To Be or Not to Be (an Intern)

March 10, 2019

To Be or Not to Be (an Intern)It’s that time of the year. What’s your internship for this summer? Have you started looking? Already landed one? Scared that you haven’t even begun to think about it? Last week, Berkeley Connect in Math hosted a panel on summer internships to help demystify the process. The featured speakers were Rocky Foster, one of the Berkeley Connect mentors, who did three Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs; Aidan Bachus, a junior studying math who did an REU this past summer in San Diego; Nathan Yen Cheng, a senior in mathematics, who completed an internship two summers ago; and Katie Crawford from Berkeley Career Engagement (formerly the Career Center). All of them shared candid comments about the ups and downs of pursuing summer research and internship opportunities. 

What is an REU? 

Research Experiences for Undergraduates are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which means that the positions are usually paid. For around eight weeks, an undergraduate student is paid to conduct research under a professor’s guidance. Bachus said that it is difficult to write a research paper based on this experience, because eight weeks isn’t a long enough period to answer a research question. However, he noted, it’s still a fantastic way to get research experience. 

Foster (whose preferred pronouns are they/them/their) completed three REUs as an undergraduate. During their first REU at Brookhaven National Labs, they had to be proactive to develop activities, as their supervisor didn’t have a research project for them. Their second internship at Carnegie Mellon was focused on learning how to code and running simulations. Foster compared it to a graduate-level class. Their next summer was spent at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on parallel computing and trying to get robots to talk to each other. Foster described the experience as “math-adjacent.” All of these experiences prepared Foster to work with professors and pursue research as a graduate student. 

What is an internship?

An internship is a temporary job (with a set termination date) where you are assigned entry-level tasks. It has an academic component—internships are supposed to be learning experiences—and you usually have a mentor. An internship is great for those who want to dabble in industry and see what it’s like to work in a specific position. It’s a good way to experiment, to explore different fields, and see what you want to do in your future. Also, it adds substantial work experience to your resume.

Two summers ago, Cheng did a software engineering internship in biostatistics. It was a very educational experience; through this, he learned that he doesn’t want to do software engineering. Cheng described the daily life of an intern, saying, “You’re usually going to a meeting, synthesizing what you learned at the meeting, talking to the mentors. The unglamorous part of the internships is the waiting. There’s a lot of waiting around to see what to do next. You’re a new hire; you don’t know what to do, it’s difficult to take initiative. Sometimes, you wouldn’t know the coding infrastructure so you’d have to wait for your mentor to come out of their meeting to come help you. So, there is an element of waiting and you very much feel like an intern, like the project was stitched together last moment.” 

Cheng had a different experience with his Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). With this professional experience, Cheng was most self-structured. With SURF, he’d meet with his teammates every other day, and spend time reading textbooks, writing, etc. Although his project was disorganized, his mentor was extremely helpful, providing meaningful advice and guidance. At the end, they even gave a professional review of his performance, allowing him to work on his strengths and weaknesses.

Crawford was a math major as an undergraduate, and is now a career counselor from Berkeley Career Engagement (formerly the Career Center), working with students in engineering and the physical sciences. One student voiced concerns about the lack of internships at this relatively late stage of the year. Crawford admitted that many companies have already filled their quotas for this summer. The peak for recruiting is in September-October, with a second peak in January-February. However, Crawford advised, “Never stop looking,” as some companies only receive their funding in April and subsequently hire again in spring. There are still internships available!

Crawford mentioned that every internship is different. At small startups, there’s a higher likelihood that students will perform tasks with real impact—they may be given a project a professional engineer would do. Students interning at companies like Google, billion-dollar enterprises with thousands of employees, sometimes complain about working on mundane tasks. However all internship programs, if programmed well, give networking and extracurricular opportunities. Your internship should mimic what it looks like to work in industry, which is quite different than what it looks like to work in academia. 

It’s not too late to find an internship or research experience. It’s important to at least apply; you can’t get accepted if you don’t try. These programs provide important experience that will benefit you later in your professional life. Not only that, but they can show you if your professional goals are the right fit for you. What’s most important is that you at least try. As Wayne Gretzky says, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Good luck applying!

Written by Melody Niv, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant