Human Factors/Ergonomics Internships
This section is intended to serve as a resource for introducing undergraduates and new graduate students to internships and their importance. A section on the HFES Web site contains more than a dozen documents on student issues, with answers to frequently asked questions and opinions from experienced professionals. Some of the material found in this internships section is taken from those documents; however, for more in-depth information, the reader is referred to the Information for Students section of the HFES Web site.
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The following questions are addressed below. You may click on any question to jump directly to its section.
What is an internship?
An internship is a position that either a current student or a recent graduate takes with a company or organization in order to gain real-world work experience. An internship allows you to discover whether you want to work in a particular field or for a particular company once you have completed school. Additionally, an internship allows the company or organization to get to know you, which can often lead to future full-time employment.
Internships can last anywhere from one semester (e.g., three months) to two years. The length of time is based on a variety of factors, including company regulations, your school's requirements, the company's location with respect to your current residence, and your year in school. You are often enrolled full-time for internship credits, and rarely would you sign up for other classes during your internship.
What is the difference between an internship and a practicum?
Practica are more prevalent in master's programs than in Ph.D. programs. A practicum is similar to an internship but often involves less of a time commitment. They usually last only one semester (although students often take a number of practica throughout their program of study) and are taken in conjunction with other classes. That is, a practicum is only one of your classes any given semester. You will still gain practical experience, but it will be over a shorter period and on a part-time basis during that semester. Some practica even include a weekly meeting with your adviser. For the most part, practica are unpaid positions.
Should I do an internship?
Many graduate programs actually require internship experience in order to graduate. If you are required to do an internship, clearly, you should do one. If this is not a requirement, there is no correct answer to the question, "Should I do an internship?" Doing an internship cannot hurt you in the long run; however, doing too many internships can. If you spread yourself too thin, companies may wonder how efficiently you can divide your time between school and work.
The answer to this question also depends on your career goals after graduation. If you are interested in academia, internships may not be as important for your education. That is not to say they can't be useful. Interning at a research lab in another university could give you insight into how things work at different schools; however, it's more likely that your teaching experience will be more valuable than any internship experience.
If, on the other hand, you are interested in entering industry, government, or a consulting firm, experience gained through internships is essential and invaluable. Internship experience looks great on your resume, so it can help you in finding a job after graduation. It can also get your foot to the door of the company you interned for. The internship is a realistic job preview, giving you insight into what your daily life would be in that type of job or company. This can help you decide whether your current career goals are appropriate and realistic.
What makes a good internship?
You can't expect to get much from an internship unless you put your all into it. The old saying, "You get out of it what you put into it," is entirely appropriate in this case. A company or organization will hire you because it wants to help you gain experience and needs certain tasks performed for little or no money. Although the company will understand that you will need some guidance, it will not likely hold your hand throughout the entire process. You will need to take initiative, be willing to make mistakes, be willing to try new things, and learn to work with other people who may or may not have the same background that you do.
You should come away from an internship with a variety of skills that either have been acquired during your internship or simply refined during your internship. For example, internships can help you understand how to apply your knowledge to the real world and build your confidence in what you know and what you can offer a company. Internships can also help you gain invaluable experience in teamwork, communication skills, and a general understanding of how things function on a daily basis in that organization or field.
How do I find an internship?
This is perhaps the fundamental question. A variety of general sources provide information about available internships, including
- HFES Career Center
- List servers - for example, your HFES Student Chapter, the HFES Student list, Technical Group lists, or your school's e-mail lists
- Your mentor(s) or adviser(s)
- Other graduate students who have done internships already
- Generic job search Web sites
- Specific human factors-related job posting Web sites
- Research potential companies
Networking is by far the best way to find an internship that suits you. The benefits of networking are vast, and simply knowing the right people and being at the right place at the right time can provide you with many opportunities about which you might never know. Networking involves going to conferences, meeting new people, volunteering, asking questions, and being proactive. One of the best methods for ensuring an internship position is meeting someone at the company or organization that you are interested in. Giving them a face to put to a name will greatly increase your chances of obtaining an internship. Additionally, when a person already knows you and your reputation, it is much more likely that he or she will create an internship for you.
HFES offers numerous services that can help you to obtain an internship. Aside from providing the perfect setting for networking, HFES also provides an on-site Career Center at each annual meeting, where you can interview with prospective employers. Companies advertise for openings and interview you on site. The Career Center is also available throughout the year online and contains a number of job postings and, occasionally, internships. This list is available only for HFES members.
Furthermore, HFES also provides opportunities for members to share internship openings with other members. First, HFES has a student list server in which all student members are automatically enrolled. Occasionally, a notice about an available internship will be posted on this list. Similarly, many of the HFES technical groups have a list server, which provide list members with the means to send a call for an internship within a specific area of human factors. Thus, for a company that is looking for someone with an interest in a particular area of the field, TG list servers are prime places for recruiting along topic areas. Finally, your student or local HFES chapter may also have an e-mail list through which local internship opportunities can be advertised.
