Getting your foot in the door

Internships have become an essential component to undergraduate education. In many fields, applying for internships has become as stressful for students as applying to college itself was. In order to be considered for competitive jobs, students at colleges and universities across the country feel that they must grapple for an internship to gain skills, improve their résumés, and get work experience before graduation. Carnegie Mellon students, in particular, are no exception.

Between the Career Center, Technical Opportunities Conference (TOC), and Business Opportunities Conference (BOC), students are constantly reminded of the importance of networking and landing that highly regarded internship position. Throughout the year, the university Career Center holds numerous workshops to assist students with interview skills, résumé writing, and the entire internship search process. The campus hosts several career fairs, including the TOC and BOC, which are both student-organized job fairs that bring hundreds of recruiters to campus each fall. Even this past summer alone, over 300 students in the College of Engineering received internship positions, according to the Career Center.

While building skills and making connections with companies are beneficial, students should not feel required to land an intense internship that mirrors a full-time job every year to keep up with other students, said Susan Timko, career consultant for the Career Center.

“One substantive internship is fabulous,” Timko said. “While there are some students that [complete internships] all three summers, it’s kind of that last summer which is critical. There are a lot of different permutations, but gaining some type of real-world experience is vital.”

Students seek out these experiences, many of which are unpaid, require temporary residential relocation, or involve monotonous office tasks, in order to build their resumes.

“Students that do internships have a strong competitive advantage against those that do not,” stated Erin Baker, the recruitment manager for the Regional Internship Center of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which provides a website database connecting students with local organizations as well as additional internship search advice. “The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that of the graduating class of 2006, about 62 percent had completed internships. Employers are expecting to see that experience on a résumé, and internship experience will lead to more advanced internships and job offers.”

The opportunity to beat the competition is a major incentive for students. The internship experience is not only beneficial to students’ future careers after graduation, but is also viewed by Carnegie Mellon career advisers as an important exercise in leadership.

“Internships are part of a larger experimental education component that all undergraduates should participate in some way in their careers,” said Stephanie Wallach, director of the Undergraduate Research Office. “It gives students the opportunity to test a career direction. Also it’s a great way to see the application of things that are learned in the classroom and how they play out in a real work situation.”

Baker added that students across all majors should “think outside the box” when searching for work experience that will help them in the future.

“Even if your field is not ‘traditional’ in the realm of internships, there are things that you can do to get real-world experience — whether it is volunteering, job shadowing, or writing a letter to a company that may not have an internship program in place and expressing interest in getting involved somehow,” Baker said.

Carnegie Mellon students have the opportunity to participate in a wide range of on-campus organizations to develop skills that can be used in the workplace. Timko suggests that campus involvement and community service can be as impressive on a résumé as a traditional internship.

She also emphasized that students don’t necessarily need to follow the traditional nine-to-five route when deciding on a position.

“That term ‘internship’ can be interpreted many different ways. Every higher-ed institution is going to have a different term for it,” Timko said. “Students should take advantage of any opportunity that will give them leadership experience and professional development.”

There are a variety of alternatives for students looking to develop skills without entering a traditional internship. Research and working with faculty members are popular ways that students gain experience by further exploring their major or hobbies. The Undergraduate Research Office awards fall, spring, and summer grants to help pay for expenses, as well as $3000 grants for full-time summer research fellowships. Working part-time also enables students to earn extra money while gaining real-world job experience.

Timko also points out the advantages of working on campus. “Campus employment is a great way for students to gain experience in the workplace,” said Timko. While these activities may not be traditional internships, they offer students the same opportunity to develop skills that will be useful in their future careers.

Carnegie Mellon students aren’t waiting around for the perfect company internship to present itself, either. Instead, several campus organizations are creating their own unique internship experiences. Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), an undergraduate business organization on campus, works together to create outreach projects and compete with other SIFE groups in national and regional competitions. The competitions are often judged by corporate board members, which gives students the opportunity to connect and network with potential future employers.

The International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE) is another student organization creating unique internship experiences for students. IAESTE works with other domestic and worldwide IAESTE chapters to help students land international technical internships. The internships serve a wide range of majors. While IAESTE internships often supply funds for housing and food, the emphasis is on the cultural experience of working abroad.

“Going abroad is something that everyone should be able to do,” said Angela Moy, a junior business administration major and local committee president of IAESTE. “You experience so much more and you find out what your limits are. It challenges you and really teaches you how to survive on your own. It makes you more tolerant to other cultures.”

For students working within the United States, the university offers a limited number of summer grants to help fund expenses. The Milton and Cynthia Friedman Grants and the Thomas Johnson Engineering and Public Policy Fellowship allow funding for students interning in Washington, D.C. over the summer. The Dozzi Grant gives money to students working in Pittsburgh organizations. There are also summer opportunity grants for H&SS students. The grants are given to sophomores and juniors with strong academic records.

Housing, travel, and food are some of the additional expenses that students will have to consider. Wallach emphasized that grants may not cover all expenses.
“There are some opportunities for financial support from the university, but either way if you have to move and support yourself in a different city, it’s an expensive proposition,” Wallach said.

Regardless of whether students choose an internship, research, or an on-campus job, it is important for students to seek out opportunities that show involvement, development, and community leadership in order to create a well-rounded undergraduate experience.

“Students should demonstrate leadership capacity on campus or in the community. Today’s most competitive employers look for students who are not only active participants on campus, but are leaders. Whether they are directly related to your major, or can supplement it, I would recommend getting involved,” Baker stated.

While these additional activities do provide assistance when landing a future job, the best preparation for post-graduation is the effort students put into academics, Wallach said.

“Students most importantly have to put their academics in the center of things and then from that point on they need to start looking at how they want to contribute to the campus and the community,” Wallach said. “There are many ways to connect on campus to broaden the scope of your experience here. That’s what internships are, that’s what research experience is, as well as many of the campus activities. You just want to be able to look back at your undergraduate years and say, ‘this is what I did, this is what I accomplished.’ ”