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Get the most out of your engineering internships

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Engineering internships are competitive, so getting the most out of them is integral to future professional success.

It doesn’t matter what your specialisation is. Just about every engineering field will be rife with competition, and rightfully so! It’s the intersect between science and design, providing graduates with the means to improve the lives of people in local and wider communities. A highly alluring prospect. Given internships are a well-defined method of getting an edge over the competition, what can you do to make the most of your time during them? This article will cover a few time-honoured methods of making the experience count for more than a line on your resume!

Ask an obscene number of good questions

You likely know a lot from your engineering degree, but there’s a long way to go. Engineering internships immerse you in a sea of experienced people who can help you sort through what you do or do not understand. If you’ve been brought on as an intern, they aren’t expecting you to be a professional with 50 years experience. They want to see passion and enthusiasm more than anything else. Curiosity, resilience and an ability to learn from mistakes are all highly favoured traits, all of which can be demonstrated through the use of good questions. But there’s the rub. What exactly is a ‘good’ question?

If your question has a fairly binary answer you could have just googled, don’t bother asking unless it’s pertinent to your understanding of a concept that must be grasped immediately. It’s just annoying and not a challenge for whoever’s supervising you. Your goal with questions should be to make it entertaining for the person you’re asking, as well as informative for you. You can use this opportunity to test your own ideas and learn why they do or don’t work. Remember: Engineering often contains a multitude of different approaches. Learning when and why to apply each is vital. Here are some loose structures for good questions that you can apply to just about any process or methodology you witness.

  • To what extent is this procedure the best way of doing this?
  • What makes this the best way of doing this?
  • What makes this other method unsatisfactory?
  • To what extent is XYZ a viable alternative to ABC?
  • Are there any superior methods to our current approach? If so, what’s stopping us from implementing them?

The trick is understanding what you hope to gain from the answer, as well as the level of thinking required of the listener. If the question stands to yield a detailed answer to a genuine gap in your knowledge, it’s likely a good one. If you think it’ll be tricky to answer, it’s likely engaging for the listener.

Meet everyone you can

This is prime time for networking. Taking the opportunity to meet people wherever appropriate is not only a great way to learn more, but expand beyond your cohort of fellow students. Professional connections give you more people to bounce ideas off, learn more about the industry and understand what it takes to join it after graduation. You may even discover engineering isn’t for you throughout the course of conversation. Who knows? It’s definitely worth having coffee with the people you meet and getting a sense of the industry before jumping in with both feet.

While you’re at it, get everyone’s contact information. You want to be following up with how they’re doing after the internship’s over so you can continue benefiting. Perhaps there are job openings? Maybe you’ve got a question a professor can’t answer? You may even be of help to them in some way. You might even make a friend or two. Send everyone an email thanking them for the opportunity afterwards and see what comes back.

Take plenty of notes

If you’ve got a photographic memory, this section isn’t for you. If you’re like the rest of us mere mortals, don’t be afraid to just bring a pad and pen along each day. You won’t benefit as much if you aren’t writing down everything you’re learning, which will be a lot. The process of handwriting helps consolidate information, which you can then review and reflect on in greater detail later. It’ll also give you something to reference when you’re describing your experiences in a LinkedIn profile or job interview. Draw up diagrams, do some napkin math and jot down dot points. You won’t regret it.

If you have permission, take some photos and screenshots

Notes are great, but you’re likely to encounter devices, designs or calculations you can’t adequately scribble down in a few seconds. Most phones have very high quality cameras these days, so why not take some snaps? You can even annotate where your pictures become relevant within your notes for an easier time reviewing later. We can’t stress enough the importance of asking permission before doing this, however. Many engineering projects in New Zealand and Australia revolve around military/ classified projects, so it’s better to be absolutely sure. As an intern, it’s very unlikely they’ll show you where they keep the fusion reactor powered stargate, but hey. Better safe than sorry.

Be happy with whatever work they give you

Even if it’s coffee runs. You’re there as a courtesy, so show plenty of humility and you’ll be fine. Just being in that atmosphere is a chance to drink in so much information. No matter how menial the task, do it to the best of your ability. Try and improve whatever process they’ve given you when possible. Keeping that spring in your step is a great way to leave positive impressions.

You should now have a much better idea of what you can do during engineering internships to get even more from them. Setting your own tasks and goals like this is a wonderful way of learning and experiencing the profession. Whichever specialisation you’ve chosen, you’re bound to be surprised, confused and excited all at once. That’s how you know you’re on the right track!