If you’re a student, you know that getting an internship can be a challenge which is why it’s important to make the most of it. But how do you have a successful internship? To answer that question we went straight to the source, GitHub Campus Experts.
Recently, we had the chance to sit down with four Campus Experts to talk about their internship experiences at world-class science institutions, including NASA, CERN, and more.
We spoke to:
- John, a recent graduate of the University of California, Riverside, who interned at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California
- Marleni, a student at Smith College, who interned at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California
- Sourabh, a student of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, who interned with the CERN Document Server team
- Yosuf, a recent graduate of City, University of London, who interned with the CERN ATLAS particle detector experiment
John, Marleni, Sourabh, and Yosuf generously shared their experiences about what it was like to get an internship, what they learned, and what they think students, like you, should know before starting an internship.
Getting in the right mindset
With an accepted offer, you might imagine there’s nothing left to do until the first day. The GitHub Campus Experts have different advice.
The interns we spoke with explained the burdens of logistics, especially housing. Many agree that it pays to start looking into housing and transportation options as early as possible. Making a plan early on can help a lot, especially if you’ll arrive jet lagged or in an unfamiliar climate or culture. You might have to find living arrangements, commuting options, or apply to live in a dormitory, but your options may dwindle (or get more expensive) if you wait too long. For example, John teamed up with other students from his university to share a house and drive to the lab.
Apart from logistics, the group didn’t see much value in technical preparation specific to their internships. Sourabh warned against trying to show up for your internship thinking that you know everything from day one. He explained, “it’s definitely the wrong approach—the entire point is to learn.”
Instead, they suggested bringing a learning mindset along with your luggage. Yosuf said, “I think it’s difficult to prepare. Your experience will be unique.” He encountered unfamiliar hardware and software at CERN but saw it as an opportunity to learn. “I made sure I got familiar with the way they did things,“ and didn’t assume everything would be like any prior experience.
First day jitters
The Campus Experts told us that you’ll have a range of thoughts and emotions on your first day: excitement, nervousness, imposter syndrome—the feeling that you haven’t earned your place—and the pressure to succeed. Sometimes you experience these feelings all at once.
But after that, you’ll learn your way around and make connections with your new colleagues. Marleni appreciated the orientation of her NASA internship: “All the interns got to know each other and work on a project before starting our full-fledged assignments.” John explained that JPL encouraged interns to schedule one-on-one meetings with people on campus. He created a systematic process by finding other interns and colleagues on LinkedIn and asking them to go to lunch.
But everyone said that they soon felt welcome and their initial nervousness faded with time. According to Sourabh, this process goes faster when you avoid distractions outside of your internship. “It’s not that easy to get into such places. So when you’re there, you have to really focus on it.”
Yosuf said that there’s value in simply trusting the adjustment process. “As long as you’re going in with the intention of learning, then you’ll benefit from your time there.”
Making a long-lasting impact
The interns we interviewed talked at length about how important their internships have been even beyond their last day on the job.
A first internship can set you up to succeed at other companies and organizations. John called his first internship a “stamp of approval” that made it easier for him to get other internships, and eventually a job offer, thanks to his early experience. Likewise, Marleni said that her NASA internship gave her résumé more legitimacy to pursue follow-up internships in a range of industries—not just at tech companies.
Sourabh noted that internships are a rare opportunity to explore your interests. He wished that other students knew that internships are a chance you might not get again to try out different roles and possible careers. For example, he suggested that you try out related fields, like product management, rather than limiting yourself to software engineering.
Yosuf highlighted how internships will help you learn valuable skills that will serve you in subsequent roles. He learned more about database management and the intricacies of Docker, a technology he was interested in, on a large-scale project at CERN. “It was nice to work on a project where I could expand my knowledge and bring the knowledge I previously had.”
Each of our interviewees told us how internships are important learning experiences and how the connections you make with people during your internship will go beyond employment references. Yosuf, Sourabh, Marleni, and John were clear on this final point: the skills you develop and the connections you make in your internships will serve you well into your career, wherever it takes you.
If you’re heading off to an internship, we hope the advice of the Campus Experts helps you make the most of it. Good luck this summer!
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