Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Undergrad Summer Internships: Email Spam?

It is funny that I received about half a dozen generic internship emails, since a recent post "Indian undergrads' internship request e-mails" appeared on nanopolitan. If you read the discussion around the topic (comments and links), it is clear that there are two categories of potential interns, the serious and the not-so-serious.

Let's dismiss the not-so-serious, and consider only the serious. At one point in time, I was one of them.

At that time, I was strongly conflicted between going to grad school or industry, with a bias towards the latter. Email was not as ubiquitous then (I think we had a quota of 300 extramural emails per semester, or something like that). Luckily, I spent an extremely enjoyable summer at HLRC, working on a computational project, after my sophomore year. I spent the following summer at an aromatics plant in Taloja. By the end of the second internship, it was clear to me that I wanted to go to grad school.

Clearly, I am indebted to those internships.

But now, my role has switched. I look at the process from an institutional standpoint. What did the institutions that gave me interships gain? My guess is that it let them "check me out" for possible future employment. In many ways, this is an efficient way to hire. The actual work was probably lost, shortly after I left.

From the standpoint of both, the student and the institution, the actual work accomplished over the internship is less important than the effect of that experience on future career/employment choices.

With that, let me get back to the "internship emails" I typically receive from IITians who want to work for about "8-12 weeks". The only motivation for a professor (in the US), that I can conjure, would be if he/she could recruit a good student for a subsequent MS or PhD. Anecdote is not data (and personal anecdote, less so), but I haven't seen a single internship prospect of this kind, materialize into a grad student. Surely counter-examples can be supplied, but if it were a great hiring tool, I suspect that it would naturally have been used more extensively (like it still is in industry).

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