Your mentor(s) or adviser(s)
Doing your own networking is advantageous, but you should also look to your mentor or adviser for internship opportunities. He or she has likely been networking for many years and has established contacts within the human factors/ergonomics community. Having a professor vouch for you can open doors that might otherwise have been closed. Your mentor or adviser wants to help you become the best human factors person you can be and should be more than eager to introduce you to people or make inquiries for you. Make sure you use all resources at your disposal when looking for an internship that matches your interests and needs.
Speaking with other graduate students about their internship experiences is another great way to learn about where opportunities exist. Some companies offer yearly internships, and others may be willing to create positions for students who come highly recommended. If a fellow student had a great opportunity and knows you are interested, he or she might be willing to put in a good word for you with the internship supervisor. It can't hurt to ask.
Generic job search sites
Dozens of job search sites are available. Not all list internship opportunities, but they can still provide valuable information about what companies or organizations are hiring, where they are located, and other details. A simple search for "human factors," "usability," "research," and similar terms can result in valuable information about the current job market in your area of interest. These opening can lead you in the right direction or give you options you hadn't previously thought of. Some examples of generic Web sites include
Specific HF/E-related job posting Web sites
In addition to the HFES Web site, there are numerous other related organizations and sites that provide HF/E-related job and internship information. These Web sites can also provide valuable information about the job market in your area of interest, as well as the types of companies and organizations that employ people in different areas. Some examples of HF/E-related Web sites include the following:
Research potential companies
If you perform a simple search for "human factors internships" in any search engine, you will find lots of Web sites that provide internship opportunities. These may be site for other schools or universities, or they may be company Web sites. Some companies or organizations will advertise on their own sites rather than on job listing sites. The results from search engines can be just as valuable as postings on job listing Web sites because they may provide additional information about the company and other types of opportunities available. The company sites may help you to determine whether you'd be interested in working there. Even if no opportunities are available and the Web site appeared from an outdated listing, there is no harm in contacting the company to get information about future opportunities.
What types of internships are there?
Internship opportunities are available in just about every arena of human factors/ergonomics where professionals work. These include industry, research labs, government organizations, and consulting firms. There are both paid and unpaid internships. This is obviously an important factor when considering whether to take an internship that requires you to relocate or when considering finances in general. Additionally, the length of each internship varies. In essence, no two internships will be alike. Your goal is to find an internship in an arena that you are interested in to determine whether you could see yourself doing that job for years to come.
What will I do at an internship?
One theme that is prevalent throughout all internships is your ability to take your HF/E knowledge and apply it. That application may be in design, in writing proposals or papers, in presenting ideas to superiors or clients, and so on.
The specific activities associated with an internship are related to that particular arena. For instance, usability interns will likely be aiding in usability investigations, whereas consulting interns will be working on whichever project is active at the time. In fact, there may be a good chance that you won't know exactly what you'll be working on until you get there!
What are the advantages of doing an internship?
There are so many advantages to being an intern that if you don't do one, you may be doing yourself a disservice. A list of some of the advantages of internships includes the following:
- It is a realistic job preview and can help you decide whether you want to work in that company or area.
- It is like an extended interview and can result in the company wanting to hire you after you graduate.
- It provides you with real-world experience that looks great on your résumé or vita.
- It will help you build confidence in your abilities by showing you can apply your knowledge to real-world problems.
- It can give you experience working with multidisciplinary teams composed of people with diverse backgrounds.
- It can present you with a much-needed break after years of graduate school.
- It often pays better than your research or teaching assistant stipend.
- Feedback from your superiors or colleagues can give you insight into any skills that you are currently lacking and may need to pursue more actively.
- It can help ease the transition from student to professional.
What are the disadvantages of doing an internship?
Below are some of the disadvantages of internships:
- Too many internships on your résumé or vita can turn off a potential employer.
- You may like your job so much or get an offer you can't refuse that you decide to stay on after the internship, hindering your chances of ever completing your degree.
- You may be required to relocate for an internship, which can be costly, will take you away from your family and friends, may put a strain on your relationships with the professors whom you no longer see on a daily basis, and may also burden you financially with the cost of relocation or maintaining two residences.
- You may have a less-than-desirable internship experience, which may result in your having to complete a second internship.
- The longer the internship, the longer it will take you to graduate and get into the job market.
When should I do an internship?
It is generally advised that students wait to participate in an internship until after they have a few years of classes and school experience under their belts. Internships are two-way streets: You should get something out of them, but you should also have something to offer the company or organization that brings you in. Therefore, if you do an internship too early, you won't have enough knowledge or experience to be a productive part of a team.
One option is to take an internship immediately after your comprehensive or qualifying exams. This has many benefits. You may be burned out from studying for months and just need a break. Your studying may help you with the tasks you would be performing during your internship. This also enables you to get the internship requirement out of the way before starting on your dissertation. Going on an internship prior to taking your exams may be detrimental because it removes you from the school environment, possibly making your transition back more difficult. Taking on an internship in the middle of your dissertation may also be difficult because it may lengthen the time it takes you to finish. Realizing the potential for full-time employment, many students simply wait until they are done with everything, including the dissertation, before going on an internship. This decision is a personal choice, and there is no right or wrong answer.