[Published originally in the November 2008 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 20/No. 5]
Expanding the Pipeline
Government and industrial internships can enhance the retention of students in the computer science pipeline by augmenting the educational and research experiences they receive in school.
In academic programs with large numbers of students where personal attention from professors may be limited, an internship can provide one-on-one or small-group mentoring from a computer science researcher or professional. Internships can provide access to equipment, training, expertise or other resources that may not be readily available in the academic environment. For example, a student who is researching Internet search might benefit from access to the data of a search engine company; or a student who is researching quality of service in networks might benefit from access to the experimental networks and operational logs of a communications company. This article summarizes some best practices for students, faculty, and industry researchers that can help them get the most out of internship experiences.
Undergraduate and Graduate-Level Internships
Internships at government and industrial research labs sometimes serve to introduce undergraduate students to computer science research. In one case, the student identified an unsolved problem, and the mentor said, "Congratulations, you have just found your summer project." The student later reported that no teachers had ever acknowledged that there were unsolved problems, things they didn't know. When experience is limited to the classroom, a student may miss out on the thrill of research that could motivate advanced study. In several cases, interns reported exhilaration in their first research experience of tackling an unsolved problem.
Internships for graduate students vary depending on whether the student has identified a research area. Students who have not may have "Aha!" experiences similar to those experienced by undergraduates. A research lab internship may provide their first in-depth experience of research. It may also lead to the identification of a research area and a long-term collaboration with researchers in the sponsoring lab.
Graduate students who have selected a research area can seek internships with experts in that area. Such an arrangement provides an additional perspective and expands the student's professional contacts. It can lead to publications and other substantive research progress in the student's area. After the internship, the mentor may then be available to collaborate further, serve on the student's Ph.D. committee, provide recommendation letters, and advise and encourage the student. A student's advisor is often instrumental in arranging these internships through existing collaborations and professional contacts.
Many students will decide to pursue development positions in industry or government rather than or before pursuing a research career. Internships are often critical to these students in establishing an experience base and references for later job applications. The internship application process itself provides training in how to apply and interview for a job. Whether an internship is research related or not, the sponsoring organizations typically give preferential treatment to past interns when hiring.
Students need to prepare summer internship applications early in the calendar year and, in some cases, by early December of the prior year. When decisions are made on a rolling basis, the advantage goes to students who apply early. Some organizations also hire interns at other times and for longer periods (e.g., 6 to 12 months). If the intern is coming to the United States from another country, a longer internship is often desirable due to the effort needed to obtain the proper visa.
Industrial internships in the United States are usually open to both US and non-US citizens. Foreign students with F1 visa status may work as interns as part of the curricular practical training (CPT) or optional practical training (OPT) programs. In CPT, the practical training must be an integral part of the course of study. One university implements this program as a summer course in which students enroll, and the content of the course is the internship.
In OPT, students are allowed to work for a limited number of months during or after their course of study. (The default limit is 12 months, but recent changes have allowed up to 29 months in some circumstances.) OPT requires that an application be submitted for federal government approval at least 3 months in advance of employment. Since OPT can provide an interval of employment after graduation while additional credentials to work in the US are obtained, it is beneficial for universities to provide mechanisms that allow students to use CPT for summer internships. This streamlines the internship approval process and allows students to preserve their OPT time for the first post-graduation employment.
The internship application process requires a resume, letters of recommendation, and an interview. A cover letter should accompany mail or email applications, and web applications when permitted. In addition to a resume, students often use web pages to provide supporting papers, software, or demonstrations. Applicants are typically interviewed by phone, possibly followed by an in-person interview. Various web sites provide sample interview questions (e.g., www.softwareinterview.com and www.acetheinterview.com), and advisors can assist students by having them practice for interviews. Attention should be paid to practicing both phone and in-person interviews because students often show differing levels of skill in communicating in these different settings. Following interviews, students should send thank-you letters summarizing the fit that they see with the prospective organization.
Cultural misunderstandings of the interview process have been known to occur. Students need to know that it is permissible to apply simultaneously to multiple prospective employers, but that continuing to interview once a position is accepted is not generally condoned.
Students often need assistance in sorting out multiple offers, or in pressuring a prospect for an offer while delaying a decision on other offers received. Some companies provide very little information about the job or the mentor involved in the internship. In these cases, a student may be able to obtain information by asking for more detail and possibly agreeing to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Ph.D. students may want to obtain assurances that they will retain intellectual property rights to their thesis work when working on related topics during their internship. Students are encouraged to contact their advisor or the university career counseling office when they need help with responding to offers.
Resources for Finding an Internship
Resources are available online for identifying internship opportunities. The ACM provides internship information at www.acm.org/crossroads/resources/internships.html. Many of these internships do not have a research component, but are helpful to students who are seeking work experience.
Research lab internships may be advertised on the sponsoring organization's web site. A list of research labs is available from the website of the Computing Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W) at www.cra.org/Activities/craw/projects/industry_researchers/main.html. By far, the best way to obtain a research lab internship is through personal contact between the student's advisor (or another faculty member) and the prospective research lab mentor. Some faculty have built relationships with researchers in various labs, and send students each year to intern with those researchers.
Searching the Internet can reveal other interesting and unusual internship programs. The NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for US Graduate Students (EAPSI) provide research internships in East Asia and the Pacific with an application deadline in early December (www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5284).
Techniques for a Successful Internship
Internships last a very short time, approximately 10 to 12 weeks, so planning and initiative by students can help ensure success. When students accept an internship, they may wish to ask if there is any background reading or skills acquisition that would help them prepare for it. Once the internship begins, structuring the work in phases with intermediate checkpoints can be beneficial. The last phase of the plan is a week for preparing and giving a final talk, or producing a final report. Each intermediate phase has a deliverable, such as a survey of the area, a design, an analysis, or a software program. If the schedule slips, the deliverable for the intermediate checkpoint may be the final result for the internship, but the intermediate deliverable guarantees that there will be a result to show! If an intermediate checkpoint is missed, the student and mentor may want to re-plan the project to account for the tighter time constraints remaining.
An internship is more than a summer project with a deliverable. It is an opportunity to make enduring professional contacts. Students can easily build contacts, in addition to their mentors, by scheduling an hour each week to speak with a professional in the student's areas of interest. Some students find it helpful to prepare a list of questions in advance to initiate these conversations. Students should also be prepared to talk about their projects. Students can prepare an elevator story that describes, in the time of an elevator ride (approximately three sentences): the problem the student is solving, why the problem is important, and how the student's solution is differentiated from the rest of the pack. Delivering such a story with enthusiasm can lead to many great conversations, and perhaps enduring professional relationships.
After the internship is completed, students will benefit greatly from continuing relationships with their mentors and contacts made during the internship. These contacts are possible future collaborators, committee members, and recommendation writers. They can be great additional advisors on how to advance in the field. Students can help maintain these relationships by sending greetings and periodic updates, including research papers, through email, and spending time at conferences with their contacts.
Through internships, students can gain educational, professional, work, and research experiences, and build professional networks that will serve them well in their future careers.
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