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Alan Kotok , ,

Tips for Getting a Great Internship

On Friday, Tara Weiss in Forbes.com offered some pointers for students on landing a coveted summer internship. Hunting for an internship is a lot like hunting for a permanent job in that it takes both preparation and professionalism. Interns may generally be younger or paid less, but that still means you have to look and act like a pro when applying.

Weiss says that according to National Association of Colleges and Employers the market for internship hunters is improving; employers are hiring 5.8% more interns this year than last year. But applicants for internships are also getting more aggressive: Last week I gave an informational interview to a candidate for an internship here at Science, the first time I had been information-interviewed for an internship.

In finding internships, you need to look past college bulletin boards and campus recruiters to identify places to work. Weiss recommends making a list of companies or organizations where you would like to intern. Rattle your networks of professors, recent grads, friends, and family to find the names of the hiring managers. Then see if your contacts can make an introduction or referral on your behalf. In many organizations, employee referrals get more serious consideration than those coming in cold.

If you don’t know anyone in those companies, use impersonal means such as company Web sites or  LinkedIn to get the names of managers in the department offering the internship. Send your résumé to those managers as well as the H.R. department.  

Like hunting for a permanent job, Weiss says, do your homework on the target companies. Read their annual report and news about the organization — and not just the press releases on the company Web site — to learn what’s going on in the organization, the products and services offered, and who are their customers. Customize your cover letter and résumé to display this background research. Few hiring managers will expect an intern to have a lot of direct experience in their kind of work, but you still can highlight problems solved or leadership provided in campus organizations or in part-time jobs you’ve held.

If you get an interview it will likely be held over the telephone — unless you’re local — since few companies have the resources to pay travel for intern interviews. In a 2006 Tooling Up column, Dave Jensen gave advice on nailing telephone interviews. More phones have gone mobile since then, but Dave’s advice still applies. And if you’re lucky enough to get a personal interview, career coach G.L. Hoffman earlier this month gave students a few pointers on job interviews from the hiring manager’s perspective. (Really dudes, lose the chewing gum.)

In the interview, Weiss advises, ask about next steps and timetable, which will show your enthusiasm for the internship and give you an idea of when to follow-up if you don’t hear anything. And send a thank you note — hard copy or e-mail — that offers a sincere ‘thank you’ and also emphasizes your strengths, or covers over rough spots in the interview.

Pay is always a touchy subject in internship interviews. Fortunately, many science internships are paid positions, supported by research grants or programs like NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates. If, however, you’re being considered for an internship with a not-for-profit organization or start-up company, you may need to balance the desire for experience against the limited compensation they offer. Here’s where you will need to think through in advance potential scenarios and make a decision based on your current needs versus future opportunities.