Company Man

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Company Man

An industrial internship shapes student’s career


Ethan Lawrence, Graduate Student, Arizona State University, Tempe

Arizona State University

The author tests a glass sample in the lab. Photo courtesy of Ethan Lawrence.

At the end of my junior year in college, I accepted an internship at the glass company Corning, Inc., in Corning, New York. I had already done two summers of glass research in academic settings, at Coe College, where I was an undergraduate, and at the University of Manitoba. However, I did not know what to expect from a Fortune 500 company.

Now that I am a graduate student, I realize what a luxury it was to be able to do research in both an academic and an industrial setting. The industrial research experiences at Corning—and, later, at the avionics and information technologies company Rockwell Collins—helped me to decide what direction I want my life to take after I receive my PhD.

When I started at Corning, one thing I noticed right away was that this large company had a lot of resources at its disposal. There were many tools and microscopes I could use to characterize samples at Corning that we didn’t have at Coe. For example, I was able to use a scanning electron microscope and learn a lot about electron microscopy. In academia, research funding comes primarily from grants, and professors always seem to be searching for research money. At Corning, funding for glass research seemed abundant. I enjoyed having the flexibility to request resources to add extra tests and materials to my experiments.

The biggest challenge of being in industry was learning to adjust to the atmosphere. As a student in academic research your colleagues are also your classmates. They are often your age and experience level. As an intern in a company setting your colleagues are typically older and more experienced than you. When I joined a group at Rockwell Collins I was the youngest member by 10 years. Everyone else had years of experience in the company, and it was intimidating to be working with them. I was afraid to speak my mind at first, because I felt that I didn’t know anything compared to them. As I started to find my way around and became more comfortable, I realized that I was actually able to contribute. My colleagues and supervisor taught me that anyone has the potential to contribute to a project; every person has his or her own unique perspective on things. Someone with a fresh perspective can often spot a simple solution to a problem that has evaded someone who has been working on it for a very long time. Once I felt comfortable and gained confidence, I was able to cut costs by designing new test equipment that moved the project forward.

Management styles and deadlines are very different in an industrial setting, as well. Professors know that students have classes and other matters to worry about, so academic research tends to be more relaxed. Even when doing summer research at my college, I felt like it was still a very relaxed atmosphere in which to work. However, at the company I was seen as an employee. I was held responsible and expected to perform at a high level to contribute to the overall good of the company. My managers instilled a sense of urgency to finish tasks. Deadlines were enforced. Fortunately, I am a goal-oriented person, and these deadlines appealed to my work style.


I believe the biggest advantage of working in an industrial setting is networking. While at Corning I was able to meet top executives and influential scientists during luncheons and other events that were put on by the company. One instance that stands out is the time I met the inventors of Gorilla Glass. I talked to them about how the glass that is now a part of so many smartphones became a reality. It was somewhat surprising to hear about the number of failed attempts that were made in search of the correct technique to create the ultrastrong glass. Being able to meet influential people provided opportunities for me to gain inspiration and learn from the trials and errors of others.

Working in industry is a very different experience from doing research at a university. It may or may not be for you. My own experiences convinced me that I would enjoy a future in industrial research. I plan to find a job in the fuel cell industry once I graduate with my materials science PhD. //

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