Young Engineers

An Engineer’s Guide to Internships

April 11, 2013

Engineer's Guide to Internships

College may give you the basic concepts and analytical tools, but engineering requires specialized skills and knowledge you can only learn from experience. Students can best prepare for their careers by serving as interns within an established company, where experienced staff help hone the skills they’ll need to start a career.  EngineerJobs reached out to a senior engineer with mentoring experience for their guidance in securing and navigating your internship.

“Mark”, our interview subject, is a senior testing engineer at an instantly recognizable electronics engineering company. By request, his real name and affiliation will not be mentioned in this article.


The Internship Selection Process

Many internships begin through college placement offices or career fairs. Recruiters, only occasionally accompanied by senior staff mentors, do quick triage on applicants as they come by to learn about the company. Candidates whose academics appear promising are marked for further review, with the final decision made after a brief interview.

As a senior testing engineer, Mark mentored a number of new hires and interns.  In his experience, the selection process is rarely carried out by engineers in the group. “The people in the group generally don’t have that much contact with them before they start,” he said. “Generally, just a phone interview.” A prospective intern’s “basic knowledge is generally judged by where they are in their studies”.

As the majority of prospective interns are students, probably with similar academic backgrounds, relevant experience and qualifications are seems much less important in the selection process. “For interns, specifically, experience generally isn’t all that necessary,” Mark said. A solid grounding in problem solving, circuits, and computer programming is a must, “but people aren’t eliminated because of minimal or no experience.”

As you can’t lean on your resume, we encourage prospective interns to treat every interaction with recruiters and staff as an interview.  Research the company beforehand, be able to explain what you hope to learn from your internship, and come prepared to answer (and ask!) questions designed to probe your basic knowledge of engineering principles.

Many of the strategies in 4 Steps to Finding the Perfect Job and Engineering the Perfect Cover Letter will help you prepare and stand out during the selection process. Just remember: you’re applying as a student, not an engineer. Package yourself as a student who will be a good hire, not as someone who already has a complete skill set.


What Employers Expect

Once you’ve secured an internship, the main characteristic to demonstrate is motivation. When describing his best intern, Mark praised their drive and willingness to put in the hours. “If we needed someone to stay late or work weekends to get some pressing data or testing complete, he was always eager to do it.”

What employers don’t expect is a trained engineer. “There is a ton of specialized knowledge required to work as an engineer in any field, and you won’t be learning more than the basics in school,” Mark said. To succeed, an intern has to be able to recognize when a task is beyond their current training and seek appropriate guidance. “If you really don’t understand something, you should ask someone instead of wasting days worth of trying to reinvent the wheel.”

To thrive, interns have to work hard and learn from their work. Once the term of their internship is complete, especially in longer placements, they should be operating at a level comparable to entry-level engineering staff.


What You Can Expect

There is an unfair stereotype of interns as unpaid coffee-runners and drudges, but internship and mentor programs are an important part of an engineer’s early training. As interns start out unfamiliar with the specific tools and techniques a company uses, much of their early (admittedly tedious) assignments are designed to bring them up to speed.

Mark’s interns start out with script updates, data analysis, and simple tests. “As they complete things, we generally keep increasing the complexity of the things they need to do.” Gradually, as they familiarize themselves with the actual work of engineering, more of their workflow is designed and completed independently.

In time, a successful intern’s tasks can be nearly indistinguishable from those assigned to new hires and junior engineers. “Hopefully, by the end of their internship, they are at the point where they are able to designtests/flows and analyze most data they would be seeing with minimal supervision, ” Mark said.


How to Succeed during Your Internship

During an internship, your primary goals are to learn as much as possible and to start cultivating your reputation and connections. By demonstrating drive and asking the right questions, you position yourself to make the most of your time with the company.

“Every decent engineering company is going to put new employees into some sort of mentoring program for a reason,” Mark said. “Using that opportunity to learn as much as you can from more experienced engineers is the best way to jump start your career.”

As we’ve discussed before, networking is absolutely critical to your career as an engineer. An internship presents many opportunities to impress potential connections with your motivation and the quality of your work. “A reasonable amount of politicking,” Mark concludes, is as necessary as achievement in order to advancement your career and secure future opportunities.


We’d Like to Hear from You

Have an internship success story to share, or tricks and tips for prospective interns? Continue the conversation with your comments, or tweet @EngineerJobs.

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