Taking up an engineering internship can give you a huge headstart to your engineering careers. But finding the right one for you – and convincing the company to take you on – can be a big challenge. Here are our top tips for making sure you end up with the internship that’s right for you.
1. Narrow your search
Work experience is great for helping you figure out what job you want. But how do you work out which internship to do in the first place? The best way to start is to ask yourself a series of questions that will highlight any preferences you already have, says Tamsin Turner, placement officer at Queen’s University Belfast.
‘Have you got an interest in a particular sector area? Are you looking for a job role that is desk-based and design-oriented or are you looking for a very practical experience? Have you got an ultimate graduate scheme or role or company you want to go into and, if so, what sort of experience will lend itself to that?
‘For example, if you want to go into Formula 1 but haven’t got onto a placement [with a Formula 1 team], what can you do that’s next best? So something working in the automotive sector or places like Millbrook proving ground or something related that’s going to add weight to your CV and give you a different slant.’
2. Work out what employers want
If do you have an idea about what companies you’d eventually like a permanent job with then your placement can be a perfect opportunity to get some relevant experience. This is especially relevant if you want to join a big firm’s graduate scheme but have missed out on their corresponding internship programme.
‘Look at the graduate criteria for a company’s jobs,’ says Turner. ‘What does that company want in its grads? That should help dictate what you want to go for in your placement. For example, if a company needs use of a particular type of software then find a company that uses it for the placement.’
3. Don’t wait for companies to advertise
Major firms usually have organised placement schemes that are advertised up to a year in advance – and the competition for them means they are often filled before Christmas. But there are plenty of smaller firms out there that can be persuaded to offer an internship if you can make them the right offer.
‘Students have to speculate,’ says Alan Robertson, careers adviser at Strathclyde University. ‘If they write showing knowledge about the company they can sow the seed of an idea: for example that summer’s coming and the company might have a need for the student’s skillset.’
‘There are SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] that might only take a graduate once every three years or have no pattern of recruitment … But if your letter lands in the right place at the right time, speculating can work. You just need one success.’
4. Research, research, research
To find these firms you can start by looking for companies advertising graduate roles and that therefore might also be willing to take a student temporarily. But other firms can be found by researching an area of engineering you’re interested in: publications like The Engineer can help you discover who’s behind the latest technology in a sector.
Writing the letters and even working out whom to send them to are also big challenges. The key is thoroughly researching the company and demonstrating your understanding of and enthusiasm for what they do. Then make the case for why you would fit in and be able to help with their current projects.
‘You’ve got be more even more focused than with an application to a company that’s advertising,’ says Turner. ‘You can find people on LinkedIn for a targeted speculative approach. I would go directly to the engineering manager because they will have authority and potential budget control to say yes.’
5. Stay in touch with your uni
One way to find out about one-off opportunities is to speak to people at your university who may have contacts in the business world. ‘Network with academic staff,’ says Robertson. ‘Some courses have external mentors from business you can speak to. It’s best to do it sensitively without blatantly asking are there any jobs going. Instead ask for their advice.’
It’s also worth asking your uni careers office or placement adviser about opportunities they may have heard of. ‘Universities are contacted all the time by companies without a permanent recruitment person looking to take on a student,’ says Turner.
6. Widen your horizons
If you’ve tried firms local to your university or home town then start looking further afield. Getting the placement is the hard part: you can arrange travel accommodation later (some firms may even be willing to contribute towards your costs).
But even more often overlooked are the opportunities offered by foreign companies. Big industries such as automotive, aerospace and energy are very much global in nature today, and a proven ability to work with international partners and understand different cultures will instantly stand out on your CV.
You can apply directly to foreign companies and organisations such as automotive body FISITA or the Royal Academy for Engineering offer bursaries to cover your costs. The International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE), meanwhile, organises paid placements that are matched to successful applicants’ interests and skills.
‘We had one chap who had never been out of the UK before who went to Sao Paolo in Brazil,’ says Robertson. ‘After he came back he presented a project report at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and won the first prize of £1000. It’s for students to seek out these opportunities.’