Making the Most of Your Internship

Four recent interns and co-op students share advice on how to maximize the internship experience.

By Nicole Woon, SWE Editorial Board

Participating in an internship is an incredible opportunity to gain practical work experience outside the classroom and explore possible career paths. At the same time, it can be daunting given differences in projects, work styles, and organizational culture between academic and corporate work environments. I talked with four individuals who reflected on their recent internship and co-op experiences, with hopes that their insights help incoming interns get started on the right foot.

Once you sign the papers, now what? When asked how they prepared for their internships, many suggested having conversations with other students who had completed an internship at the organization. This is an excellent way to understand how the program works, listen to their personal experiences, and learn about best practices and things they would do differently. You can also reach out to organization contacts such as a recruiter or manager to coordinate logistics for your arrival and see if any pre-work is required before you start. Most importantly, take a moment to celebrate your achievements! Securing an internship is no easy feat with the amount of resume/interview preparation and competition involved, so recognize what you’ve accomplished.

CREDIT: Sorbetto

An internship lasts for a finite amount of time, so once work begins, maximize every moment to learn. All interviewees recommended meeting as many people as possible during the internship. Rebekah Varghese, a chemical and biomolecular engineering major graduating in 2023 from the University of Pennsylvania, said that “to get to know the team better, I scheduled one-on-one chats with each of them early on so I could understand their roles and backgrounds better, as well as get their insights on my project.” Consider reaching out to co-workers in other disciplines and departments to learn about what they do and how it relates to your current team. This will help you gain more clarity about your career goals and increase your exposure across the organization.

Vidhya Thiyagarajan, a chemical engineering major graduating in 2023 from the University of Pittsburgh, also explained how “there will be a large learning curve, whether it be due to learning about the specifics of the products or services your company provides, applying concepts you may have not yet learned in school, or the operations of your department,” she said. “Your manager and fellow members of your team are aware of this and will be more than happy to answer any questions you have so that you grow confident in your role and are developing professionally and personally throughout your work experience.”

The strength of collaboration

Cross-functional collaboration was unanimously stated as the biggest difference between school and work. Work interactions help you improve your communication skills with different audiences and see things from new perspectives. Lindsey Yu, who graduated in 2022 from the University of Pennsylvania with computer science and business analytics degrees, was surprised to see how much collaboration was encouraged and valued in the workplace.

“I found that most people on my team were excited to help me and share what they were working on. What makes a team strong is a diversity of background and expertise (it is all right to not know everything).”

Most importantly, take a moment to celebrate your achievements! Securing an internship is no easy feat with the amount of resume/interview preparation and competition involved, so recognize what you’ve accomplished.

Morgan Ratzan-Wank, a mechanical engineering major graduating in 2024 from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, agrees, saying that “all jobs require you to collaborate with others, and effective communication is key to accommodate everyone’s schedules and differing work styles. I was surprised how little ‘technical knowledge’ was used. A lot of the internships required mainly learning on the job and being comfortable to ask others for help or advice.”

The approach to problem solving and tackling projects can also be different. Thiyagarajan explained how “at school, we typically get assigned deadlines for homework, projects, and exams that we can work toward throughout the semester, and these deliverables will have clear guidelines as to what’s expected. However, your projects in internship and co-op may be much more open-ended, both in terms of the work that needs to be done and the timeline. You will have to be a self-starter and work with your supervisor to set your own deadlines and identify project actions.”

Becoming more self-driven and proactive will get you the right amount of support where and when you need it. Varghese “had to very quickly learn to be my own advocate and communicate with my manager if I wasn’t getting enough or too much work to do.

“Working was also very collaborative,” she said. “I had to make sure to leave very good documentation/notes whenever I did something, which was a little different than in school when you can sort of be in your own bubble at times, depending on the class.” Because others may continue working on your project after you leave, keep in mind the legacy of your contributions and how you can set your successor up for success.

As the internship comes to a close, reflect on the experience. Is this an industry you could see yourself continuing in? Did you enjoy the job responsibilities? Do/Did your co-workers and the work align with your values? Ratzan-Wank suggests trying “to differentiate exactly what you do and do not like about the experience, so you can use that information to your advantage in the future. Take it as a learning opportunity to see what you like to do and what type of environment you work best in.”

That introspection can help you springboard into a role that is a better fit. Yu shared an anecdote about an internship where she enjoyed the work environment, but was staffed on projects that were less technical in nature. Thanks to an introduction at a Grace Hopper meetup facilitated by one of her mentors, Yu was able to meet her current manager in a casual environment, reached out during the next recruiting cycle, and joined her team full time last year. She “would have never interacted with her team had I just stayed within the realm of the projects I was interning on,” so advised researching “your whole organization and reach out to teams that are doing work that you find interesting!”

A final thing to note is that an internship experience is a two-way street. It is both a valuable experience for the student and a meaningful interaction for company employees. My company’s summer intern season is one of my favorite times of the year because of the energy and enthusiasm that interns bring. Getting to build meaningful mentoring relationships is incredibly rewarding. It reminds me of how I treasured the guidance and advice I received during my internships. It takes time to learn the ropes, but soon you’ll be well-seasoned and ready to help other students make the most of their internships.

Nicole Woon (she/her) is a SharePoint product manager with Microsoft and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.S.E. (mechanical engineering) and two B.S.E.s (bioengineering, entrepreneurial management). Recognized as a SWE Distinguished New Engineer in 2021, she is an active SWE life member and currently serves on the nominating committee and editorial board.