Should you do an internship in grad school? Kristin Divis says “Yes!” and once you hear her story, it’s easy to understand why.
This summer, after graduating with a PhD in Psychology from Illinois, Divis started an exciting, full-time job at Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia is also, as it turns out, where she’d worked as an intern for several years while in grad school.
I spoke with Divis earlier this year, shortly before she graduated and not long after she accepted that full-time offer. She wanted to share her reasons for doing an internship, what she learned, and why you should consider doing one, too. Here’s what she had to say:
Where was your first internship in graduate school?
Sandia National Labs in the Cognitive Sciences and Systems group. I started as a summer intern in 2013. At the end of the summer, they invited me to transition into a year-long internship and telecommute during the academic year.
How did you get your first internship?
Early in my graduate career, a former graduate student told me that he wished he would have taken a summer to get industry experience (even though he had planned on staying in academia at the time). One summer I needed funding, so I figured it was a good time to seek out that experience.
I discovered summer opportunities by building up my network. Alumni from my department who had pursued non-academic careers were an invaluable resource. They gave me ideas, pointed me in the right direction, discussed the best research matches for me, and helped tailor my resume for an industry perspective. Ultimately, I was connected to Sandia through a former graduate student in my lab who worked there. I chatted with her on the phone and sent my resume. They were starting a new line of research that needed my particular set of skills and offered me a summer position.
What kinds of things did you do in that internship?
Research—running experiments, analyzing data, lit reviews, accounting for potential confounds and planning the next step forward in that line of research. In many ways, it was very similar to what you’d do in an academic setting, except the focus was much more applied. Specifically, I focused on using eye tracking and other behavioral measures to better understand how professionals perform complex visual search tasks (e.g., TSA baggage screeners or radar image analysts). That information can be used to help them perform their jobs more effectively, prevent errors, build up complementary software algorithms, and train new professionals.
What surprised you most about the internship?
The biggest learning curve at the beginning was transitioning from an academic mindset to a highly applied mindset. In academia, you generally have a lot of control over the data you work with. You design precise, controlled experiments that cut through to the basic underlying questions of interest. Internal validity reigns supreme. In more applied settings, you often need to work with noisier data sets that require a different set of skills to get to the results of interest. The emphasis is on useful external validity. You can’t always apply the same tools in the same way, but the overarching logic and way of thinking are similar.
How did having an internship affect your academic work in graduate school?
The biggest thing was it opened my eyes to possibilities beyond academia and how to set myself up for success. The choices I made about courses, questions, and projects to pursue started changing as I realized this was a path I might want to pursue after graduation.
How has it affected your career path?
When I came to graduate school, I thought it would be great to be like the professors I had interacted with throughout college. But I came to realize that it’s not as straightforward as I had thought. The idealized version of academia I had in my mind doesn’t really exist. Early on, my perspective on government and industry positions was limited and misguided. It seemed like a very dry, stale environment.
But when I went to Sandia, I realized that I was able to work on really interesting research problems. In fact, I had access to opportunities, data sets, and collaborators that would not have been possible otherwise. One of the biggest practical perks compared to academia is that you work 8 to 5, then you go home and you have your evenings and weekends back. That’s almost unheard of as a graduate student (or young professor). So there’s less independence and flexibility, but a better work-life balance.
The biggest illusion I had been operating under was that the practical benefits of an industry position would be nice but the work would feel limited. I soon realized that the work was just as or more fulfilling than what I had seen in academia. For me it turned out to be a great match, and that’s the career path I continued to follow.
Did you notice any differences in teams and collaboration?
In graduate school, most projects were highly independent (at least in my department). The vast majority of work was completed primarily by one or two people, with secondary input from others such as your lab or division. You generally had your hand in or control over all aspects of the project.
At Sandia, almost every project was a team effort. The nice thing was that you could answer much bigger questions in that environment—the projects were focused on impactful, real world questions and required interdisciplinary teams. I consistently worked hand-in-hand with physicists, engineers, and computer scientists—all with backgrounds and skillsets quite different from my own. Because the teams were so varied, communication became critical (especially avoiding jargon or assumptions).
Would you recommend that graduate students pursue internships? Why?
Yes! Regardless of whether you want to go into academia, having an internship experience is invaluable. You’ll get a new perspective, gain new skills, get exposed to a new environment. Even if you continue on and become a professor, you’ll likely be advising students who are interested in non-academic paths. Having that exposure is useful.
And if you decide to go into industry, being able to talk about your experiences as an intern in a similar setting is useful. While on the job market, I found that having experience in an applied (not just academic) setting was very important to hiring managers. Moreover, interning builds your network so that when it’s time to go on the job market, you’ll have more contacts who can open doors for you and act as references.
The nice thing about doing internships as a graduate student is that you essentially get to play around with different opportunities. It’s often a short, 3-month commitment. If you find it’s not a great match—no problem, it was not designed to be a lifelong choice and you’ve gained some new experiences. If it works out well or helps you narrow in on what’s important to you—great! Internships are an excellent way to test out different possibilities, and it’s far easier to do it while you’re still in school than once you’ve graduated.
These responses reflect personal views (not an official stance of the University of Illinois or Sandia National Laboratories).
If you’re interested in doing an internship next summer, now is the time to start looking. Many companies will be looking for Summer 2017 interns this fall at info sessions and career fairs on campus. Subscribe to GradCareers to stay up to date on coming sessions and fairs, and check out our workshop schedule to help you get prepared.
Derek Attig is Assistant Director for Student Outreach in Graduate College Career Development. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles.