Ph.D. Student Internships

I summarize some reasons for and against doing internships as a Ph.D. student.

We're super-privileged to be in a field (e.g., computing, HCI) with plenty of great-paying industry job options. Thus, many of our Ph.D. students do summer internships instead of staying on campus to work on their dissertation research.

Ph.D. students often ask me whether they should try to get an internship in the upcoming summer. I interned for 3 out of the 5 summers of my Ph.D., which is higher than the average of 1 or 2 summers for my field. Here are my (semi-disorganized) thoughts:

Reasons for doing a summer internship:

  • great social experience, especially if you go to a well-known company with LOTS of interns.
  • change of scenery and location, which can stave off grad school burnout
  • money
  • boost your CV/resume to prepare you better for post-Ph.D. jobs outside of academia
  • if it's your final year before graduation, you may be able to interview for a full-time job at that company
  • FOMO: it seems like all your friends are interning next summer, so you don't want to be left behind. (I don't think this is a great reason to go, but it's a perfectly understandable one.)
  • to indirectly build up expertise in your research area, so that you can advance better on your dissertation research once you return to school. I encourage students to look beyond the usual companies that everyone else is competing to intern at in order to find unusual off-the-beaten-path opportunities that can give them DEEP insights into their field so that they can do better research. For instance, my student Sam Lau spent summer 2019 teaching a data science class at UC Berkeley. That's not a traditional Ph.D. internship, but it taught him a TON about the needs of data science instructors and learners, which is the target audience for his dissertation research.

Reasons for not doing a summer internship:

  • The top reason is loss of momentum on your dissertation research (it's very rare for Ph.D. students to get an internship that aligns well with their dissertation work ... yes I've seen people do it, but they're rare exceptions). Summer is the best time to make focused progress on your own research without much distraction, so it's up to you to decide whether the benefits of internships are worth this loss of momentum.
  • A more subtle but related downside is that you're put in a different “mindspace” of thinking about the hiring company's commercially-oriented priorities and values (of course, that's not a bad thing at all! but it's usually not well-aligned with academic research values, even if people have the best intentions), which may make it harder for you to make progress on your own independent research agenda back at school.
  • Don't intern if you feel like your summer is better spent working toward papers that you're leading on your own research agenda, which is important if you want a post-Ph.D. job in academia. Even if you publish papers based on your internship, they're not likely going to be in the direction of your dissertation; you're hired as an intern mainly to advance the agenda of that company's researchers, not your own.
  • Your advisor may not want you to intern this particular summer; for instance, you may be working on a grant-funded team project with a major milestone at the end of this summer, so if you're gone, it would hinder the project. Of course, you're free to do whatever you want, including quitting your Ph.D. (it's your life!), but your advisor's perceptions of you does have a bearing on your early research career, for better or worse. So that's a constraint to keep in mind.

Created: 2019-11-06
Last modified: 2019-11-06