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Engineering is all about solving problems, optimising existing systems, and innovating new technologies or processes to make a positive impact on the world. While a classroom education provides you the strong academic knowledge, fundamental understanding, and solid foundation from which to build a successful career, it doesn’t fully prepare you for the “real-world”.

To better prepare you for the world of work as an engineer, internships, summer placements, or co-op programs offer a unique set of opportunities to apply the theoretical concepts to real-world problems. More often than not, these types of experiences often lead to graduate job positions and direct routes into the world of work, post education.

In this post we will explore the benefits of such work experience-based programs for chemical engineering students, and how to make the most of out these experiences.

The value of an engineering internship

The Value of Practical Experience

As highlighted above, practical knowledge and skills is what is essential for graduate positions, as ultimately this is what you will be doing day-to-day, unless you remain within academia, or return to education at a later stage.

A good example of the importance of practical experience would be when you are learning to drive a car. Generally, until you pass your test, you haven’t fully learned how to drive and navigate a car; it’s only after you have passed your test, that you apply the skills your instructor has provided when you are alone in the car, and you have to make the judgements in real-time. So let’s uncover some of the key benefits for practical experience for us as engineers…

1. Applying Classroom Knowledge:

Everyone is familiar with the phrase that it might work on paper, but in reality that is simply not the case. This is a perfect example of why practical experience is so valuable as it provides you with a slightly different perspective on elements of your academic journey.

I personally found this to be a huge benefit during my final year project, whereby I was designing a control scheme for a Fixed Bed Catalytic Reactor and knew from industrial experience some of the tricks that none of my fellow students knew. This made my design stand out and ultimately lead me to achieving a 1st class degree (of course there was a lot more to it than that).

2. Industry Exposure:

The dynamic of a working environment is very different to that of being a university student, or in your part-time job where there is minimal responsibility; therefore, having a taste of what’s to come can be highly influential in your career direction.  

This will also give you an idea of the working culture and ethos of your chosen field, as sometimes it can be a huge culture shock going from the relatively calm environments of academia, to the high-pressure, high-expectation and demanding role within industry.

This is however all subjective to your chosen field as work culture can vary significantly from industry to industry; hence why getting practical experience is highly recommended for you to gain a better insight.

3. Skill Development:

Learning to troubleshoot and problem solve on an academic level can be very fictitious and lead you to a false sense of security and confidence. By this I am referring to the lack of pressure, responsibility, and impact of making critical decisions on the spot.

By working with skilled engineers with years of experience, you can learn so much in terms of how they approach problems, how they evaluate a situation, and ultimately solve the problem.

Furthermore, the enhanced communication, team working, and time management skills you can develop as part of your work experience can make you a standout candidate for graduate positions, as the softer skills are generally the ones that make your degree really shine!

How to find engineering internships & work experience

How Do You Find These Opportunities

This is a question I get asked often when teaching as a lecturer in the UK, as well as being the founder of The ChemEng Student. The truth of the matter here is, it depends upon your chosen discipline, your geographical location, and your willingness to travel, as all these factors will greatly affect the availability of suitable opportunities.

While it would be impossible to provide a complete list of every possible position, we have explained the best protocol for approaching and finding such internships/co-programs.

1. University Resources:

I think this is probably the most obvious answer, however, it is the most obvious for a reason. Every institution will have a careers centre, or something of a similar nature. It is their sole purpose to provide expert advice, support and guidance to students interested in the next steps, so undoubtably they will know the state of the current market.

Many industrial partners, companies, and recruitment agencies also have direct links to universities and as such, your university will be able to overcome some of the difficult barriers that you would face outside of the university. This can also provide you with an “express” route as your full academic records, achievements etc, can be sent directly to the right people, making the process much more seamless and less time consuming.

The beauty of using your university is, you can have personalised meetings whereby they can align your strengths and recommend potentially other opportunities that you may have not yet considered. So even having a conversation with your careers centre can prove to be a highly positive experience.

2. Online Platforms:

In today’s technological society, it has never been easier to find what you are looking for; this is probably how you found this blog! The great thing about online platforms is the dynamic variety that is at your fingertips. You can use technologies to help build your CV and tailor your applications to best highlight your relevant skills and experiences to suit the job description.

Platforms such as LinkedIn, Handshake, and industry-specific job boards can be an incredibly valuable resource for finding potential opportunities or to put your name out there. For example, during my PhD research, I found an author of a paper which I had some questions about, I found his profile on LinkedIn.

