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Practice Makes Perfect: Using Internships to Advance Your Career

Posted by Monica Mellinger on

by Ashle Page

Internships are one of the best ways to prepare for your future career. As aspiring engineers, putting knowledge into practice is fundamental to what it means to be an engineer. Gaining work experience provides insight into what it means to be part of the workforce and how you will fit into workplace culture. Internships can also help you decide what jobs you may want and what jobs you do not want. Sometimes internships can even lead to a full-time job.

The Importance of Getting Work Experience

Hands-On Work Experience

Having work experience early on in your college career can lead to more opportunities for other internships or full-time jobs later on. Internships can provide students with hands-on experience and the mentorship of actual working professionals. These internships typically allow students to gain skills in working both independently and on teams. Chemical engineering students could work in a variety of environments from pure research labs in biomedical, aerospace, environmental, and energy settings, to financial analysis, safety evaluations and much, much more.

Mentorship and Culture

While some companies or organizations may not offer internships to underclassmen, do not let that discourage you from seeking out other opportunities. Many worksites may offer work opportunities for underclassmen that can continue throughout college. Others may only offer short-term or unpaid programs, however, every experience is an opportunity to grow your career. Likewise, if a certain company does not offer internships, the company may have mentorship programs so that you can talk with professionals about their work. Like actual internships, these opportunities can provide insight into what it is like to work in a particular job and how you may fit into the culture of the workplace.

Jobs and Your Résumé

Internships can add significantly to your résumé. While jobs directly related to chemical engineering may be favorable to companies when seeking a full-time job, any type of work opportunity can look good on a résumé and can provide fundamental work experience. Having a job or volunteer experience demonstrates a person’s dedication and ability to work with others. When listing internships on your résumé, include information about the tasks you had, the skills you gained, and the impact you made. Before putting information about an experience on your résumé, check with your internship supervisor to ensure you are only sharing information approved by the organization.

Tips for Securing an Internship

Your AIChE Student Chapter is a great place to start for making connections with companies and other organizations. These chapters often offer events with speakers that are working professionals. By attending these events, you can ask questions about a workplace and the speaker’s personal take on the organization – information you will not find if simply doing an internet search. These events may also be a great way to find out about potential career opportunities. Research the organization in advance of the event so that you can narrow your questions to ensure you truly understand the workplace. Being able to talk about the organization’s background is also helpful in impressing professionals and adding to your ability to possibly obtain a work experience. Doing internet searches for particular types of jobs, visiting your school’s career center, speaking with a professor or advisor, and even speaking with other students can also contribute to for future internships and full-time jobs.

When searching for full-time jobs and other internships, it is important to think about the skills and strengths you gained through a particular past internship and how you can tailor them to the job you are seeking. In applications and interviews, be able to talk about specific projects you worked on and how those opportunities connect with your other activities and ultimately your career plan. Create a narrative of your experience so that you can speak conversationally about your work and can better convey your skills to an application reviewer or interviewer.

Understanding the Work Culture

Internships can also provide insight into what it actually means to be an employee of a particular organization. Though after conducting an internet search you may think you would like to work permanently at a company, you cannot truly know what to expect until you actually work there. Being “on the job” will allow you to learn about a work environment, including what attire you should wear, what your work schedule may be, and how much of your job will be independent versus team-oriented.

Learning the “lingo” of the workplace can also enable you to build rapport with your fellow supervisors and colleagues. A wealth of acronyms and terms may be confusing as you begin work, however, listening to others and asking questions can help you catch on and be successful. Especially when working in technical areas, asking questions when you are unsure can also be a matter of safety. Operation of certain machinery, software, equipment, and lab techniques may involve considerate danger. It is important to understand each worksite’s protocol and policies with regard to safety and operations. By doing internships in areas involving hazardous workplaces, you can gain experience and have one-on-one attention from supervisors to help you navigate new procedures. Do not be afraid to ask questions or double check with a supervisor to ensure you are learning methods correctly and safely during your internship.

Working as an intern can also allow you to find out about long-term benefits of working at a particular company or organization. In particular, information on certain financial benefits may not be posted on public websites and may not be available to non-employees. Benefits including 401(k) accounts, IRAs, stocks, vacation time, and sick and family leave are important considerations for your future job. Being an intern can give you direct access to employees who can communicate the nature of any benefits. Speaking with these employees during internships can also provide you with insight into work-life balance at the organization and even the retention rates of employees.

Building Relationships

Likely, the most important aspect of internships is forming new relationships. Whether with supervisors or colleagues, gaining professional contacts can contribute to your future career. Supervisors may serve as your references and fellow interns may become lifelong friends and colleagues. These relationships can only be pursued, however, through your own contributions to your workplace. There is no supplement for hard work and this can pay off through diligence, patience, and kindness toward others.

Paid vs. Unpaid

While unpaid internships can provide hardships on students, seek out grants from your school or other organizations. Local, national, and international STEM-related organizations often provide opportunities for students to apply for funding, especially during the summer. Unpaid internships can certainly provide just as much experience as paid experiences. Volunteering part-time throughout the academic year can additionally be a way to gain more skills and to possibly secure summer or full-time positions.

Types of Internships and the Benefit of Trying Multiple Kinds

Chemical engineering students have the benefit of pursuing a versatile degree. Careers in academia, industry, and government can all utilize an engineering mindset. While focusing early on within a set area of the profession may provide you a doorway into a specific career path, it is also beneficial to branch out to work in other areas to provide you with a back-up plan or alternatives to your initial dream job. Dreams can change and you will not know if you are missing something unless you try. Sometimes closing doors can be as important as opening them. Working in on-campus labs, volunteering with companies after school, or participating in a government-sponsored program can allow you to gain snippets of experiences to expand your horizons and to also build your portfolio.

Professionalism

Finally, professionalism is the key to your internship success. It is imperative that you show respect and deference to authority while in the workplace. This does not, however, preclude your own duty to do what is right and to question your supervisors if you believe something is wrong or that misconduct has occurred. Additionally, ask your supervisors about any confidentiality, work system security concerns, or other organizational policies that you may need to know about. This will ensure that you can focus on your work and that you can be successful in all that you do during your internship.


The bottom line is, you can do this! As an intern, you will learn from others and your fellow employees will also learn from you. Congratulations on embarking on your contribution to society and the chemical engineering community!