested in biology.
Between semesters learning about everything from the diversity of life to the cellular makeup of organisms, she was faced with the same challenge as all other university students: she had to find a summer job.
Over the warmer months, Frances worked in jobs ranging from retail to fundraising for a nature conservation group. While she generally aimed for positions that were related to her academic interests, like the fundraising job, she couldn’t always afford to be picky. “I was more willing to just settle on a job and make money for the summer, given that jobs in and outside of my field were few and far between,” she says.
Looking back, Frances says that “getting your foot in the door and getting that initial experience” is the biggest challenge facing students trying to get summer jobs in science. It wasn’t until the summer after her third year that Frances was able to get into a biology lab as a summer research assistant at Queen’s.
Being able to put that research assistant position on her resume opened up future opportunities for Frances. Since she now had experience, she was offered a fourth-year thesis project in the same lab where she had spent the summer. And this was more than a summer job. Doing her thesis project in the lab involved completing an intensive research course where Frances learned how to write a thesis first hand. The course load is so heavy that it’s worth more credits than the average class.
“Without the summer job, I likely wouldn’t have been as well-prepared for the honours thesis, and may not have even been able to do a thesis at all,” she says.
When it came to applying for graduate school, Frances says that having experience in a professional science environment demonstrated that she could conduct independent research and also gave her the necessary references for the application process.
“Positions like the one I had look great on a resume or CV, regardless of whether you are applying to graduate or professional school, or entering the workforce,” she says.
Though things worked out for her, Frances acknowledges that it’s hard to land that first science-related summer job.
“I would definitely encourage students to approach professors early in the year about volunteer opportunities, if they are interested in some aspect of their research,” she says, adding that work-study and undergraduate research funding (e.g., Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Undergraduate Student Research Awards) can also be great ways to get your first foot in the lab.
“Knowing where to look and what is required early on is also important – before the application process starts,” says the Queen’s graduate, who is now a PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department of the University of Toronto. “Approaching professors or graduate students (e.g., teaching assistants) in September or October can really help when it comes to applying to summer jobs in January and February.”