We connected, exchanged some ideas, which lead onto some incredible collaborations, all of which wouldn’t have been possible without the use of online resources and more specifically LinkedIn!

3. Networking:

Building on the idea of LinkedIn, this is one of several way you can expand your network. Networking can be the single most important element you can do to enhance your employability and develop your interpersonal skills as an engineer/academic.

It all comes down to the old saying of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, and this has never been truer in today’s society. With so much competition, its essential you have as much going for you as possible, and knowing the right people can make all the difference.

Attending career fairs, industry conferences, or joining professional organisations are all great ways of expanding your network. Take advantage of any activities on offer, push yourself out of your comfort zone, take the plunge and talk to everyone you can, as you never know who you’ll be speaking to.

To give you an example, I attended a conference at Brunel University in London, and during one of the intervals, I was speaking just in general with someone who I thought was an academic speaker, the same as me.

It turns out he was the organiser of the conference, the chief editor of a high impact factor journal, and the vice-chancellor of a university in the middle east! Form having a general open conversation it has led to many positive things coming my way.

How to get the most out of an engineering internship

How To Make the Most of Your Internship

1. Set Goals:

Like anything it’s always a good idea to set your goals and expectations in advance so you have a clear indication as to what you would like to achieve by the end of the experience. Discuss your goals with your supervisor or liaison who is part of the program to ensure that your expectations align with what the program has to offer.

Setting goals makes it easy to assess the success of the experience and allows you to reflect and evaluate your next steps. This is crucial in developing your interpersonal skills.

To give you an example, I once wanted to be an accountant, and so in my 5th year of high school I got the opportunity to do a work experience week. To my surprise the working of an accountant did not align with what I wanted and therefore I didn’t waste any more time in pursuing this career path. So, you can see just how powerful internships can be in helping you navigate your career path.

2. Be Proactive:

Being proactive during an internship is how you ultimately develop working relationships with what could be your future colleagues. This can be as basic as asking inquisitive questions, challenging ideas and appearing to be genuinely interested in the company/role.

Furthermore, seek out challenging assignments or tasks as this will show your potential future employer that you are not shy of a challenge/hard work, and are willing to undertake anything that maybe presented to you.

3. Network & Build Relationships:

We already discussed the idea of networking and how its importance can open significant doors that would have otherwise been inaccessible directly. An excellent addition to building strong working relationships that last, is to seek mentorship. Getting first hand knowledge for seasoned professionals who really know their stuff is one of the most essential elements of developing your career; especially within engineering.

Mentors have connections, and it goes back to “who you know”. By using their influence to help build your name and credibility within your field is where the power of mentorship can really shine. The most important thing with mentorship is ensuring you have a genuine connection with the person and that there is mutual respect.

4. Learn From Failure:

Though my experience within education, I am also a motivational speaker for high school students and undergraduates. One of my catchphrases, and one of my favourite quotes is “Failure is not the opposite of Success, it is part of it”.

This is a perfect example of the importance of failure and its critical role in making you successful. The two are integral and therefore shying away from failure will only increase its influence.

Therefore, understanding that not every project will be successful, and having a realistic approach will allow you to view failure as a valuable learning experience. Learning where and what causes a project fail, allows you to apply the experience to the next, giving you more confidence in the project’s success.

5. Reflect & Document:

Reflection is a way to collect the most important elements of the experience and collate them into a manner that makes revising them much easier. Keeping a journal, or notebook to record the skills, knowledge, techniques, people, and environment gained during the internship is one of the best methods of reflection.

Any accomplishments, projects, and feedback should be kept and recorded as this is a reminder of how far you have come in your journey.

For me personally I have a folder of every certificate, achievement, and project I have been fortunate to be a part of, this allows me to showcase my experiences easily and it serves as a reminder to myself of how I am developing. This has also provided me with an unconscious motivation to keep going!

A helpful tip is keeping all of this information can be used during interviews and job applications. Not only will this showcase your experience, it also lets you potential employer see just how organised you really are.

So Whats The Bottom Line

Choosing to embark on an internship, work experience placement, or co-op program can be one of the most important decisions you make during your university career, as this has the potential to propel your future career.

Regardless of the industry, duration, and nature of the program, these types of experiences provide you with an invaluable set of skills, knowledge, connections, future prospects, and an appreciation for what life will be like after university.

I would highly encourage anyone considering such a program to throw yourself into it and soak up as much as you possibly can. We offer free impartial support to all our students, so sign up with us today and get in touch!

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