Summer Internships

Author:  Nathan Brightbill
Date:  December 1998

You may be sweating it out over Fall Semester finals or enjoying the holiday season, but believe it or not, it's time to start thinking about the coming summer! Summer scientific internships at universities, laboratories, and companies have become as integral to college education as the regular school year, helping students determine possible career paths and gain invaluable experience. Unfortunately, landing the right internship can be an exercise in frustration, aimlessness, and good old fashioned luck.

Locating a suitable program and getting hired does require a lot of research and work, even though the fields of science probably offer more summer opportunities than any other discipline.

Application deadlines are typically in January, February and March, so this is a project to which one should devote a fair amount of time over Thanksgiving and winter breaks. Jenny Mu, a biomedical engineering major of Johns Hopkins University, notes that her experience has been that the earlier you start looking around, the more opportunities you will find.

While the internet is a great place to start, don't forget that talking to people is also one of the best ways to obtain useful information. Talk to professors at your own school or other schools who work in your field of interest. They may provide you with good leads or have positions open in their labs. The Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program (REU) sites, funded by the National Science Foundation, contains hundreds of opportunities at colleges and universities around the U.S. Students can also gain immediate access to any company or national laboratory and find out if they have an internship policy. One such laboratory is Los Alamos, which has a very structured program in which about 1,600 students are employed during the summer. They are also instituting a mentoring program to further ensure that students are getting the kind of experience they want.

But with the increased use of the internet, one should not forget that talking with people is still the best way to get the most useful information and ideas. Talking to professors at your own or other schools, who work in your field of interest, may provide good leads or they may even have a position open.

On average, only about 10-15% of applicants are accepted into any one program.

While academic performance is of course a factor, it is important to get noticed above the sea of applicants.

Not much can be done to improve your qualifications by the time applications are due. But what you can do is contact the people who will be making the hiring decisions. Ask questions about their work and show them your interest. This has become much easier through the use of e-mail. Though a phone call can be impressive, it can also be a little nerve-wracking if you don't feel comfortable with cold calls. E-mail allows you to take the time to say and ask exactly what you want, and assures that the person will get your message fairly quickly. You will generally receive a timely response.

Carol Hogsett, GRA Representative at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) explained,

"Grade point is only part of the requirement when staff search for students to come here. It really helps if the student shows some initiative. We always encourage students to be pro-active in the job search. As with landing any job, it's up to the student to network and make the necessary contacts . . . in the student's area of interest."

Personal recognition between the student and employer can be more helpful than an outstanding academic record, although one's record does at least need to be within their guidelines. Mu notes that "there's nothing like enthusiasm and a personal touch to get you through the lab door."

Ken Libbrecht, who heads the LIGO REU program at Cal Tech, advises that students might also consider doing more with the application than answering simply what is asked for.

"It is often helpful if students include things not specifically asked for in the application, if it puts them in a good light."

By taking initiative students might also find work where it may not have previously existed. Carolyn Bentley, a student at the University of Arizona, recommends that, if you hear of a position or company that really interests you, sometimes you can inquire directly about internships, sometimes creating one for yourself.

Applying for internships should be done as early in the college career as possible because one or possibly even two summers may not give enough of an idea of what area you want to pursue. "Personally, I believe it's valuable to get a taste of all the different internship settings as soon as you can," Mu said. "The most important thing to understand about internships is that it's all about trial-and-error and discovering your strengths and preferences."