Your first internship will be the toughest to get. As a 2nd year physics major I applied to 22 internships, and was not accepted into a single one. The next year I applied to 23, and was accepted in only one, which was at NASA!
From there, the opportunities rolled in. Between 2011 and 2014 I completed 1 summer internship at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (2011), 1 year-long internship at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) (2012), 1 summer internship at Boeing in El Segundo (2013), and 1 summer internship at Boeing in Huntington Beach (2014).
Why get an internship?
If you don’t know what career you want to have or what organization you want to intern with, that’s ok! Simply getting any internship opportunity and figuring out what you like and don’t like is part of the experience. Look at me: I interned in a large government organization (NASA) and then large corporation (Boeing) (both in aerospace), and decided to find employment in energy-storage-related start-up companies. I used my internships to figure out where I enjoyed working.
Also, realize that as an intern the bar is low. They typically don’t expect you to know anything, and just want you to be willing to learn and grow.
There are so many reasons to intern with companies while in college. I’ll name 3 for fun.
1. You learn TONS (and get paid)
You work daily with those experienced in your field, learning not only technical skills and knowledge but also what it is like to be employed at a company. You learn about different career paths, networking, office politics, the systems of corporations and governments, management, and more. You also learn the type of work you like doing and the type you dislike doing. It makes applying for your first job out of college less intimidating because you know what to expect.
Since it is like a real job, especially if you are working in engineering or tech, you will get paid. For NASA I was making basically minimum wage at ~$8.25 per hour, but at Boeing I made about ~$35/hour, which is close to an annual salary of $73,000. Boeing even gave me a bonus at the end of the year!
2. You get your foot (or leg) in the door for a job
Interning at a company is perhaps the easiest way to get hired full-time at that company. It’s like a long-form interview where they get to know you and you them. In the case that you do not want to work for the company you interned for, other companies still value your internship experience, which helps you stand out as a candidate.
3. You will make life-long friends
At each internship I met incredible people who have become life-long friends and colleagues. It has been a pleasure to see them all grow and thrive in their careers over the years!
How to get an internship
I’ll break down how to get an internship into 2 categories: traditional and non-traditional.
Traditional ways to get internship:
- Apply online
Companies and organizations sometimes advertise internship opportunities on their website, and you can apply there. Notice I said “sometimes”. Many internship opportunities are actually created with someone already in mind for the internship (my first Boeing internship happened that way). This means that many openings for internships on companies’ and organizations’ websites are actually not open for everyone. Because of that, do not feel ashamed or like you were not good enough if you apply online and aren’t accepted. Perhaps they did not even consider you because they had already chosen a candidate and put the posting as a formality.
If you do apply online, you should ALWAYS contact people at the company directly (LinkedIn or email), introduce yourself, attach your resume, and share that you applied for the internship position in a cover-letter-like message.
- University provides opportunity
This is how I started interning at NASA JPL. My university was located in Southern California and had a list of internship opportunities for students provided by JPL. I applied to one on the list and was accepted. My semester-long internship was extended into the summer because they liked me and I liked the experience, which ended up extending further into the Fall semester until I graduated in December 2012! They wanted me to continue interning in my gap between undergrad and grad school, but, long story short, I wasn’t able to intern when I was not a student.
Usually university-provided opportunities are local to the university.
- Ask professors or advisors if they know of opportunities
Professors are often connected with a vast network inside and outside of academia. Growing a professional relationship with them while taking their classes, and then asking them if they know of any internship opportunities could be a simple way of getting an internship. Plus, if they are very supportive of you, they will likely lead you towards more supportive opportunities.
- Ask your network
In addition to your professors, make a LinkedIn account and start connecting with people who you aspire to be like. People typically love helping students and talking about their career path. Asking people you admire or people working for organizations you want to work for if they know of any internship opportunities.
Non-traditional ways to get an internship:
- Present your project/research at every opportunity
In my last semester of college, I presented my honors-program research on fuel cell materials at my university’s College of Natural Science and Mathematics poster presentation. I did not have to present, and it felt like a waste of time since I knew the event would be sparsely populated. I presented anyway because I took every opportunity to speak and present.
During my presentation, a man in a polo shirt who I assumed was a professor walked up and started asking me about my research. He seemed impressed and asked me if I wanted to intern at Boeing on the spot. I said “Yes!” and a month later I had an interview (as a formality) and was accepted into my first Boeing internship.
You never know who will notice you at your presentation!
- Cold call/email people for informational interviews
An informational interview is a meeting where you ask questions about a job or company with no real end-goal other than learning more and gaining career advice. As a student, like I said earlier, people would love to share what they do and advice with you. You can find people on LinkedIn or organizations’ websites, and schedule a call to ask them questions. This is part of growing professional relationships. Mention you are looking for internship opportunities and ask if they know of any.
I never competed in any competitions in college, and I regret it. Companies love sponsoring competitions, and, even more, hiring the winners (or giving them internships). Even if you do not win, it’s a fantastic opportunity to network. Simply participating makes you stand out!
- Host a guest speaker
Here’s the plan: Ask someone you admire who works for a company you’d like to intern with or work for to be a guest speaker at your university. The event does not necessarily matter unless they are selective of which speaking opportunities they accept; they can speak at a major event, for a student organization, or for your department. These days virtual events are common and simple for speakers to access internationally. Hosting them definitely builds your relationship with them, and, if you are one of the organizers of the event, you will impress them. Then, once you have established the relationship, ask if they know of any internship opportunities. You will definitely be memorable and not some stranger in their emails/DMs.
- Volunteer Opportunities
There are many types of volunteer opportunities where you can rub shoulders with those who can help you find internship opportunities. You can volunteer at conferences, professional societies, outreach events, and for local organizations.
- Write an article on a company for your university, professional society, or a publication
I would recommend this if you are interested in practicing your writing skills and getting an internship. This method is so that when you reach out to a stranger who you want to build a professional relationship with you can offer an opportunity for them. This can be a way to get a conversation or relationship started so that you can ask about internship opportunities.
Notice how so many of these ideas are about how to catch the attention of someone who can pick you for an internship. Simply applying online through the organization website and waiting for a response in order to get an internship is probably the worst way to go about it. The likelihood that only applying online will work out is very low because they do not know you. Establishing a professional relationship is a more effective way to get your foot in the door.
When you get an internship (congrats!), you’ll want to see the Guide to Internship Success at www.stemthriveguides.com that I’ve created just for you! In the guide I share how to leverage the internship for a job, form professional relationships with the directors or C-suite level employees of the organizations, and take advantage of all an internship has to offer.
Best wishes on your education and career journey!