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How Ph.D. students can make the most of virtual internships

During the last year of his Ph.D., Matteo Bernabo followed in the footsteps of many graduate students before him: He took a summerlong hiatus from his research to work as a government intern and get hands-on experience outside academia. But there was a hitch. The year was 2020—and his experience would be a virtual one.

“Starting in a new organization online is a very strange experience,” says Bernabo, who applied his expertise in behavioral science to an energy efficiency project during his internship at Natural Resources Canada. Thankfully, his internship mentor—a recent Ph.D. graduate himself—made a point of meeting with him for 30 minutes each day to check in and answer questions. Bernabo also participated in regular Zoom meetings with other colleagues, usually amounting to an hour or two of calls each day. But he spent the bulk of his workdays by himself, at home, doing research on his computer.

The situation wasn’t ideal—he would have preferred an in-person internship—but it did help Bernabo land postgraduation employment. After finishing his neuroscience Ph.D. at McGill University in August 2020, he started a yearlong fellowship (also virtual) as a policy analyst at the National Research Council of Canada. “I knew people that just walked into the private sector after they finished [grad school] and realized they had no skills and were kind of panicking. … I was lucky enough not to have to face that.”

Internships for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) Ph.D. students, such as the one Bernabo participated in, have grown more common over the past decade, in part because of growing awareness that Ph.D. students need to be better equipped to follow nonacademic career paths. Now, with universities facing financial pressures and the academic job market tightening further, the benefits of gaining hands-on experiences outside academia may be even more relevant—even if those experiences are virtual ones.

Shubham Saini—a computer science Ph.D. student at the University of California, San Diego—saw an internship as critical for weighing his career options. He was on the fence about whether to pursue a career in academia or industry, so he stepped away from his Ph.D. research for nearly 6 months to work as an intern at Genentech, a biotech company based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I wanted to … find out how the culture is different from academia, how is the working lifestyle there like, and to basically figure out my future direction,” he says.

In a normal year, Saini would have relocated to San Francisco for the internship, but he ended up staying in San Diego. For the most part, that worked out fine for him because he could do his work analyzing genomic data from home. He liked that his project—geared toward addressing health disparities created by the overrepresentation of individuals of European ancestry in genome data—felt meaningful and had the potential to make a real difference in the world. If “your interest is aligned with the company’s objectives, then that is the best-case scenario.”

In addition, the company offered virtual events for its interns and he didn’t feel hampered from communicating and connecting with people. “Genentech is a very network-heavy place, I would say, and they encourage employees to basically have informal discussions … and I felt that most of the people were very welcoming to the idea of arranging some [virtual] coffee chats or Google meets,” he says. “The only thing that I felt that I missed out on was living in the Bay Area and experiencing how the life is over there.”

Saini came away with such a positive impression that he’s now planning to pursue a career in industry after he graduates. He liked that the company valued a research environment—organizing journal clubs, encouraging collaborations, and giving researchers a chance to present their findings to colleagues—which is an aspect of academia he appreciates. “At the same time, you get the benefit of making a direct impact on the patients’ lives, which may not always be possible in academia.”

For others, though, the virtual format of their internships presented a bit more of a challenge. Attabey Rodriguez Benitez spent the summer at “Science Friday,” a weekly radio show that broadcasts throughout the United States, through a mass media fellowship offered by AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers). She communicated with the small “Science Friday” team using Slack and phone calls. She learned a lot that way, she says. But it would have been easier going into an office because she would have felt more comfortable, as a new person, approaching others with questions and ideas—“instead of, ‘Oh, I might be bothering this person if I send them a Slack message.’”

The training at the start of her fellowship experience also left something to be desired. For 3 days, she and the other fellows spent hours listening to talks and participating in discussions online. “It was a little bit exhausting,” she says. “The content was still interesting; it’s just that looking at a screen is different than seeing somebody.”

