Training: A winning detour

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Work placements can offer research students real-world experience and a valuable taste of their future career.

While other members of his computer-science PhD programme were working on projects, Kory Mathewson took a Google break. Earlier this year, he attended a presentation on job opportunities at the company and spotted a mathematical puzzle on one of the slides. Solving that puzzle led him to a series of coding challenges that helped him to win the ultimate prize: a 12-week internship at the global technology giant that ended in June.

The placement offered Mathewson a different flavour of computer science, which he was already studying for his PhD at the University of Alberta in Canada. At Google, he was developing ways for computers to generate sounds through synthesizers based on neural networks, part of a project exploring the expression of art and music through machine learning. When Mathewson left in June, he walked straight into a second internship at Apple — and he is confident that his placements at the two tech leaders will now propel him into a research career in artificial intelligence. “Having non-traditional training helps set you apart,” he says. “You have to round yourself out.”

Walter Bieri/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Taking a break from study to work as an intern can put graduate students on the path to success.

Taking time out for an internship can give a PhD student a fresh perspective on their research and their careers. These positions, which typically offer a few weeks or months with a company or other organization, provide a first-hand view into a professional field (see 'Know before you go'). Many of these placements in science and technology-related fields are paid. There are downsides, of course: stopping or pausing PhD work can be tricky, and there's often a risk of getting sidetracked or falling behind. But for students who find the right opportunity and secure the support of their institution and supervisor, an internship can be a winning detour.

Nobody tracks the total number of science-based internships available to PhD students, but it's clear that the model has spread to all fields and all parts of the world. It's also clear that competition for such positions is often intense. A spokesperson for Google in Mountain View, California, says that the company receives thousands of applications for internships every year. But even at lower-profile organizations, hopefuls will probably have to play to the strengths that will make them valuable assets to such employers.

Rachael Treharne, an ecology PhD student at the University of Sheffield, UK, promoted her scientific experience when she sought and won a three-month internship as a climate-change policy analyst. At her interview, she emphasized her research in the field, which had included sampling and experiments in the Norwegian Arctic and the boreal forest of Canada. “Having a grounding in the natural sciences was a really big advantage,” she says. “I could see during the interview that that angle was working, so I pushed it quite a lot.”

Box 1: Know before you go

Internships vary widely from one organization to another, so be sure to ask the right questions before taking a position, says Katherine Horner, assistant director of graduate programmes, assessment and off-campus internships at Clemson University in South Carolina. Here are some of the key things to find out about.

  • Renumeration Job seekers are often told that it's bad form to ask about money in the first interview. That's true for internships, too — unless that first interview is the only interview. Some internships pay much less than others, so have this conversation early, before you commit yourself.
  • Mentorship For a successful internship, you need a supervisor who is willing to show you the ropes and offer guidance where necessary. Otherwise, you could get overlooked: “You may discover that there's no desk or computer,” Horner says. “You'll wonder if anyone even knew you were coming.” So identify someone early on, or in advance if possible, who can help in this way.
  • Job prospects Many internships are essentially extended job trials. Ask how many interns end up working at the organization. The answer will tell you much about the quality of the internship and perhaps give you a glimpse of your own future.
  • Track record Some of the best internship programmes have been around for a number of years, long enough for them to develop well-established systems. If you're one of the first PhD interns at an organization, you might not have a chance to really put your talents to work.
  • A day in the life Some organizations hire interns to handle mundane and unpleasant tasks, so it's important to find out exactly what they expect you to do on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. If the job description says “other tasks as necessary”, try to work out what's really involved.
  • Testimonials Seek out people in the organization and ask about their experiences — particularly those who did an internship themselves. What do they like about coming to work? What are the biggest challenges? The answers will give you an insight into working life there.

Her stint at BirdLife International, a non-profit conservation consortium based in Cambridge, UK, turned out to be a dream job, if only for the short term. “I wanted to find out what it was like working at a non-governmental organization, and I loved it,” she says. “It's very different from the specific knowledge that you get from a PhD.”

Treharne says that in a perfect world, she would get back to policy work after she graduates. Such permanent positions are relatively scarce and highly competitive, but she feels that she now has an advantage over competing applicants. Not only does she have real-world experience, she has a roster of people to call for advice, answers and, most importantly, references. “I'd be much more worried about what I was going to do if I didn't have the contacts that I have now,” she says.

Margot Paez didn't have deep reserves of scientific experience when she applied for an internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. She was a former ethnomusicology major who had just taken her first physics class as an undergraduate at a two-year college. She showed such promise in that class that her professor encouraged her to apply to the Consortium for Undergraduate Research Experience, a US National Science Foundation programme that awards paid internships to promising undergraduate students from community colleges in and around Los Angeles, California. That professor's hunch paid off, and Paez ended up contributing to the data analysis for SHERLOC, a new spectrometer for the 2020 Mars rover. She also developed a web-based repository for samples to be collected by SHERLOC.

