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SPIE Professional April 2010

Internship Can Light the Way

Many opportunities can be hidden within an internship.

By Beth Kelley

internship illustration

Students often think of an internship as just another college requirement. However, there are many hidden opportunities within an internship.

For one, it is surprisingly easy to launch a career using an internship. These days, more companies are treating internship programs as extended job interviews for permanent positions. In the United States, a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers revealed that during the 2002-03 academic year, employers converted more than 38% of their interns into full-time hires.

Even for students who don't think they will enter the corporate realm, interning with a corporate lab or office can provide lots of good experiences.

"The benefit for students is obvious," says Javier Hernandez-Andres, an associate professor at Universidad de Granada, Spain. "They get enrolled in research projects at the universities or in collaboration with companies, they are able to feel the atmosphere of a research group, and they get an experience that will be essential for future jobs."

Academic Synergy

It is also possible to make the internship work towards graduation by selecting master's thesis topics that involve the participation of companies. "In fact, the topics covered are not very different from those studied in academic laboratories," says SPIE Fellow Henri-Jean Drouhin, director of studies at the École Polytechnique in France.

"Last year, for semiconductor physics, one quarter of the internships were performed in an industrial laboratory," Drouhin says of his students.

Hernandez-Andres explains that the topics covered during an internship will be more applied than the basic research normally conducted at universities. "Also, students will have more opportunities to find a job in this company after completing the master thesis," he says.

María Yzuel, 2009 SPIE President and a professor at Universidad Autonóma de Barcelona, Spain, says that students' opinions about their experiences with internships are good. "Sometimes they are able to get a job either in the same company or in a related one," she says.

Drouhin concurs with Yzuel, citing several Ecole Polytechnique students who were able to continue on at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA. "Our students highly appreciate these internships, which constitute a unique opportunity to perform research at an international level," Drouhin says.

Coordination Key

There are also benefits for universities to provide and coordinate internships. Companies who coordinate with universities can pick and choose who interns with them.

For non-industrial labs such as at universities, "It is nice to have former students in our research groups working together," Hernandez-Andres says. "We know them already so they are not new staff in the groups. We don't have to break the ice."

Coordination between industry and universities, however, can be tough. Few companies devote resources to internship programs or reaching out to nearby universities. "It is not easy to find these companies," says Hernandez-Andres.

"The challenge is to establish the needed contacts at the companies to offer the students the possibility of doing an internship," says Yzuel. She explains that some students have made the connection themselves. Reaching out to companies in this way demonstrates that the student is self-directed and takes initiative. It also opens the door for future potential interns.

European Efforts

EU programs and individual countries are also beginning to pitch in to connect students with opportunities to practice their skills in real-world settings.

Yzuel was part of a Photonics21 group in January to help coordinate internships and determine what businesses need. "Recently a survey has been done in the technology companies in order to know better what the expectations of the companies are. Few companies have answered, but the results, which were presented in our annual meeting in Brussels, are interesting." The results will be published at www.photonics21.org.  

"Backing Young Britain" is a campaign bringing government, business, and other organizations together throughout the UK to create new training and job opportunities for young people through apprenticeships, paid jobs, mentoring, or other types of work experience. "Investing in young people is not only commercially sensible, it is also the right thing to do on many levels," writes Ian Powell, chairman, PricewaterhouseCoopers UK.

Tom Guldemont, photonics business developer at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, coordinated a workshop on entrepreneurship in photonics in January to educate undergraduates, graduate students, and post-doctoral researchers on how to connect with industry and even bring products to market. This included confidentially pitching ideas to industry leaders in the photonics industry.

Guldemont said that the goal of the workshop was to prepare researchers "for the challenges they will be confronted with when starting up a new company." Information like this is invaluable even for researchers who never intend on starting a business but hope to work with those in a non-research setting.

Internship Value

By strategically using an internship to work alongside optics and photonics businesses and research labs, students gain important technical on-the-job training, real-world experience which can be applied in any setting, and a lead in their search for future employment.

Strong academic performance can also be influential with some employers.

Beth Kelley is an editor for SPIE.

Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.  

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201004.10

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