Monday, February 8, 2010

The Importance of Internships

My path in grad school was definitely not a straight one. I've had quite some adventures that I now think of as fortunate events (they didn't really feel that way when they happened :) ). All in all, I didn't have time to do more than one internship and that happened late in my PhD (I went last year for a long internship with Intel @ Santa Clara).

I received today an email about an internship that I would have really-really liked to apply for. You know how it is: the perfect internship at the impossible time. I'm very tempted, but I was reminded that I should focus on my list of priorities and that means finishing the work for my PhD thesis this month.

Oh, well, what else can I do than write a post about why I think internships are important and why you should do a couple with different companies.

Like everything in life, there are pros and there are cons. I'll start with the pros.

Few of the pros:

  • New Environment: I can't stress enough the importance of getting exposed to new environments as early as possible in your PhD. New environments means new people, new ideas, renewed excitement, learning, networking and - why not? - new friendships. 
  • Company Culture: I didn't understand this one until I got to experience -first-hand - the culture of a company. One extremely important requirement for you to enjoy your job and be successful at it is to be in line with the company value system. Allow me a joke: it's like marriage: doomed to fail unless there is a serious overlap in the value system of the two. Same thing with working for a company. You don't appreciate what they're after, you won't find motivation to put in the work, you won't have fun, and you won't succeed at your job. There is no other way you can understand and learn the culture of the company than working there. You get to see what gets rewarded, what they are shooting for and how they do it. In other words, you learn the definition of success and the means to obtain it. And needless to say, companies are not all the same, hence you should plan for at least two internships in different companies.
  • Publications: If you plan your internship carefully and with the adequate amount of luck, you can get out of there with a publication or the idea for a publication. If that doesn't happen, you gain some experience on doing research on something else than your thesis. 
  • Fun: Let's admit it, all companies have great locations for their internships and they also pay you quite well. So... you are in a new place with resources (read money) for traveling. What are you waiting for?
Some cons:
  • Time: If you're not so lucky (I wasn't...), you may end up working on something unrelated to your thesis that - most likely - you won't even be allowed to talk about externally. All this means that you may feel at times that your time was wasted. I have to admit, I was tempted to feel that I wasted precious time during my internship. It's true that I would have finished my PhD earlier (in this economy, I'm not so sure it would have been a good idea :P), but the experience and the confidence that I've gained in my internship wouldn't have happened otherwise. I got to play with cutting edge tools in my research domain that I have no access to otherwise. I got to see what "real" industry is interested in and how they approach their ideas. I got to see what type of work gets appreciated. I understood the different career paths that you can have inside that company. And I understood what it means and what it takes to be working for Intel. 
  • Supervisors: Reality is not all supervisors are supportive of their students' internships. This is a delicate matter, but I'm sure there are ways to deal with it. Ultimately, your supervisor should be interested in your professional development and you can clearly make a case that an internship would add value to your portfolio.
  • Loss of Momentum: This is one I'm still dealing with... It takes time to swing back into your schedule and research rhythm. It takes time until you ramp up again and feel productive back in school. Again, this depends on your particular situation, and I argue this con is worth dealing with.
My .02$ on the matter: try to do a couple of internships early in your PhD. Enjoy the benefits, work around the cons and take advantage of the opportunity of meeting and analyzing your future employer up close and personal. One tip that not everyone is willing to share is this: go for a short internship (3.5 months). If interest is on both sides, internships can be extended so easily. Good luck and have fun!

Update: You never know when you receive an email from your internship manager asking you if you're interested in a full time position before the announcement about the available position goes public...


  1. Thanks for the post! I also have to decide within tomorrow whether to accept an internship. The problem is that it would mean a 50% cut in my salary for 5 months. Additionally, the company already told me they could offer a job afterwards, so I risk to never finish my bloody PhD..

  2. Thanks for leaving a comment.

    The pay cut is unfortunate. Usually, for North America, going for internships means a pay increase. As for finishing the PhD, motivation is key. Good luck!