Despite those issues, Rodriguez Benitez feels she made the most of her experience. She went into the summer with a clear goal—to produce her own radio segment—and she mapped out her time so that by the end of the summer, she had developed the skills needed to achieve that goal. She was also able to host an online-only segment herself in Spanish. “It was very exciting and also terrifying,” she says. Instead of the professional recording studio she would have had access to as an in-person fellow, she made due with what was available to her: She interviewed a scientist while huddled on the floor of her bedroom closet, where she got the best audio quality because the clothes dampen the sound.

When Rodriguez Benitez started grad school, she had her eye on a career in academia. But she encountered a lot of microaggressions and decided that “the academic environment is not great for underrepresented minorities like myself,” she says. “I didn’t want to put myself through that.” After defending her Ph.D. in chemical biology at the University of Michigan in December, she now works as a script editor at the YouTube channel SciShow. She doesn’t think she’d be where she is today without her fellowship at “Science Friday.” “I didn’t know that being a script editor was a thing.”

Brian Schaefer experienced similar trade-offs when he took a break from his Ph.D. research last year to participate in a virtual data science “bootcamp” that trains would-be data scientists how to analyze massive data sets for companies such as Squarespace and Foot Locker. It “felt lonely working at home,” says Schaefer, who completed a Ph.D. in physics at Cornell University in February. Still, the program offered a perfect opportunity to get valuable training and figure out whether a career in data science was right for him. He’d started to focus on that option midway through grad school because when he was doing research, he found that the task he most enjoyed was writing code.

During the 8-week program, Schaefer found that the coding he’d learned during his Ph.D. formed a solid foundation of knowledge. From there, the program taught him how to analyze data using packages that are commonly utilized at companies. It also gave him a chance to work on a larger project of his own, focused on analyzing data from bike races. “I just wanted an excuse to sit down and work on a data science project without the distraction of research,” he says. “And that I think was the most important thing I got out of the entire program.”

The experience gave him confidence that data science could work for him as a full-time career. “The way I make decisions is often, ‘Do I not hate this?’” he says. “I know better what I don’t like than what I do like, and I definitely got the impression that I didn’t not like it, so that was good enough for me,” Schaefer says. He ended up accepting a job offer for his current role as a data scientist at Vectra AI, a cyber security software company, the same day he defended his thesis.

Looking back, though, he wishes he’d done more during the bootcamp to connect with the other participants, most of whom were current or former STEM grad students. For instance, he says he could have set up Zoom work sessions so he and others could work on coding at the same time and discuss problems as they arose. “I’ve done that a little bit with friends while writing my thesis, and that really helps you sit down and focus.”

Bernabo agrees that it’s important to be proactive if you’re struggling or could simply benefit from a greater number of human interactions. “Nobody knows what anybody’s feeling when there’s a screen between you, and so I think certainly when you can’t just get up and go talk to somebody, it’s really important to advocate for yourself,” he says. “If you need help you have to send an email, you can’t wait for somebody to come find you.”

Bernabo wishes he’d done more of that, adding that feelings of isolation continued to plague him after he started his current fellowship. “It took me about, I don’t know, 2 months to make my first friend … because there are no opportunities for social interaction.” At times, he’s been left feeling as though “I have all of the work and none of the fun.”

It has also been challenging to make professional connections, which can be a key part of internship experiences. “I think a lot of people get [jobs afterward] through networking and sort of stumbling into people in the elevator,” he says. When those opportunities aren’t available, it has “a really outsized effect on the young people who don’t have those connections to begin with.” He recommends making a point of reaching out to people for informational interviews if you’re taking on a virtual internship. “This is one of the things I suppose I regret not doing more of.”

Saini also recommends thinking carefully before accepting a virtual internship, and picking a place where you’ll feel supported. That will give you the best chance to “experience things firsthand and figure out how things are done in the industry,” he says. “You don’t want to be working by yourself in that environment because that really defies the purpose of experiencing something new and getting your questions answered.”

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