By Courtney Lemon, 2011 SPS Intern
Every college student has heard the stories of friends, family, and neighbors struggling to land that first job right after graduation, and of that most feared phrase in every job ad: Experience required. After all, it’s impossible to get real work experience while you are an undergrad, right?
Experience doesn’t have to come from having a job. One of the best ways physics students can get that oh so necessary experience is through internships. Sure, you can learn physics concepts and get a sound basis in laboratory skills through your classes, but nothing can compare to putting that into practice in the real world. Internships test what you’ve learned in the classroom, while challenging you to solve real world problems in a supportive, yet genuine environment.
Most students begin applying for internships in their sophomore or junior year, but that doesn’t mean that internships are only for students nearing graduation. You can apply as soon as you have some coursework under your belt, and feel confident that your skills will translate into a real world setting. Just because you may have graduated doesn’t mean that internships aren’t right up your alley – many internships are open to recent graduates as well!
Internship opportunities span a broad variety of topics. When exploring the possibilities, most students instinctively search for something in the narrow field with which they are already familiar. However, there are a broad range of opportunities worth exploring in a variety of fields of research, as well as science outreach, policy, and education. These experiences can be privately funded and located at industrial companies or non-profits, or federally funded at universities and national labs. Keep in mind – oftentimes doing hands-on work in a new field will pique your interest, and you may find that field to be a viable career option in the end.
When exploring opportunities, also look into the different features that internship opportunities provide. Compensation is greatly dependent on the type of internship you choose to take. Financially, internships range from unpaid, to a couple thousand dollar stipend. Other perks may be included, such as travel to and from the internship location, commute fees, housing, etc. Are you looking to intern in a new city? Work in an office or a lab? Do you want a scientist as a mentor? Can you get course credit? Is the internship paid? How long will the internship last? How will the schedule fit in with your other obligations? By analyzing the answers to these questions, you can narrow down your search to internship opportunities that are appropriate, engaging, and exciting!
When you are ready to search for specific opportunities, look for internships on the web, at places like the SPS Jobs Site and the websites of national labs and the National Science Foundation. Also check with your career services office on campus. If you know a company, person, or professor you would like to work with, you can contact them directly and see if they have any openings for an intern. It never hurts to ask if there’s availability, and you may end up with an awesome internship custom designed for you.
The saga of preparation for an internship starts long before the internship actually begins. Keeping up with your coursework and doing research or other project-based work on campus will increase your odds of being selected for an internship. Some programs look closely at GPA and academics, while others look more at research or leadership experience. Active participation in your Society of Physics Students chapter and other professional organizations always looks favorable on a résumé.
Complete applications thoughtfully and carefully, and be sure to follow all of the application procedures. Highlight the specific skills you have that make you a strong candidate, and don’t be afraid to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the position. Have a trusted friend or campus career services office review your cover letter, résumé, or other application materials and give you feedback before you hit “submit.” Some internships interview candidates, while others do not. If you get called for an interview, take the time to practice common interview questions and research the position well. This is your time to demonstrate why YOU are the best candidate.
Once you’ve completed an internship, don’t forget to keep in touch with the connections you have made at your internship and thank them for investing in your future. These people are now part of your professional network. Also, consider presenting your internship experience at your home institution or at a professional physics meeting. This is a great way to hone your public speaking skills, highlight the work you’ve done, and make new contacts that can open the door to future internship or job possibilities.
Courtney Lemon is the Education Programs Assistant for the Society of Physics Students, a position she was hired for in part due to her experience as a 2011 SPS Intern, and two terms on the Society of Physics Students National Council.