The Internship Hunt

Around this time of year many students look for summer internships. Some want work experience so they can land a better job after graduation. Others hope to advance their research or improve their academic qualifications. Everyone appreciates the extra cash.

I’m now in my third year as a theory PhD student. Last summer I interned at a financial company and this summer I will intern at a tech firm. Because I had worked in software a number of years before grad school, I was not looking for job experience. My motivation (besides the extra cash) was to get a taste of working on research projects in industry. Also I find that immersing myself in “real-world” problems from time to time adds breadth and perspective to my theory research.

Whatever your motivations for seeking an internship, here are some suggestions that I’ve found useful.

Start early. This is mostly common sense so I won’t belabor the point, but consider this: crunch time at the end of the semester is busy enough without having to prepare for tech interviews, crank out a programming exercise, or schedule on-site visits. What counts as early varies, so ask the places you’re interested in.

Use your network. As pointed out in Lora Oehlberg’s recent blog post, your personal network is the first place to look for job opportunities. My first internship in high school, my first job out of college, and my internship from last summer all came through personal connections. People you know who work at a company you’re interested in can help you through the process and even vouch for you. If you know people who’ve done an internship you’re thinking about, talk to them about what to expect.

Practice. I was nearly eliminated from consideration for my internship last summer because I wasn’t prepared for the first tech interview. A friend of mine in the entertainment software industry told me that whenever he goes on the job market, he expects to flub his first interview from lack of practice. I’m not suggesting you should plan to flub interviews; just know that doing well on a tech interview takes mental readiness.

How do you practice? This is where advice from your connections (see previous point) comes in handy, especially from fellow students who have gone through the process before. I’ve found that working through online programming contests or problems at Project Euler helps get me into game shape.

Be candid and upfront. It’s tempting to be cagey with potential employers about competing offers, availability for the summer, or other constraints. Don’t do this. Last spring I interviewed with two companies and got two offers. I was forthcoming about this during the process, so when I had to turn one company down, I was able to keep the door open for the future. That company offered me a position for this summer, and the recruiter specifically mentioned my candor as a factor.

Do you have ideas for successful internship hunting? Cool internship experiences you want to share? Let us know in the comments.

2 thoughts on “The Internship Hunt

  1. Send a personal email to someone at the lab whom you’re interested in working with — preferably with cool ideas for summer research. Most CS theory internships seem to almost require this step.

  2. Xerox Research Center in Bangalore, India is looking for strong theory candidates for internships either in the summer, or for extended 6 months stays. Particular areas of interest are game theory, operations research, machine learning, randomized algorithms, optimization and related areas. Please contact with a short research statement and CV for consideration.

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