Internship Not What You Expected?
Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices
Internship Not What You Expected?
Thinking through a less than ideal research experienceBy:
Kristine Romich, Chemistry Instructor, United States Air Force Academy
A summer internship at a university or other research institute is often a student’s first exposure to formal scientific research. Research internships, also known as research experiences, offer a glimpse into the day-to-day life of a scientist. If you’re aiming for a career as a physics professor or research physicist, some undergraduate research experience is expected. If you’ve recently completed your first research internship, congratulations!
If you haven’t done one yet, read on because you probably will at some point.
Ideally, every internship would be both educational and enjoyable, but what if you didn’t enjoy yours as much as you thought you would? Maybe it even left you questioning whether you picked the right major. If that’s the case, keep in mind that internships are meant to help you grow as a professional, and sometimes that means figuring out what you don’t want to do. It may turn out that you’d be happier in a different field, but before you decide to change your major, take some time to reflect on what made your research experience less than ideal.
If you didn’t enjoy the project
Physics is an extremely broad area of study. If you didn’t enjoy your research project, that doesn’t necessarily mean physics isn’t for you. It might just mean that the topic you did your research on (or the method you used) wasn’t a great fit for your skills or interests.
For example, if your work was primarily computational but you’d prefer something more hands-on, an experimental lab—where you spend a good deal of time working with instruments—might suit you better. If your project focused on theoretical concepts or basic research, you might feel more fulfilled working on something applied, like medical physics or renewable energy research. It could also be a matter of finding the right subfield. Astronomy, optics, biophysics, acoustics, and nuclear physics are quite different from one another, but they all fall under the physics umbrella.
If you can identify a new area you’d like to learn more about, read up on some recent work in the field to see if it interests you. If your school has faculty who specialize in this area, request to meet with them for an informational interview. Current grad students can also provide valuable insight. If there’s no one at your home institution you can talk to, don’t be afraid to reach out to faculty members at other schools. Those who host summer internships in your field of interest might be your best bet. The connections you form may even help you secure a new research experience for the future.
During your internship, you may have discovered that you don’t like research in general—there’s nothing wrong with that! If you enjoy learning physics and sharing your knowledge with others, there are plenty of ways to stay in the field that don’t involve traditional research. Look into opportunities in science communication, education, outreach, or policy (SPS National offers summer internships in each of these). You might also consider the growing field of STEM education research, which seeks to identify best practices in teaching science at various levels. Physics majors often go into related fields, like data science and engineering, that may not have a research aspect.
If it’s a work style mismatch
Your mentor’s supervisory style may not have lined up with the way you work best. For example, maybe you’d have benefited from a daily check-in, but your mentor took a more hands-off approach. Different mentors have different styles, and if you’ve only experienced one, don’t let that alone deter you from work you might otherwise enjoy.
Knowing how you work best is valuable because you can take that into consideration going forward. If a program or job you’re applying to involves an interview process, ask your potential supervisor about their management style, how your performance will be assessed, what the department or organizational culture is like, and anything else that you now know is important to you. (This is something you should also plan on doing if you intend to apply to grad school.) You can also learn to adapt. For example, if your supervisor isn't available (or approachable), you can set your own daily goals and seek out others who can help you as needed.
If you found the assignment too challenging
If you faced a daunting learning curve but still felt excited about the work you were doing, that’s a sign that you’re on the right track. Keep in mind that the people you think of as experts—your internship mentor, your professors, the authors of papers you’ve read—were beginners once, too! Take heart in that no one expects you to know everything right off the bat—but if your internship helped you pinpoint specific areas you’d like to improve in (like coding, for instance), find opportunities to practice these skills, either through formal coursework or self-directed study.
Whatever you ultimately decide to do, the key is to be honest with yourself. Don’t feel obliged to stay on a path you’re not happy with for fear of upsetting your mentor (or anyone else). A good mentor won’t be offended if you choose not to follow in their footsteps. They might even point you toward opportunities that are a better fit. It’s in your best interest to maintain good relationships with the folks you met during your internship—they can be references for you in the future, even if you end up changing fields.
If you do opt for a different route (either within physics or in something else altogether), don’t undervalue the transferable skills you gained from your experience. Programming, troubleshooting equipment, giving presentations, and working on a team—to name just a few—are useful in a wide variety of environments.
Career progressions aren’t always linear, and that’s okay. I know this firsthand. Several years after completing my bachelor’s degrees in communication and psychology, I went back to school with the goal of pursuing a PhD in astrophysics. After finishing my MS in physics and spending some time working in research, I decided to transition to a career in education and outreach. I’ve been able to combine my background in communication and social science with my research experience and technical knowledge to advise students, teach courses, and develop instructional materials.
Remember that you don’t need to have everything figured out right now. Depending on your year in school, you may have time to complete two or three more internships before you graduate. Other experiences—such as on-campus research, job fairs, lab tours, or conferences—can also help shape your career goals. Use these opportunities to help you identify a path that’s right for you.
Learn more about the SPS Summer Internship Program at spsnational.org/programs/internships.
About the Author
Kristine Romich interned at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center through the SPS Summer Internship Program in 2017. After completing her MS in physics from California State University, Northridge, she was a support scientist for the space weather team within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers for Environmental Information. Prior to assuming her present role at the United States Air Force Academy, she taught physics at Red Rocks Community College near Denver, Colorado.