Xiaoyu Deng is one exemplar of what an internship can mean to graduate students. The fifth-year chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia School of Engineering already has an apartment in Santa Clara, Calif., and a job waiting for her at Marvell Technology Group.
Thanks to the problem-solving skills and high-level experience with semiconductor materials she has gained in assistant professor Joshua J. Choi’s optoelectronic nanomaterials lab, she was prepared for the work she did as an intern at Marvell last summer, and it showed.
Deng knows she wants a career in industry when she graduates. She found the position at Marvell to round out her work experience in the lab.
“It’s hard to get people to respond to your emails, but after I did my internship, I sent out some résumés and began to get responses,” Deng said.
The notion of Ph.D. students doing internships hasn’t always been commonplace, but views are changing, said Julia Lapan, director of the Center for Engineering Career Development.
“There’s a growing awareness in academia that, one, not all students want faculty jobs, and two, some professional experience can really complement their research at UVA. It helps position them for success when they leave,” Lapan said.
There’s another important element in play that makes Deng’s story unsurprising to Amy Clobes. Now UVA Engineering’s director of graduate programs, she used to advise Ph.D. students as director of professional development in UVA’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs.
“Employers need to know that a job candidate can flourish in a professional environment without additional training,” Clobes said.
In chemical engineering at UVA, most graduates work in industry, and it’s not unusual for Ph.D. students to seek internships, said department chair William S. Epling.
“Many of us encourage them,” Epling said. “There are a lot of benefits. The student gains industry training and exposure, and our corporate sponsors get help solving technical challenges. Employers also get a sense of the student’s fit with their organization. And, it improves the science. Internships help create a back-and-forth flow of understanding between the needs of industry and our research, and strengthen UVA’s relationships with sponsors.”
Yuntao “Kevin” Gu’s four months at Volvo Group North America in Hagarstown, Md., last summer is a case in point. Gu has considerable experience in Epling’s Environmental Catalysis Lab, which he helped build when they both arrived at UVA. When Volvo approached Epling about a collaboration that includes internships, he thought of Gu’s UVA research on exhaust after-treatment systems for diesel engines. He knew Gu would be a good fit at Volvo.
Like a gasoline car’s catalytic converter, after-treatment systems are essential to reducing emissions and, importantly for the company, meeting regulatory requirements. For Gu, seeing the immediate consequence of his work on the Volvo team was a game-changer. In the lab, the focus is on the fundamental science, he said; what makes a catalyst work and how do you make it work better? At Volvo, it became clear how many scenarios catalysts encounter in use, and how versatile they must be to function properly.
“You realize there are so many different things the company has to consider that you may never think about in an academic lab,” Gu said.
“If you can understand what causes even one catalyst to stop working, that can be really beneficial for the company. I will be focused more on how you stop the deactivation and understanding the operating conditions under which catalyst deactivation occurs, so my work at Volvo actually affected my research pathway.”
Gu also noted that internships can thrust Ph.D. students into an unfamiliar dynamic that tests their people skills.
“As an independent researcher, the only person you need to charm is your advisor,” he said. “A company is different. You can make your manager super happy, but you still need to work with different colleagues, with different personalities and backgrounds. All of my Volvo co-workers were mechanical engineers. Explaining chemical engineering concepts to them was challenging, but it was good experience and good training.”
Gu and Deng were able to complete internships unrelated to their research funding, but for many chemical engineering students, the two are tied together. Between her second and third years, Sylvia Marino went to Detroit to work at Ford Motor Company, which is partially funding her Ph.D. project.
“They asked me if I wanted to do an internship with them to get know the company and how they work. I met a lot of Ph.D. students who collaborate with Ford,” Marino said, who also works in Epling’s catalysis group.
Erica Hui, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in assistant professor Steven R. Caliari’s lab, had a specific goal in mind when she went to Merck & Co. last spring. “I wanted to expand my knowledge in downstream purification processes relevant in the biopharmaceutical industry,” Hui said. “After visiting the Elkton (Virginia) site in the fall, I was impressed with the welcoming nature of the group, and its proximity to Charlottesville made the decision on which internship to choose easier.”
Drug purification wasn’t the only thing Hui studied while there. “It helped me determine important factors to consider when applying for industry positions after graduation, including visibility in the group, project creativity, group dynamics, and opportunities for movement within the company.”
Saringi Agata’s full fellowship from the National Consortium for Graduate Engineering Degrees for Minorities requires that she complete an internship, and the program helps match employers with students. The timing of her offer from Lam Research proved fortuitous, although it didn’t seem so at first. Lam, a Silicon Valley-based designer and manufacturer of semiconductor processing equipment, wanted her to intern last summer; it meant asking to extend the August deadline for her dissertation proposal. She went to Epling, the department chair, and told him she really wanted to accept it.
“He was like, ‘OK’,” she said. “Basically, he and my advisor pushed me to do this internship.”
Her advisor is assistant professor Geoffrey M. Geise — whose research group deals with polymer membranes, not semiconductors. Although Agata had some undergraduate research experience with semiconductors, she was nervous about it.
“I genuinely feel Geoff understands what I want to get out of grad school and is willing to help me get it,” she said. “We’d hit a little bit of a wall with my research, and it wasn’t the best time to leave, but he still encouraged me to go. I think he knew that’s what I needed.”
Agata said being at Lam was freeing because both the work and the setting were new, and they showed her what is possible.
“It gave me new perspective of what I’m getting in grad school. I saw light at the end of the tunnel and that there are people who value all of these skills you’re building with blood, sweat and tears — mostly sweat and tears,” she said, laughing.
“The skills we learn as grad students do make life easier, like the way we process things, how we’re forced to question everything. I took on this completely new project and was able to run with it and pivot when I needed to. Now I know I’m not boxed in.”