Keyfer Mathewson

Kory Mathewson learns the ropes as a Google intern.

Paez thinks that her music background and computer-programming skills helped her to land the position. “They wanted someone who is interesting and well-rounded,” she says. “You'd think the kid who went to California Institute of Technology right out of high school would be the one they want at JPL, but in my lab that's not the case.”

Paez continued her JPL internship part-time even after she relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, where she is working on her PhD in robotic physics from the Georgia Institute of Technology. These days, she visits the JPL lab while staying at her parents' house during brief breaks from studying. “My goal is to reintegrate with the lab at JPL once I'm done with my PhD,” she says. Spending summers and winter breaks in California may slightly slow her PhD work, but Paez says the time away is worth it. “My advice is to try everything, and don't worry if it takes longer than you think,” she says.

However, balancing the demands of an internship while pursuing a PhD can be a challenge. Treharne felt extra pressure to catch up on her doctoral work when she returned. “I had a couple of months of blind panic,” she says. She now feels that she's been able to make up for the lost time, thanks partly to skills that she picked up at the internship, including the ability to multitask. “I've worked much more efficiently since I came back,” she says.

Some of the largest science companies in the world are tapping into the intern market. In 2016, the German-based chemical company BASF hired roughly 300 interns in its research and development department; most of them are based at the company's headquarters in Ludwigshafen. The majority of interns at BASF are pursuing PhDs in Germany, but the company also hires interns from other parts of Europe as well as from the United States, says Barbara Jessel, a research chemist and member of the firm's recruitment team. “We look for committed people with different experiences and perspectives,” Jessel says. “The interns take part in real projects and are full members of the team. They gain an insight into how the company works and get the chance to build up a personal network.”

Internship opportunities also exist beyond North America and Europe. The technology company Intel, for example, hires PhD interns at branches in Cairo, Beijing, Jakarta and Hong Kong, among other places. CRCC Asia — a company founded by graduate students from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, UK — connects interns (including PhD students in technology and science) with more than 600 companies in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

The Australian government recently allocated Aus$28 million (US$21.3 million) to the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) to expand its own internship programme. Clients range from small start-ups to large banks, mining operations and telecommunications companies. “The goal is to make PhD students ready for work,” says Glen Sheldon, the national programme manager. “We want them to see the opportunities that they have.”

“I'd be much more worried about what I was going to do if I didn't have the contacts that I have now.”

The internships, which last an average of five months, should help to create new options for the country's glut of doctoral students, Sheldon says. “Australia pumps out a huge number of PhDs, and that number has been increasing dramatically over the past few years,” he says. About 125,000 students in Australia earned graduate degrees in 2015, more than double the tally from 2001, according to Universities Australia, an association that represents the nation's institutions. “Not all of them are going to end up teaching at a university. We have to find a way to put them into the broader economy,” Sheldon adds.

The intern programme also addresses a lack of collaboration between academia and industry, Sheldon says. “We do research really well,” he says. “But when you look at transferring knowledge, we're stone-cold last.” Inserting PhD students into companies can only help to encourage collaboration, he says.

Internships in some fields have a reputation for being a source of cheap or even free labour for employers. According to the non-profit group Brussels Interns NGO, often known as B!ingo, more than half of all student internships in Europe are unpaid, and some PhD students do end up taking unpaid positions, especially in conservation and ecology (see Nature 522, 131; 2015). But many PhD interns in the sciences are compensated for their time and efforts. The AMSI interns, for example, receive a stipend of Aus$3,000 a month. Treharne says that she continued to receive her usual stipend through the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) while she interned at BirdLife International. “That was crucial,” she says. “Otherwise I couldn't have done it.” The site, which collects salary data for many companies, suggests that Google interns generally earn in the range of US$6,000–$7,000 a month.

Students also need the blessing and support of their home institutions before they can take time off for an internship. Treharne says that both the University of Sheffield and NERC made it easy for her to put her PhD work on hold. Mathewson says that he had to take the initiative. “It took a little bit of perseverance and self-motivation to find a position and connect with a company,” he says. But once he was offered an internship, his supervisor and the university were accommodating, he says.

Mathewson says that, as is the case for many students, the lessons from his internship will help to power him through his PhD — and beyond.“People at Google are productive and know how to use their code and pipelines in a way that I hadn't seen before,” he says. “I'm learning incredible practices.”

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  1. Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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