"What I Did Last Summer"
An internship gives you a leg up in the job market, but be
sure you make the most of it
Kariya, Contributing Editor
is under the gun. Customers of National Instruments, an Austin,
Texas, maker of PC- and network-based testing and automation
systems, have been demanding a clock synchronization feature for the
company's new real-time measuring products. The Ethernet-based
solution that Ben is developing must overcome interfering network
signal traffic and pesky timing delays that cause tiny but
significant miscues—no mean feat. But Ben is confident he can finish
the project in three months. He has to—his summer internship ends in
Internships like Ben's offer engineering students a unique
window into the real-world workplace and can help students make
better career decisions. In the current employment landscape, that
on-the-job experience can also prove invaluable. The National
Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE, Bethlehem, Pa.)
reports a 36.4 percent drop in hiring of recent college grads, who
in many cases are competing for fewer openings with more experienced
unemployed workers. But accomplishments like Ben's can make all the
difference when prospective employers are sifting through endless
résumés in search of qualified candidates.
Different companies, different goals
Commercial firms typically use internships to evaluate
prospective employees, a kind of try-before-you-buy arrangement.
National Instruments' goal is to hire 25 percent of its interns
after they graduate, while IBM Corp. generally hires a third of its
interns. In NACE's Job Outlook 2002 survey, employers rated their
internship programs more effective at recruiting new hires than
on-campus hiring or even their own Web site. [See "10
Top Internship Programs for EE Students"]
There may also
be a more immediate objective: interns can be a cheap way to get
work done. "We're not looking for a long-term investment—we're
looking for a short-term return," is how Joe Marks puts it. Marks is
head of Cambridge Research Labs (Cambridge, Mass.), owned by
Mitsubishi Electric Co. Interns with specific academic or lab
experience are typically assigned to high-priority projects,
creating a temporary team to tackle immediate and specific technical
problems. Choice internship slots can also be a reward that firms
hand out to the academic partners with whom they collaborate on
research projects. "It's one of the carrots we have to dangle in
front of them," says Marks.
internships for engineers are strictly technical in nature. Each
summer, the Washington Internship for Students of Engineering
(WISE), of which the IEEE is a sponsor, brings 16 promising
engineering students to Washington, D.C., to investigate how
government officials decide complex technology issues. In this
largely unstructured program, students choose their own topics, like
third-generation wireless technologies or rural broadband access,
then interview relevant legislators and bureaucrats, and finally
write a public policy paper.
lesson is typically the triumph of politics over technology, an
eye-opening experience for many interns. Erin File, an electrical
engineering intern from Ohio, was surprised to learn first-hand that
legislators "made decisions based on what their constituents or
[political] party wanted. The technical issues didn't seem to be a
Find the right fit
Making the most of an
internship starts, and ends, with initiative [see "An
Intern Checklist"]. Researching available internships can be
done on the Internet, in a library, or through career placement
centers. Savvy students also query professors and fellow students.
Some of the choicest positions are not advertised anywhere; instead,
intern recruiters ask professors they know to recommend their top
students. "We receive a lot of unsolicited résumés but very, very
rarely take people from that list," confides the head of one
corporate-sponsored research facility.
A tip from her advisor clued Olga Karpenko, a computer
science Ph.D. candidate at Brown University, into Cambridge Research
Labs and the labs' pioneering work in three-dimensional computer
graphics. She contacted researchers there directly, and her résumé
caught the eye of Ramesh Raskar, who hired her for an internship
internships, consider fall, spring, or multiterm programs. Although
not as plentiful as their summer counterparts, non-summer programs
are less competitive, so you may actually have more choices.
Moreover, an extended non-summer internship often allows more
complex and satisfying work.
Rick Cordaro, an
electrical engineering major at Iowa State University, doesn't
regret having worked at IBM's optical engineering facilities last
fall, even though it means he'll be graduating a semester late. His
work on testing and evaluating 10-Gb/s optical Ethernet transceivers
let him work with "highly technical people from the best schools,"
he says. A summer internship wouldn't have been long enough. "It
probably took me three months just to become proficient at what I
was doing, let alone get good at it."
Ready to work
In a short, work-packed
internship, a bit of advance preparation shortens the learning
curve. Olga Karpenko, the MERL 3-D graphics intern, met with her
manager several weeks before her start date. "He gave me a couple of
papers to read so I could get a better idea of the projects," she
said. "I wanted to get a head start." It paid off. Her summer
research led to her coauthoring a research paper that will be
published in the Eurographics 2002 proceedings.
started working, don't let your initiative stop. Seek out and
introduce yourself to co-workers and managers. Advice from
experienced workers in your intended field can be valuable not just
in completing the tasks at hand, but also in setting your career
Make sure that
you know specifically what is required of you, and then do your best
to do more. Well-managed companies rate employees' performance with
grades; typically the lowest acceptable rating is "meets
requirements." Top workers earn a rating of "consistently exceeds
requirements," and outstanding interns will do likewise. Shawn Liu,
a manager at National Instruments and himself a former intern,
recalled how one intern made a lasting impression. Assigned to speed
up the reading and writing of data to disk drives, the intern took
it further, Liu recalls: "We wanted a 15x performance increase, and
he took it to thousands. He also added more features, more file
Take this internship and...
But what if your
internship doesn't live up to your expectations? Harried managers
often assign their most boring, thankless tasks to neophyte interns.
Or there's the problem of no work. "I've heard about other interns
who went to companies that couldn't keep them busy," says EE-to-be
Cordaro. "They'd sit at their desks for five hours playing
solitaire." And most interns, new, unsure, and eager, are loath to
If you're handed
a lousy assignment, experts suggest first trying to understand the
work, how it came about, and how it fits into the overall business
environment. Testing, for example, may seem monotonous, but knowing
how undetected flaws can unseat a whole product may give it new
relevance. Designers of the Hubble Space Telescope suffered
tremendous embarrassment when it was discovered to have a flawed
main mirror, later fixed by Space Shuttle astronauts making an
orbital house call.
assignment as a problem and approach it with different strategies.
Maybe you can discover a new way to complete the assignment that
will become the new standard for others. And don't be afraid to ask
your supervisor for additional or different duties. He or she may
have no idea you're unhappy.
approach is critical. "Be assertive but not obnoxious," advises
Samer Hamadeh, coauthor of The Internship Bible and cofounder of the
careers Web site Vault.com. Arrange for a one-on-one meeting,
explain how you've tried to address the problem, and offer
alternatives that can satisfy both your objectives and the
company's. Remember that internships frequently lead to permanent
employment. Here's a chance for you and the company to see how the
other solves problems and decide if a permanent working relationship
is a good thing to pursue.
Back to Ben
Weatherman, the National Instruments intern. When he graduates from
Iowa State next spring, his résumé will boast the
clock-synchronization project, along with several earlier projects
building device drivers and automated test suites. To potential
employers, these real-world accomplishments demonstrate that his 3.9
grade-point average in computer engineering isn't just book smarts.
Ben predicts he will return to National Instruments after
graduation. "With this economy," he says, "it's a very comforting
ILLUSTRATIONS: DAN VASCONCELLOS