Why get an internship?

by Michael Ernst (mernst@cs.washington.edu)
April, 2002

Students must decide whether to spend the summer working at a company (and if so, what company), doing research at a university, or just taking a long vacation. Each of these options has its merits, and different ones are best for different people (or at different points in their careers). Here are some reasons you might want to choose an internship:

  1. If you haven't worked in a company, you are ill-prepared to choose a a job after graduation. You are also ill-prepared to decide between a job and graduate school. The same thing goes for learning about companies of specific size (big company, startup, etc.), particular types of work (programmer, tester, program manager, etc.), and other factors.
  2. Working in a company exposes you to a different way of thinking and working. This breadth of experience is likely to stand you in good stead when you approach problems, because you will be able to choose the most effective style rather than applying the same approach in every situation. Each new company or research group adds to your experience, but having at least one internship and at least one long-term undergraduate research experience (such as the summer or a full academic year) is essential.
  3. Related to the above point, internships require and provide different skills than research jobs, from interpersonal interactions to specific development tools. A company may be the only or best way to obtain these skills, which you will find valuable in your future career as an engineer.
  4. Working on real products with real customers is particularly rewarding for some people; they like to see the concrete impact their jobs have on customers, on coworkers, and on the industry.
  5. Knowledge of industry is essential even for people who will eventually find their careers in academia, if you hope that your research will have any impact on practice. You need to know the state of the art, how practitioners act, and what they really need. A superficial knowledge, or just listening to what they say they need, is not sufficient.
  6. Internships tend to pay much more than summer academic research jobs.

I personally benefited enormously from my summer internships and my years in industry before I became a professor. I recommend that every undergraduate student work at a company for least one summer (and possibly more), and I recommend that every graduate student work at a company one or two summers (but usually no more, because research takes priority at that level). You might also want to read my advice on internships, but be warned that that text is very sketchy and that it is geared primarily toward graduate students.


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Michael Ernst