Getting a Job at CERN - Students
Updated: Oct 2, 2019
CERN currently houses the worlds largest particle physics laboratory. It was first established in 1954 and is comprised of 22 European member states plus Israel. CERN employ approximately 2,500 full time scientific, technical and administrative staff, and benefit approximately 12,000 users - visiting scientists. CERN also offer approximately 3000 places to 'students', the majority of this figure includes fellows - phd students completing their thesis at CERN. However, roughly 300 of these places are PAID short term positions for undergraduate/masters students and are offered via a variety of programmes;
- Technical Student Programme
- Administrative Student Programme
- Summer Student Programme
- OpenLab Summer Student Programme
- Short Term Internship Programme
All of the above require an applicant to be a full time student, registered at their home university/institution and remaining registered for the entire duration of the programme at CERN. Both the technical and administrative programmes take place for a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 12 months and will provide you with real hands on work experience on a real life project at CERN whether that be physics based, engineering based or administration based, this is usually completed as a placement year abroad within an applicants undergraduate studies. The summer student and the OpenLab programmes, however are a set duration of 8 - 13 weeks and are more like summer school. OpenLab focusses on an IT based project and Summer Student on a Physics or Engineering based project. These programmes run alongside each other and include an extensive lecture series, several internal and external visits to CERN facilities as well as workshops and talks. If you're just looking to experience life at CERN then this is probably for you.
Lastly, the short term internship programme (this is what I'm on). The short term internship programme is a bit of a gem really. I didn't realise how much I'd lucked out until I got here! The programme is pretty fluid and is based on your interests and skill set as well as the full time CERN staff team that you will be placed into. Initially you submit a generic application form but specify a desired subject area. You are usually placed in a department or section to reflect this. You will agree with your supervisor beforehand, the work that needs to be carried out throughout your time and this work generally does not contribute towards your academic studies. You will work in a team of permanent staff and fellows at CERN on a real project currently being undertaken by your team.
In my case, I was placed in a team with civil engineers and geophysicists. My team covered; Tunnel Asset Management and preparation of the LHC for the Hi Luminosity upgrade, Physics beyond Colliders, Future Circular Collider Feasability Studies and Compact Linear Collider Feasibility Studies.
The student programmes combined are the most competitive programmes offered by CERN. Every year CERN receives thousands upon thousands of applications from students all over the world. Approximately 250 candidates are eventually selected from over 8000 applications. However, don't be put off by this. I didn't actually get onto a programme the first time I applied. So as the cringey saying goes... If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!
So how to get a job...?
First of all you need to decide what you want to get out of an experience at CERN. Undoubtedly, no matter what you do at CERN, it will look amazing on your CV. You need to think about, what will keep you engaged the most, and ultimately what will help you to develop and learn the most. Take time to think carefully about this.
Once you’ve thought about it, you’re ready to proceed onto the next stage...
Checking your eligibility (That you're still a student or sponsored by your home institution for the duration of your time at CERN).
Depending on which position you're applying for, you need to double check whether your country of residence is a member or non-member state of CERN as this can affect the roles open to you as well as the length of time you can spend at CERN. You can check your country's status here
You've done your research, you know which type of position you'd like to apply for and now you're ready to start the application form.
Applications for positions generally open in Winter and close around January of the same year you are applying for the position. You will have an element of flexibility in terms of when you would like to work and I would definitely recommend opting for your time to incorporate the months of July and August as not only are there some pretty cool Summer events taking place in the Geneva area at this time, this is also the main month of the student lecture series where CERN staff and visiting scientists will present on all aspects of CERN and the work they are carrying out - these take place every day throughout the summer, they’re open to anyone at CERN and are so worth attending!
The application form has actually changed recently to a smart recruiters system which is actually so much easier. The following sections will pop up on the form and are required to be filled in:
- Personal Information (Basic personal details)
- Experience (Any relevant work experience, projects, hobbies, clubs or societies)
- Education (Basic educational information)
- Links to websites such as LinkedIn, Facebook & Twitter
- CV and Motivation Letter
At the bottom of the page there is also an option to write a message to your hiring manager. This is essentially a casual kind of cover letter so don't overlook it. This is your opportunity to write anything that you may not have been able to place in a previous category as well as demonstrating your ability to tie up all of your skills and show how they all compliment each other and would benefit your work at CERN.
A word of advice would be to draft all of your answers out on a word document first as many of the sections have word/character counts.
After you have completed the first page, you will then move onto the second page and a real bulk of the application. You really need to think carefully about your answers here as this is what the CERN recruiters are really looking at. What makes you stand out from the crowd? Are you going to change the world and do you have a plan to do so? This is what they want to see!
Throughout this page there will be a few more questions regarding your personal information; gender, nationality etc. As well as a section on the languages you speak. French and English are the 2 official languages of CERN so it is mandatory to speak at least one of these fluently and desirable to have an understanding at least of the other. Though my French is rather shabby and I still get by. Regardless, do not lie whatever you do as you will get caught out! If your hiring manager rings you up and conducts your interview in French because you said you were fluent when you're not, you're going to be a little bit screwed! This section allows you to rate your language skills so be honest here.
The next section requires you to list your main field of studies which is pretty straight forward.
Following this however, you are asked to write about your motivation for applying in 1440 characters. You will see on ongoing theme throughout the application of ‘motivation to apply’, the key here is to subtly link them all together, whilst also adding something different each time. These motivation sections really are make or break and are what sets you apart from other candidates. How you articulate yourself in these sections will determine whether you are offered a position, so make them count! Also be sure to check your answers for any mistakes before you press submit. I know it sounds like a given, but I’ve sent so many applications off without fully checking the spelling and grammar and it just looks unprofessional. You need to give yourself the best chance of success.
After this, you will then be required to select from a list of options which area You have sufficient knowledge and/or experience to make an operational contribution. Following this, you are then asked to discuss the reasons behind your choice as well as stating interest in any specific topics. Again for both of these sections you have 1440 characters. This is your opportunity to sell the skills you have and link them to the work of CERN, so you need to do your research here to impress them with your knowledge.
The next step concerns any programming languages or operating systems you are familiar with. You will need to provide information on whether you have been taught this information through university or school or whether it is self taught. You can also discuss how competent you are with certain software, the extent of your experience of writing code and whether you have completed any dedicated tasks or projects.
The last stage requires you to answer some generic questions relating to CERN, how long you want to work for them, have you previously worked for them and it is also here that you can attach any additional documents they ask for such as proof of student status from your academic institution, academic transcript etc. You need to submit all documents at this point as you cannot return to the site once you have submitted the form.
Once that’s all sorted then you’re ready to hit submit! Be sure to double check everything before doing so, including your documents. Make sure the motivation sections are as strong as possible and you honestly believe you couldn’t have put more into it. Thousands of people are applying for the same position as you so you really need to know in your heart that you have attempted the application as best as you possibly can. If you don’t happen to be successful first time round, then there is always next year so don’t be put out. Some of the best people get in second time round anyway! 😉
Last of all... Good luck!!