Internships are not traditionally part of a PhD student’s training.
Which is kind of odd, when you think about it.
After all, internships are a common method for students and recent graduates across all kinds of industries to gain some first-hand experience in their chosen profession.
Yet, as much as graduate students and PhDs insist that their skills are transferable to a variety of different professions beyond academia, far too few of them make the effort to demonstrate that transferability during their PhD studies.
Internships for PhD students are a fantastic way to do just that.
Is being a PhD intern necessary for getting an industry job? No. Plenty of PhDs have made the leap directly from academia to working in industry.
But there’s no denying that industry internships for PhD students are an invaluable opportunity to build non-academic skills and jump straight into a full-time role after graduation.
Without further ado, here are several great reasons to consider industry internship programs during your PhD studies (with some bonus advice on how to actually land that elusive PhD internship without interrupting your graduate studies).
1. Try Out Different Industry Careers
First, and most obviously, internships for PhD students are a fantastic opportunity to ‘test the waters’ of various industry jobs and careers.
As we’ve discussed before, finding out what job you want is one of the hardest phases of the PhD career transition. You have to identify your skill set, personal values, financial needs, and triangulate your career options accordingly.
The problem a lot of PhD candidates run into is that academia and higher education is all we’ve ever known. Simply forming the experiential basis for deciding what industry careers we’d like can be quite a challenge.
A lot of people don’t know whether they’ll like something until they try it. A lot of people, in fact, are really bad at knowing what they want out of a job.
Interning during your PhD will help you make that decision. It’ll help you figure out what you want out of an industry job.
2. Build Non-Academic Skills and Experience
Academics and PhDs seeking industry jobs face a bizarre paradox: they are seen by many employers as both overqualified and underqualified for the job at hand.
How is this possible? Because of how the word “qualified” encompasses both one’s credentials and one’s experiences.
You may be considered “overqualified” because of your advanced degree. In fact, the more accurate term here is “over-credentialed,” but that’s another discussion.
On the flipside, you may be deemed “underqualified” because all your research has been in an academic, rather than industrial, contexts. Your PhD doesn’t furnish you with the concrete skills and experiences needed to perform an industry role.
Internships for PhD students are how you cut that Gordian knot.
By interning during your PhD program and participating in industry projects—even if only as a lab assistant—you’ll gain meaningful non-academic experience that will put you leagues ahead of other PhD students in your position.
You don’t even have to use the word “intern” when describing it on your resume! Terms of art like “lab assistant” or “research assistant” will do the job just fine.
3. Learn Workplace Norms
This is a crucial, yet often overlooked, perk of interning during PhD studies. By taking on a professional internship, you’ll immerse yourself in business and industry culture.
The world of industry has its own rules and norms, its own laws of gravity. Tragically, many academics and PhDs are forced to learn this the hard way—through rejected job applications, flubbed interviews, awkward networking encounters, you name it.
But by participating in an industry internship program as a PhD student, you’ll get a head start in acclimatizing yourself to this strange new world. You’ll learn what to wear. What to say. How to approach your boss. How to snatch yogurt from the break room fridge without getting caught.
In short, you’ll develop cultural fluency. You’ll learn all the subtle cultural codes, gestures, and expressions you’ll need to show future employers that you’re one of them.
It sounds trivial, but we really can’t overstate how crucial this kind of cultural fluency is. Employers look for cultural fit in prospective employees, sometimes above all other qualifications. Industry internships for PhD students are a fantastic way to develop your cultural fit early on.
4. Springboard Into a Full-Time Job
It’s well known that many employers, especially in industry sectors, like to use internship programs to identify, test, and ultimately recruit new employees.
If there’s a single company or organization you are absolutely committed to working for, an internship is perhaps the best way to ‘get your foot in the door’ and set the stage for a full-time job offer.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge the muddy moral implications of this practice. In many industries, some form of contract or internship experience is essentially a requirement for full-time “entry-level” positions.
Not long ago, “entry-level” really did mean exactly that: a job you can enter and do well without prior experience. But nowadays, entry-level jobs requiring 1–3 years previous experience are not uncommon.
That is, unfortunately, the name of the game in many sectors of industry. If you want to play that game, internships are the way to go.
5. How to Land an Internship as a PhD Student
There are tons of industry internship programs offered by major companies and organizations.
Now, industry internship programs are usually designed with undergrads or recent college graduates in mind. But that doesn’t mean they won’t consider grad students!
The first step is to make abundantly clear your interest and enthusiasm for the role when you apply. They may still think you’re overqualified (whatever that means). But, at the very least, don’t let them think you think you’re overqualified!
Second, play up your hard and soft skills wherever possible. There is a wide assortment of STEM soft skills you can cite both on your resume and in your cover letter.
If there’s a smaller company you’re dead-set on working for, you may be able to create your own (probably unpaid) research internship or industry internship program with them.
This will involve a lot of networking: calling up current employees; getting to know them; communicating your interests; carefully raising the prospect of interning with them. In other words, it won’t happen overnight. But if you really think the company’s the right fit for you, it’ll be well worth the effort.
Obviously, summer internships tend to fit a PhD student’s schedule a lot better than a conventional year-round internship. If you can take some time away from your dissertation and afford an intern’s salary, summer internships for PhD students are a fantastic way to slip in some industry work experience between your research and writing.
And hey, if taking an internship means pushing your dissertation defense date back a few months, that’s fine! If your summer internship blossoms into a full-time job after graduation, it’ll be well worth it.
Internships for PhDs are a very important resource for any grad student looking to break into industry after graduation.
To summarize, any industry internship program worth applying for should provide the following:
- First-hand experience in an industry you’re interested in breaking into
- Linear work experience, including non-academic skills and training
- A crash course on business culture and workplace norms
- A potential springboard into a full-time position
Long story short: if you get a chance to intern as a PhD student during graduate school for an organization you’re genuinely interested in, do it!
The ideal time would be in your first couple years, before your dissertation research really ramps up. But even a late-stage PhD internship, or one shortly after obtaining your PhD, can be well worth the investment.
For more advice on breaking into non-academic industry careers, check out our full article on what you can do with your STEM PhD.
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