Monday, November 2, 2015

How to Find an Awesome Space Internship

A student contacted me today asking for advice about finding internships. I previously wrote advice to companies seeking interns, but hadn't yet written advice for students seeking internships. Now's the time. Please keep in mind that I'm writing from my own experience and that this may not encompass every opportunity for students.

With the internet as mature as it is now, it's easy to find internship websites. This wasn't the case when I was a freshman in college looking for my first summer internship. I wrote to the head of educational programs at Kennedy Space Center who responded that there were no non-engineering internships for scientists at KSC and that I would need to change my major to apply (which is completely untrue, but I didn't know that back then). I resorted to “cold calling” to get my first internship that summer, which worked well for me.

Now, every formal opportunity has a website. Whether those websites are kept updated and organized is another story. Don't be fooled into thinking that what's published are the only opportunities out there. Just as networking leads to success in job searches, leverage contacts to find informal or unpublished internships that have little or no competition.

The internet is your friend. Search terms such as “NASA internships,” “space internships,” “aerospace internships,” “astronomy internships,” “engineering internships,” etc. produce a lot of results. You can stay broad in your search or look for a very specific opportunity. Don't forget to browse social media sites as well.

Check out company websites. Almost all of them will post job opportunities. Remember that there are more newspace companies out there than just SpaceX! Be open-minded. Smaller companies or companies that don't post internships specifically usually have a HR contact. It never hurts to ask. If you know anyone in the company, feel free to contact them as well – this is called using your network. Published internships at larger companies or entities tend to be more competitive, so be prepared to see strict deadlines with application requirements such as transcripts and letters of recommendation. Some internships come with scholarships and will be even more competitive.

NASA internship organization has gotten better is still rather disorganized. They've been trying to centralize and standardize the process for years, but opportunities are still spread out over many NASA websites. To add to the confusion, many NASA internships change their names over the years and some are discontinued while new ones pop up. Don't just visit one NASA internship page; keep looking. I highly encourage applying to any NASA internships that you're interesting in, but note that dealing with disorganization and inefficiency is part of the process of dealing with a bureaucracy.

Check out the websites of your state's NASA Space Grant and any student or professional societies/organizations that you're involved in or want to become involved in. These organizations are there to connect students and young professionals with opportunities in the field. Many of these organizations offer internship or scholarship opportunities themselves, but if not, most will offer suggestions of relevant internship opportunities. They may have compiled an up-to-date list for you.

University departments similarly may have compiled lists of opportunities for their students, including local and internal internships. Don't discount the possibility of working for one of your professors over the summer. University career service centers may also have lists based on major, but because they must search for opportunities for all majors, their list may lack content for your particular major. Professors themselves may know of opportunities at the university or with colleagues elsewhere. Again, use your network.

There are no hard rules for obtaining an informal internship. It's a combination of using connections to find opportunities (networking) and luck. Be prepared for these opportunities to be unpaid/volunteer. If fortune really works for you, you may find that funding is available for you even for an informal internship. Student interns are very inexpensive in the grand scheme of things. Talk to your professors, your connections in your field, anyone who you've met or even professionals who you have not met who may know of a short-term work opportunity that fits you.

Although most formal internships are paid, some are not. It's up to you to determine whether accepting an unpaid internship works for you. Most internships are on-site and may require you to temporarily move, and not all internships will assist you in finding temporary lodging. Some internships allow for remote work from your home, school, or a satellite office. Some internships are highly structured and some are much looser. Keep in mind the requirements, especially if you're an international student.

If you wish to get university credit for your internship experience, speak with your university about the requirements. Each university is different. Keep in mind that the experience gained during an internship is vastly more important and beneficial than any university credit that you may receive, so don't let university rules or tuition fees stop you from accepting an internship that you really want.

As I stressed in my advice to companies, interns are students but also professionals, regardless of age. Expect to be treated as a professional even as an intern. Insist on it. Act like it. You may not have the experience, clearance, or authority of a full-time employee, but you are an employee-in-training and a potential star employee for the company. Internships are test drives for the students as well as the companies. Make your test drive count.

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