How important are Internships or Coops during college?

Importance of Internship and Coop

I have seen a few students with excellent grades and no work experience because they went to school year-round without getting any real work experience for a company. This is okay if your goal is to get a Ph.D. and work for the university as a Professor. However, if the goal is to join industry after getting your BS, MS or Ph.D. degree, then having some work experience during school is very important.

As a recruiter, I am very interested to see which companies were willing to hire you and the type of work that you did during your internship or coop. There are a number of questions I will ask you about your summer jobs to give me information about your experience at the company. See the discussion at The Interview Day on “What could the interviewer ask about your Work Experience?” Your goal is to get a positive recommendation from the company or ideally an offer to return for another internship or coop or a permanent (full-time) job.

Who do you need to impress during your internship or coop?

In many internships or coops, you will have a manager and a team leader. The manager leads the department and there can be anywhere from 10 to 20 people in the department. There can be any number of team leaders within the department depending on the number of ongoing projects and the number of people in the group. The team leaders are usually more experienced individuals who have more knowledge of the project than the individuals on the team. As a student, you will get most of your direction for the project from the team leader. They will also help point you in the right direction to solve problems. The team leader is usually asked by the manager to report on your ability to do the assignment. Their input is very important and you need to create a very good working relationship with your team leader.

At the end of the day, it is the manager who will determine how successful you are in your internship or coop. The manager is responsible for appraising all of the employees in the department so while they will take input from the team leader, they will also have their own opinion of your abilities. It is crucial you develop your own relationship with the manager and not rely solely on the input from the team leader.

How do you keep your manager informed of your work?

Most managers are very busy and don’t have a lot of time to spend working with students. They appreciate having students in the group and know that they have a better opportunity to increase the size of their department if they have interns and coops in their department. Managers spend their time  in project and management meetings and in keeping their own managers up to date on their own work and the work of the employees in their department. Managers have a lot of responsibilities and very little free time. Managers appreciate students who are self-driven, show some signs of maturity, demonstrate a healthy level of curiosity, able to ask the team leader for help with difficult problems, and have the ability to receive feedback.

While your manager is very busy, it is still critical that you keep them up to date on your work. I suggest that you schedule a 30-minute meeting with your manager either once a week or twice a month. With a scheduled calendar meeting, your manager will set aside time to speak to you. This meeting is not “off the top of your head”. You need to come prepared with a Status Report so that you can use your 30 minute meeting to tell your manager exactly what you are doing in your job. I would recommend asking other employees in the department how often they meet with the manager for status updates.

What if your manager changes jobs during your internship or coop?

It is very common for managers to change management jobs every one to two years. They may move laterally to a different management position, or they may move vertically to a higher level position. There are some managers who stay in the same position for several years especially if they are older and have been in management for some time. If your manager leaves after you have been updating them on your work, then you have to start updating the new manager. You shouldn’t assume that your first manager will tell the new manager about everything that you have done or that they will remember to share your status reports with them. It is your job to transfer any important information from one manager to the next manager.

It is important to save the contact information for your manager and team leader.

When your internship or coop are over, you should store the contact information for your manager and team leader. It is really easy to forget their names and eMail addresses once the assignment is over. As a recruiter, if your internship or coop is in my company, I am going to ask you for the manager’s name so I can contact them and ask them about your work experience.

How and when can I ask to continue working during the school year?

In some cases, it is okay to ask to continue to work part-time after the internship or coop are finished. If your piece of the project is close to be completed or your expertise is needed, the manager may be able to extend your assignment into the school year. If you are interested in returning to this company, then this part-time work may put you in a better position to receive an offer to return for a subsequent position. Continuing assignments are almost always in the same department and on the same project. It is not very common for students to continue to work in the company for a different manager.
If you want to request working part-time after you return to school, it is best to wait until closer to the end of the assignment. For a 3-4 month internship, I would suggest waiting until 2-3 weeks before the end of the assignment. For a 6-8 month coop, I would suggest waiting until 4 weeks before the end of the assignment. This will give your manager plenty of time to decide and support your request.

To read more, see my Paperback/Kindle book on Amazon.com

“My Recruiting Secrets for Engineering Students” (Published Sept, 2013)

There are many important considerations when you have an Internship or Co-op. For example, there are good and bad ways to keep your manager informed of your work. My book shows you how to create a status report and how to discuss your work with your manager. It is common for managers to move to new positions during your Internship or Co-op assignment. My books shows you good strategies to deal with this difficult situation. My book also shows you how and when to discuss continuing your assignment during the school year.

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