Exploring STEM internships for PhD students

Over the summer, the graduate student and postdoc team at Career Services hosted a virtual panel, Exploring STEM doctoral student internships, for PhD students interested in learning more about internship opportunities.  PhD alumni and students who had worked for the Penn Center for Innovation, Pfizer, Google, and Optum Labs, shared their experiences participating in an internship during their time as a PhD student.  Below is a summary of their experiences and advice for current PhD students interested in internships.

How to get started in exploring your options (and how to approach your advisor)

  • Check with your department or school, some already have a process for PhD students to take a leave to do an internship
  • Students in BGS have a process to follow – it needs to be approved by your advisor and the graduate group chair
  • You cannot get paid your stipend if you take time for a full-time internship, but you can keep your status as a student and your health insurance – you do not take an official leave of absence, so it will not show up as a leave on your transcript
  • Bioengineering is now offering more clarity on internships as they become more popular. You just cannot go over the hours limit for an internship
  • Some departments or graduate group coordinators actively send out internship opportunities to students – be sure to check if your department does this
  • Many professional associations publish internships for PhDs (American Statistical Association was mentioned as one that does)
  • Networking and informational interviewing is key! You can do informational interviews at any time you are a PhD student – never too early to start with these.  Some students were referred to their internship opportunity through an informational interviewing connection
  • Be sure to have an updated LinkedIn profile – anyone who is going to interview you will definitely look you up, but also it is a great place to network
  • Any internship experience is good in the long run – but those that are designed with PhDs in mind may be more fulfilling personally
  • Handshake often has PhD internships listed
  • You know your advisor better than others, so you have to approach the internship conversation differently. Some students did not tell their advisor until they had an internship offer, others not until they started interviewing, and others incorporated their advisor in the discussions from the beginning

When is a good time to do an internship?

  • When you have the time to pause your research – unreasonable to expect that you can continue with research on the side while doing an internship full-time
  • You want to show the employer that you could be hired full-time after you complete your degree, so you want to give them 100% of the time while working as an intern
  • One student did some revisions to their paper during their internship. BUT their internship was 100% remote so they had some more free time in the evenings to work on the paper.  This worked out OK but left her with very little free time
  • Not necessary to have published anything before an internship – you just need to show that you can get the work done

Process and timing of interviewing

  • Most students started looking in the fall for the following summer, most commonly in November.
  • Cast a wide net and keep looking – employers vary widely in when they begin looking for interns
  • Penn Center for Innovation’s internship application deadline is the end of the calendar year, and you commit to an internship for one year. For the application, you provide a sample PCI report and marketing report and then have a behavioral interview.  The focus of the interview was on convincing the director that you could dot he work while balancing your research
  • Pfizer process – 30 minute phone screening, then 30-60 minutes with the hiring manager. Internships are project based – they pitched a project to her and then she assessed how well she was at this.  Full-time candidates then have a ¾ day interview – internship interviews are more casual
  • Optum Labs – a phone screen first and then a meeting with the hiring manager. They don’t expect you to know everything as an intern applicant, they want to check more for fit.  If interviewing for full-time, they are more interested in your content knowledge.
  • Google did a 30 minute phone screen and then a 60 minute interview with the hiring manager – communication skills are very important in this interview.

Getting back to your research after the internship (and completing your degree!)

  • This was challenging for most as working as an intern was a very different lifestyle (more regular hours, more structure in general)
  • Most students were motivated to finish their degree as they enjoyed their internship – the student who worked at Google was very motivated to finish because Google places limits on how long an offer can be out there without being formally accepted
  • All enjoyed the reprieve from lab work and the very different pace of the work

Benefits of completing an internship

  • All panelists agreed that their internship was extremely worthwhile
  • Regardless of your career goals, you will want to be able to speak to something beyond your research and this has given him something to speak about. He developed good skills in how to showcase his communication skills.
  • PCI held monthly meetings with alums to speak about what they are doing now – he was able to attend (while getting paid) and he learned so much from these talks.
  • Internships are a great place to meet other people at your level and to develop a good peer network – regardless of where you go on to work.
  • Opened her eyes to what she could do outside of research in industry.
  • Learned a lot of acronyms used outside of academia!
  • Networking can lead to contacts with future hiring managers – ask mentors to help you connect with others.
  • More accountability and more responsibility than in academia – as no one is telling you exactly what to do. Great preparation for the “real world.”
  • Most employers had an emphasis on work-life balance and were 9-5 roles.
  • Paid a lot more than stipend would have J
  • Networking was seen as a part of the workday.
  • Faster timelines in industry – feel better prepared for industry than if they had not done an internship.

If you are a doctoral student interested in an internship, please schedule an appointment with a career advisor to discuss your options!

By Dianne Hull
Dianne Hull Senior Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs