Surprising lessons: What I learned from my summer internship

Summer internships can be a very rewarding experience and give you a taste of what your future career will be.  They can also point you in the direction of things you don’t ever want to do and leave you struggling to make your experience during those few months actually relevant to your future.  Mine was a little of the first, and a bit more of the second.

While I was at UW pursuing my chemical engineering degree I knew that my window for working an internship was narrow.  The usual route was a three month internship during the summer between junior and senior year, and you could try for a six month internship using the spring quarter immediately prior to that, if you could find one.  Like many juniors I was focused on finding an internship from almost the first day of junior year.  I went to every career fair, multiple interviews, used every connection I could (including, but not limited to, career advisers, department advisers, professors, and previous employers), but nothing was biting.  It took all the way until May for me to secure a summer internship with a national laboratory.  Nine solid months of angst, worry, and effort, but I got one.

While I was very excited at the opportunity I was being presented by interning at a national lab, I was not sure how likely it was that I would be heading that direction career-wise since I had never been interested in research.

I decided to look at this as the chance to test the water while still gaining much needed experience in the general work force.  The job itself was painted even before I started as not particularly glamorous.  It would involve testing wastewater, reformatting ordinances, general office work, and some research.  I’m the type of person who knows you have to pay your dues at a new job, I was 100% expecting to get the less “fun” work as the intern.  What I found to be the best motivator at the job was the people.  I made lasting friendships and had opportunities presented to me that I never would have had at a normal summer job working as a cashier somewhere.  While the work itself may not have been precisely what I wanted for a career, many of the same programs and general experiences are similar across many fields and industries.

From my observations at my summer internship and my current career I can say the following apply across the board:

  • Excel– Everybody uses it. Get to know it well.
  • Email– Learn what Reply-All is and when to use (and not use) it.
  • Networking– Sometimes, who you know will smooth the way in any field you find yourself.
  • Questions– Ask all your questions. If it’s not a good time to ask, write them down to ask later.  No, you won’t look stupid.  Ignorance is never ok, and a good supervisor knows this.
  • Flexibility– Be willing to try different things. Don’t just say no because you’ve never done it before!

And possibly most importantly…

  • Connect– Figure out how to make friends, and not just with the other interns!  Learning to get along with your coworkers is a highly underrated skill.

Basically, my summer internship showed me I didn’t want to work in a lab.  That could have been the only takeaway I had, but because I looked at it as the chance to experience what working with a diverse group requires, I learned a lot more than that.  By the end of the summer, I had a handful of projects that I contributed to.  I was able to reference these in interviews during my senior year while I pursued my eventual career choice: consulting.

I know what you may be thinking, “Consulting?  How did you get from chemical engineering to consulting?”  Well, for me it wasn’t that big of a leap.  When looking for a long-term career choice I needed to weigh in many factors, some of which you might be facing, but others that you may not need to think about for years to come.

First:  Location.

You see, I have a family.  It was important to me not to move, if I could avoid it, so that they would not need to build an entire new life in a new place.  This eliminated a large portion of the available jobs for fresh-faced chemical engineers.  This didn’t mean I couldn’t find ‘traditional’ chemical engineering positions in the Seattle area, it just meant those would be fewer and have more competition.

Second: Ability.

Through the years of earning my degree I had to face a hard truth, I’m a mediocre chemical engineer.  When it comes to the actual work of it, the math and formulas, I’m average, and frankly not that excited about it.  I excel at the interaction aspects that you would need with any career, but if you want a person designing your reactor, you want someone who handles that technical aspect with ease.  Sure, with years of practice I would get a whole lot better, but I had to ask myself if I really wanted to.  This leads to my third point:

Third:  Preference.

When I decided to pursue my engineering degree I did it because I love solving problems.  All kinds of problems.  I looked at many of the more traditional chemical engineering career choices and realized they usually make you into an expert in a narrow area, which is certainly a good idea when you’re dealing with equipment that can cause physical harm to people and the environment if they aren’t working correctly. Knowing myself, however, I knew that this was not the direction I would find any happiness.  I like variety.  I was concerned that becoming an expert in one field would make me feel uninspired.

My experience at my summer internship helped shape my view on all three of those points. 

The job itself was far enough away that I had to be away from my family for the majority of the summer.  This gave me insight into an aspect of consulting that I never would have had from school.  Consulting involves travel, and knowing that I could be away from home during the week for months at a time, was something that came up during my interviews.  It helped set me apart, I think.

The work showed me that a career as a chemical engineer may not actually lead me in the direction of crazy math, but that I would still be using the degree I would earn.  Whether I was testing water samples, collecting data, or working on making a spreadsheet more presentable, these were all aspects of being a chemical engineer.  It’s not all math and formulas.

For three months I did aspects of one job, and while I enjoyed portions of it and even miss bits today, I knew that I would want a change within the first few years.  This part of my personality it just who I am.  I need different challenges to feel like I have a solid purpose and am providing the most benefit to my company.

Enter, my brother, the consultant.  When I discussed some of my concerns with my family while in my junior year at UW, my brother suggested I look into technical consulting.  He does it himself and explained that his job is problem solving for the client, and their needs are always unique.  This pointed me in the direction and allowed me to find a career that fits ME.

I don’t use my chemical engineering degree in the ways I expected.  I use the critical thinking skills, time management, and project managing aspects that I learned at school.  But I have no need for differential math or complex physics.  My company likes the way I have been taught to approach problems and they want those different views brought to the table for our clients.  This makes us a better team.

My summer internship allowed me to solidify my career direction.  Testing the waters, even the tiny toe-dip I did, allowed me to feel more comfortable with my decision.  Ultimately, it was a positive experience. 🙂

By Alexa