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HFES Bulletin

November 2009
Volume 52, Number 11

Student Views

Student to Intern and Back Again: The Value of Internships
By Felix Portnoy

     My first encounter with industry as a human factors/ergonomics professional was in September 2005, when I found myself holding my head between my knees while breathing heavily to keep from passing out. . . . But let's back up a bit.

     My former academic adviser, Paul Milgram at the University of Toronto, had arranged for his students to visit the operating room at Toronto Western Hospital. The intention was that we would learn about the general practice of anesthesiology from the HF/E perspective, not just by reading about it but by actually observing anesthesiologists in action. My first trip to the OR was very exciting, to say the least.

     I got to wear scrubs and protective gear, and then I headed off to the OR. While waiting for the patient, I chatted with Dr. McCartney, one of the anesthesiologists, and inquired about the various monitor displays that he was using. Suddenly, they rolled in the patient; he was in his late 20s, about my age at that time. During the operation I tried to stay out of the way and simply observe the procedure, when I realized that the poor man was having surgery for a tumor in his prostate. I watched the surgeon as he operated and gradually felt the floor begin to spin under me. Determined not to be the one who faints in the middle of the OR, I went out into the corridor. In a desperate attempt to remain conscious, I crouched and held my head while ignoring the puzzled looks of the passing staff. I recognized then the rare opportunity that I had been given, so I decided to go back into the OR, and I ended up returning many times after that.

     Since that experience, I have often wondered what would have happened had I not returned to the OR that day. Yes, I probably would have found a different research topic, but I have serious doubts whether it would have been as exciting and beneficial as the work I did that led to the development of a display aid for anesthesiologists to better detect peripheral nerves using ultrasound machines. Following my positive experience in the OR, but before diving into my PhD, I decided to do an internship with a large private corporation to explore what other research topics I had been missing.

     Although the common notion is that knowledge is generated within the confines of the academic research lab and then applied in industry, a more accurate statement is that research questions in HF/E are generated in industry and then transferred to the university to be fully resolved. One of the ways to maintain a strong link between academia and industry, and to better prepare a student for a professional career, is through internships. Unfortunately, internship positions are hard to find, and many are not widely announced. Many companies have a need for a talented temporary workforce, yet this demand is often not communicated well to the student population.

     To my knowledge, few universities support or provide the opportunity to gain practical industry experience during graduate-level studies. For example, I had to discontinue my course of study and later reapply for graduate school after I accepted an internship position in industry. And, even when a company is successful in promoting its internship opportunity, some academic programs and/or advisers may be reluctant to facilitate an internship, fearing that it may distract the student from completing his or her work or even result in the student dropping out of school altogether.

     I would argue that internship experiences are likely to promote one's research and academic interests rather than inhibit them. It was my experience in the OR that led me to delve into perceptual research, and it was my experience as an intern working in the petrochemical and Internet industries that led me to pursue a PhD in the fascinating field of automation and human-computer interaction.

     If you are teaching in academia, ask yourself what you have done to encourage your students' curiosity about applied issues and contexts. Have you taken them into the field to observe real-world systems or to shadow subject matter experts? If you are a practitioner, have you considered the benefits of hiring motivated students to boost the productivity and creativity of your business? Have you contacted your alma mater to seek potential candidates for an internship?

     Fortunately, HFES has undertaken several recent initiatives to increase students' awareness of internship opportunities. First, the Education and Training Committee has updated the Educational Resources section of the HFES Web site to include information for students who are interested in pursuing careers in HF/E. In addition, a new list of internship opportunities serves as a one-stop information resource for perennial internships across private industry and government agencies. Finally, HFES recently updated its Career Center policy to allow free postings of internship positions, which should encourage more companies to post their internship openings.

     I hope that with this greater accessibility to internship information provided by HFES, students will be encouraged to participate in internship programs that will develop and enhance their skills. More important, it will allow us not only to bridge the gap between academia and industry but also to produce better scholars, leading our discipline to higher ground.

Felix Portnoy is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the School of Information and Library Science. He interned at Honeywell as a research associate and at Google as a user experience researcher. He may be reached at felixportnoy@gmail.com. The author thanks Anthony D. Andre, Carlos de Falla, and the HFES Education and Training Committee for their active support of and dedication to the newly constructed internship resources for HF/E students.


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