Why Take a Research Internship?

 Maybe you have a friend who has interned at a big company that pays a great salary, gives their interns paid time off, takes them out to lunch, has nap pods etc. Maybe you’ve even had one of those internships. Today, these positions seem like the holy grail. They look great on a resume, and you can brag to your friends, so why would you take a research internship at a government lab, university or other lab? The truth is, these research internships can open the door to a whole world of careers and opportunities you didn’t know existed. 

Graduate school is all about research. If you do a PhD or a MS degree, you will spend most of your time doing research which will eventually turn into a thesis. Graduate school runs on research. Funding comes from research, professors are hired based on research experience and publications (among other things) and graduate students primarily do research. If you are considering graduate school, it is really important to understand if you actually like doing research!!

In 2017 I had the privilege of interning at the NASA Ames Research Center in California and it totally changed my goals. Everyone in my office had a PhD and was working hard to accomplish things they were excited about and I fell in love with the environment. Often, research doesn’t come from the top down, it’s a team of people who want to answer a question, continuously learn and advance technology. I worked on a model of an electronic speed controller to show the effects of degradation over time. This was used to make more informed decisions about the health of the UAV. I also got to try a flight simulator and volunteer with NASA at the Silicon Valley Comic Con.

Now, this may not be enough motivation, so I’ve come up with some more quantifiable reasons you should consider a research internship.

  1. They are still paid! Even research internships pay a stipend, and some even cover relocation costs.
  2. You get to travel! National labs and Universities are spread out all over the US. I lived in California for 4 months during my internship and then moved to Virginia for graduate school. This is not only a cool side effect of these internships but can give you insight into where you want to live in the future.
  3. You get exposure to the research environment. This environment is totally different and the work looks totally different. It’s often more self directed and it’s important to learn whether or not you like that! It may convince you to go to grad school or solidify your decision not to. 
  4. You have a standout experience to put on your resume. Today, it’s super common for people to have internships. A research internship gives you a unique experience to talk about and a big name like NASA or a national lab could help you stand out.
  5. You get incredible tours! I got to tour wind tunnels, McMoon (a McDonalds converted to a lab with some of the oldest images of the moon!) and TESLA…yep, the Tesla factory.
  6. You meet people from all over the world.  Though some labs limit internships to US citizens, they typically have separate programs for international students. Because of my NASA internship, I have friends all over the world. 
  7. You find mentors who work as researchers. Research internships connect you to mentors outside of typical industry roles. If you decide to go to graduate school later you have someone to go to with questions and for advice.
  8. Publications! If you contribute to the research during your REU or internship
  9. You learn about research areas and engineering fields you wouldn’t have otherwise known about. My internship introduced me to the field of prognosis and I even included some of what I learned in my NSF GRFP application that ended up being selected.

So, even though a government lab or university may not come with nap pods, free coffee, and ping-pong tables, research experiences have so many long term benefits. You can’t really know if research is for you unless you try and the more you know what’s out there, the more informed your engineering goals can be.

My research internship influenced me to pursue graduate school, gave me friends all over the world and introduced me to an environment and careers I wouldn’t have known existed. I still took an internship in industry the following summer, but this just further solidified my interest in research and my desire to go to graduate school. So, if you’re convinced, head to the “opportunities” page and look at some of the research internships and REU’s highlighted there or google”research internships for engineering students”! Find some things that looks interesting and apply!

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