The Internship is the Job


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The internship is not just a training ground for students, or an opportunity for employers to get some work done on the cheap. Increasingly, employers are drawing all their hires from their internship programs. Engineering students hoping to start their careers with the ideal job should treat the internship hunt just as seriously as a job hunt. At the University of Michigan, the Engineering Resource Center helps them get it right.

The best advice for internship seekers can be summed up in a single word: Participation. "They should get involved with student organizations," says Kerri Boivin, the center's director. "And not just by becoming a member, but by becoming leaders in any way they can. That's one of the biggest things they can do. When employers come to campus they want to know who the student leaders are." The advice extends to organizations within a major as well. "Find a way to be on a committee that they can chair or lead, so they can have that leadership experience," says Boivin.

The most obvious suggestion, perhaps, would be for students to get themselves to their career centers. "The students that come in really wanting to seek out an internship- they're the ones that end up with three offers. It's definitely the go-getters."

Of course, engineering skills and go-getting social skills are not always correlated. Boivin's department has several workshops to help the more inward-turning internship seeker. One is a simple practice interview, so that student's aren't having their first one-on-one experience when it counts most. There's also a networking workshop where students can practice their elevator pitches, as well as the simple art of introducing themselves. "Something as basic as that can be hard for some," says Boivin.

Communication skills are more important than they once were, as engineers are more likely to find themselves in managerial positions within a few years. Boivin encourages her students to seek as much assistance as they need in this area. The University of Michigan has an entire department, the Department of Technical Communications, devoted to the cause. Students can also profit from taking a few business classes. But facility with causal language is only part of the battle. Students should also be able to speak engineering, to signal that they're in the club. They should, for instance, be sure to use data as a plural.

Another popular workshop addresses a subject just as basic and far more mystifying for many students: Dining. More and more students are finding themselves in restaurant settings with employers, especially when they've been brought back for a second interview. The workshop fills them in on crucial survival tactics, like which hand to use to hold a drink, "so when you go to shake someone's hand you're not shaking with a wet hand." Students also learn which utensils to use for each course, how to handle bread at the table, to avoid over consumption of alcohol, and to wait till everyone has their food before starting in on their own. "The basic etiquette of dining, that a lot of people don't practice," says Boivin.

Students should pay a similar amount of attention to their appearance, which is to say, get a suit-usually, that is. "There are a couple of companies that are very very causal," points out Boivin. "They come in wearing jeans and t-shirts, and they expect the students to be dressed casually as well." The choice between suit and t-shirt should be an easy one to may, though. "Just a handful of companies do it and I'm sure their councilors will tell them if they have an interview with one of them."

Michael Abrams is an independent writer.

Of course, engineering skills and go-getting social skills are not always correlated. Boivin’s department has several workshops to help the more inward-turning internship seeker.

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March 2011

by Michael Abrams, ASME.org