How to Get an Internship
By Dr. John Leddo
Graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, owner of MyEdMaster, a tutoring company.
In my previous blog, “How to get into a top college”, I mentioned internships as a way that students can stand out to improve their college applications. Internships also offer students the opportunity to get practical experience in fields they are considering entering. After all, what better way to see if you would like working in a field than to actually hold a job in that field? Internships can also help students make valuable contacts that can be useful later on. These contacts can be potential future colleagues or contacts for potential jobs. In the case where the internship is done at a university, it can serve as a way for a student to establish a relationship with the university prior to the application, thus making the student known to the university rather than just a set of statistics on a college application. Perhaps most importantly of all, the right internship can help a student find a mentor in college, someone who will guide the student and prepare him or her for the next step: a job or a graduate program.
There are difference strategies for finding an internship. One is to look for public announcements. Websites such as internships.com offer internship listings. Programs such as SEAP (Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program) offer students internships in STEM fields. These are worthwhile to pursue, but there are two caveats: they can be highly competitive and there is no guarantee that you will get the assignment you want.
Another strategy is to approach the university or other organization directly. The benefit of this strategy is that, if done correctly, you can wind up finding a great mentor who will give you experience in something you really like doing. For the purpose of this article, I will talk about how to get an internship at a university, but the process of doing so at a company is essentially the same. Also, another benefit of working with a professor directly is that usually he or she can directly make the decision of whether to give you the internship. You don’t have to compete or go through an admissions committee.
The most important thing to know about getting an internship is that preparation and research is the key. You don’t want to just randomly email people asking if there are internship opportunities for you. Start by figuring out what type of internship do you want. Is it research? Computer programming? Writing? You’ll need to put together a resume that outlines your qualifications and experience for the types of tasks you want to perform. The person you contact has to believe you are qualified.
Next, you find the mentor you want to work with. You can do this in one of two ways. You can either do an Internet search of university professors who are working in your field of interest or you can go to university websites and look at the different professors working in departments you are interested in. In either case, there are a lot of options. One way to narrow your choices is to consider universities that are close to your area or that you want to attend in the future. If you pick the latter, you may have to think about how you will work with that university if it’s not close by. Will you spend a summer there or will you work remotely (which may be easier for computer programming internships but harder for laboratory research internships)?
When you find the university and department you are interested in, you will probably see that there are a lot of professors there. Your job is to pick the right one. The ideal professor is doing work that truly excites you and is someone who will nurture you and help you grow rather than exploit you to advance his or her career. The former you can tell by reading about the professor’s work. The latter you will have to gauge through your interactions with him or her.
If you do find several candidate professors, here are some other guidelines, particularly if you think that you may want to actually go to that university and work with that professor while you are there. Top universities work on a tenure system. Professors are hired and given initial contracts. Eventually, they either get tenure (a job for life) or are fired. This creates two dynamics. Junior professors (called assistant professors) are under a lot of pressure and may care more about their own careers than helping a summer intern. Also, top universities rarely give tenure so many of these assistant professors may not even be around when you go to the college. A full professor (one who has the title “Professor”) has tenure and will still be there. Also, he or she will be older and feel more “parental” towards his or her students. Associate Professors may or may not have tenure. Professor Emeritus means the professor is retired. If the professor has a title before the word professor like “The Bill Gates Professor of Computer Science”, that means that a wealthy person gave the school a lot of money and the school named one of its position after the wealthy person. That means that the professor holding the title is in high regard at the school.
Once you have identified the professor, read about the person’s work. This can be found on the website and through publications. You want to be able to show that you understand what the person does. One of my former students who got an internship at Johns Hopkins was told “We get a lot of requests for internships, but we picked you because you showed you understand what we do.” You can go a step further by thinking about the contribution you could make, either on an existing project they are doing or by proposing an extension of the work you can do for them. Another former student got an internship at Harvard by reading the professor’s work, tell him about the artificial intelligence work he was doing with me at MyEdMaster and then proposing how our work could extend the professor’s work. While the professor did not opt to go with the student’s proposal, the student did get the internship, which lasted 2 years.
Next, contact the professor. Introduce yourself, attach your resume, demonstrate your knowledge of the professor’s work and state what contribution you feel you can make (including any extension of his or her work you feel you could do). Offer to work for free (the professor may not have money to pay you) and say that you just want the experience of working with the professor.
If you don’t get the internship, look for someone else. There are many out there. If you do get the internship, you should ask whether you could be included on any publications that arise from the research. Publications is another type of accomplishment that helps you get into a great college. Establish this upfront. I’ve seen a medical publication with 300 authors on it, so it’s no big deal for a professor to add one more name to a research paper. I had another student who failed to get the commitment that she’d be on a publication and she was disappointed later on when the professor she worked for said she wouldn’t have her name on the publication.
If you do a good job on the internship, you can ask the professor for a letter of recommendation for college. You can even ask to be put on future grant applications, so you could be paid for your work or get scholarship money if you attend the professor’s college. This happens all the time. Professors routinely get grants to pay for students’ time and tuition. When I went to Yale, I had a research assistantship that paid my full tuition and a monthly salary. I tell students that Yale paid me to go there.
One thing you should note. Many universities require students to be at least 16 in order to have an internship. One of my students got an internship at Johns Hopkins after 9th grade, so perhaps Hopkins is more flexible. But one of my students who got an internship at Harvard was under 16 at the time. He was told that he had to work remotely until he was 16, something that was easy to do since his was a software development internship. So if you are under 16 and you want an internship, check the rules for the university you are looking at, and, if you are under age, think about something you can do remotely until you turn 16. Also, students looking for summer internships should start right away as it does take time to process the paperwork at the university for you to work onsite. I’ve had a student tell me that the Duke University professor she contacted too late told her “I’d love to have you but there’s not enough time to process your paperwork.” Fortunately, she got the internship with him the next year.
For those of you who are middle schoolers, you may be too young to get an internship. But it’s never to early to start making contacts. One of the exercises that I have my students who are preparing for Thomas Jefferson and Academies of Loudoun do is to find professors and contact them. This helps them learn how to build professional relationships, which could later turn into internships. It also lets them write on their applications that they talk to professional scientists, something most middle schoolers do not do, but other scientists do every day. This makes the middle schoolers seem more like real scientists.
I am happy to work with your kids to help them get the internships they want. You can visit www.myedmaster.com, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 571-242-6986. Let’s build a success story together.