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Engineering Internships Explained

The world’s economy may be struggling in some countries, but the demand for qualified engineers is still strong. Studying overseas for an engineering degree that is grounded in practical, hands-on experience will make all the difference to your job prospects, wherever you want to work in the world.

One of the best ways to add that practical real-life experience is through an internship. But how do international students go about finding the right one? In this article you’ll learn how to find an engineering internship and how to apply for one to maximise your chances.

What’s in an internship?

A recent study in The Times newspaper showed that graduates who undertake internships increase their chances of being noticed by an employer.

The UK’s biggest graduate employer is Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and its head of graduate recruitment explained that “strong academic performance is a prerequisite for application, but those with employment skills will demonstrate experience that puts them in the best possible position, even a downturn.”

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An internship is a temporary work placement – sometimes a few months over a summer break, sometimes part-time work throughout your degree. It might be paid, usually at an hourly rate, or unpaid, in which case you should at least expect some expenses (such as food and travel to work) to be covered.

Many employers recruit their new graduates directly from their internship program, so it’s the best way to get your foot in the door. For these companies, it’s also a chance to see how you perform in the workplace, and get you up to speed before starting full-time with them.

So how do you find one?

What type of internship you are looking for?

Engineering is a very broad field, so you need to narrow your targets down first. What are you specialising in? Civil engineering or mechanical engineering? Industrial engineering or electrical engineering? What you choose will help to determine what you do in your internship. For example, a civil engineer may do CAD drafting, road or bridge construction inspection or specification writing. A chemical engineer will be working in a chemical technology lab. If you’re in computer engineering, you’ll get a chance to test software, develop programs or network technology.

And of course it will also determine the company you want to work for – whether that’s a telecommunications firm, construction business or a transportation provider.

Finding an Engineering Internship

Your first stop should be your university careers office. They may be able to organise a placement for you, and they can also help you with your application, cover letter and resume.
At the University of NSW (UNSW) in Australia, engineering students are able to apply for industry placements through the Co-Op Scholarship program. These placements, which are available at other institutions as well, take place over holiday periods and throughout the fourth year of study – in fact, you’ll spend about a third of your total degree program working in industry.

Graduates with internship experience will generally find graduate employment easily. Sometimes it’s all about getting an introduction to a certain company, and your professor or tutor might be able to help with that. Or they might have some ideas on ways you can apply your thesis or area of expertise in a particular business.

In the UK, engineering students in all specialities are encouraged to apply for internships. Brunel University’s computer science masters’ students now complete an industrial internship as part of their dissertation. This allows them to apply state-of-the-art technology to the real world, for companies such as Accenture Technology, BMW, GlaxoSmithKline and Microsoft.

Some internships are not advertised externally, so you need to contact their recruitment office directly. Research online to work out which companies you’d really like to work for, and whether they have a program. Make sure you find out any application deadlines, and write each cover letter specifically for that company.

Show your motivation and initiative in your application, and be persistent. You also need to be organised – start looking for your engineering internship six to eight months before you want to start. Don’t let the idea of cold calling put you off either, sometimes just picking up the phone and asking for the internship coordinator can get you an interview.

There are many ways to find an internship on the net. Start with some networking sites like LinkedIn – you can post your interests and see what happens within your network! Also, there are specialised internship job boards such as iHipo. Just make sure you understand exactly what is required to confirm your internship.

Preparing for the Interview

Once you’ve got yourself an interview, it is tempting to think that the hard work is done, but in reality, it has only just begun. Make sure you research the company’s website thoroughly so you know what they do, their biggest clients, even the managerial structure. Find out about the company’s history and find out things you have in common with the people who already work there. Identifying some common ground in the interview is an excellent way of demonstrating that you will be an excellent match for their business.

As you have already completed background research on the company, it also means you don’t need to spend the interview asking questions about them. Instead, you can direct your questions to the role of the internship you’d be completing. You can find out what it would entail by asking questions such as, ‘Can you describe a typical day for an intern at your company?’. Of course, if this has already been answered on the company’s website it would be sensible to ask a different question, but still try to get to know the role a bit better.

Finally, prepare an answer to the question, ‘when can you start?’. If possible, make sure you’re available straight away, as this may just give you an edge over other candidates. If you’re enthusiastic, skilled, and fit into the company, why wouldn’t they want you to begin immediately?

If at First You Don’t Succeed

Try, try, try again. Chances are, you won’t land your first choice internship, but you’ve got to keep trying. If you find yourself running out of options, start thinking about where you’d love to work, even if they don’t have any internships advertised. By contacting a company and volunteering to be their first intern, you’re showing how proactive you are in finding the ideal internship. You may just find somewhere that is perfect for your engineering career too!

No matter what kind of engineer you plan on becoming, an internship will guarantee you make the contacts you need before you graduate – and set you on the path to global success.

For more information about studying engineering abroad, read our recent subject guide.

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