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"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

By Scott Kariya, Contributing Editor

Ben Weatherman 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 August. 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.

Not all 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.

The biggest 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 factor."

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 last summer.

When assessing 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.

Once you've 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 directions.

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 caching."

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 gripe.

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.

Treat the 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.

Here, your approach is critical. "Be assertive but not obnoxious," advises Samer Hamadeh, coauthor of The Internship Bible and cofounder of the careers Web site 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 thing."



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