Searching for and Applying to Internships

Posted Thursday, May 21, 2015 at 12:48 PM

"Finding your first internship can be a real challenge. Where do you start? And what type of internship should you look for? That all depends upon what you want, but a little diligence and online resources will help you find and get the internship that is right for you."

Searching for and Applying to Internships

PostedThursday, May 21, 2015 at 1:09 PM

Katherine Dunne
Katherine Dunne
Searching for and Applying to Internships

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Author: Katherine Dunne

I'm an undergraduate electrical engineering major, and this summer I've accepted an internship at NASA Ames Research Center where I'll be working with a team to build a remote sensing device that collects and analyzes data. I'm here to share my story of how I got my internship, and how you can succeed in finding your own.

Internships not only give you a competitive edge in applying for college and your first job in the industry, they are also a lot of fun and can help you build confidence in your abilities.

The future that you see for yourself is going to require planning and determination. If you are in high school and searching for internships you have more freedom to try new things, even if you don’t have as many opportunities to work directly in industry. This is your time to figure out where it is you fit in the world of engineering. As you get older, you will focus more on what kind of work really inspires you. By the time you are a senior in college your internship and job search will likely be very specific to your concentration.

First, let’s take a look at the types of organizations that offer internships:

Government Agencies

This category includes NASA, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, and many others. Each agency will have a diverse selection of internship positions, some paid and some unpaid.

These agencies receive thousands of intern applications a year, so being organized and timely is very important when submitting your application. Applications may be placed into a database so those missing information, or not qualifying because of a certain GPA, for example, can be weeded out quickly.

Since these agencies have been around for decades in some cases, their internship programs are usually robust and offer learning and enrichment activities for interns as well as work experience. For instance, during the Summer, NASA Ames Research Center hosts a series of lectures each week from visiting and local scientists. During my last internship at Ames I had a chance to hear Sal Khan of Khan Academy give a lecture about the future of STEM education. You will also have a chance to meet scientists who are experts in your field. This is a great chance to ask them questions about how they got to where they are today.

NASA has their own portal for student internships, and other organizations will have similar resources. You can start with a US government-wide search for internships, but always check the agency’s website to see if they have a specific platform for interns.

City governments often offer internships as well. A search through the city’s Human Resources website will usually show you how to go about applying.

National Laboratories

National labs and technical centers are funded and overseen by the US Department of Energy. Many of these facilities are managed by universities, like Lawrence Berkeley Lab, which is run by UC Berkeley, and some are run by corporations, like Sandia National Laboratories, which is operated by Sandia Corporation, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin.

Each facility has its own mission and focus, so look through their websites and see if there are research areas you are interested in. The national labs in the US have a central application system. There is also an opportunity for community college students to participate.

The application for these programs encourages you to reach out to scientists who do research in your field. This is an excellent opportunity for you to clarify what your goals truly are. Think about writing an email to a scientist at the lab of your choice explaining what is interesting to you about their work and how you would like to help.


The process of applying for an internship in industry will vary widely. At big corporations like Boeing Corporation and Lockheed Martin, you will often be asked to submit an online resume and be able to browse through positions and apply to specific ones. Some companies may post their job openings on aggregate websites like Indeed, AfterCollege, and The Muse. The application process with a startup company might be very different from that of a larger corporation such as a defense contractor that has been in business for 75 years. Some companies would prefer you create a video showing off a project you’ve worked on rather than a traditional transcript and resume. Think about the kind of atmosphere you are interested in. Startups may have low pay but exciting, fast-paced work. Large corporations may have more experience in providing internship opportunities but the work might be slower-paced and in a more professional setting. It’s up to you to get a feel for the company and decide what you want out of your internship.


Once you’ve decided where you’d like to apply, here are some tips to make your application stand out:

Start a LinkedIn profile

A potential employer is not going to stop at reading your resume. She or he will undoubtedly Google you to find out more about you. Why not make sure they find a profile that shows you in the best light? LinkedIn is the perfect medium for that. It’s a way for potential employers to get to know you through information that you curate. Post technical documents about projects you’ve completed, and write your personal statement so they can see what interests and inspires you. Include the skills you can offer, and people who know you can endorse you on them. Feel free to contact me on LinkedIn and ask me any questions.

Reach out to campus groups

I have received two internships at NASA Ames Research Center. In the Spring semester of 2014 I joined a cohort at my school geared toward students who were taking two math classes in one semester. They offered math workshops, free textbooks, and the opportunity for an internship at NASA. Organizations like NASA that receive public funds are often required to use some of it in outreach programs focused on strengthening the engineering pipeline by training and supporting young engineers on their paths toward employment. They will often partner with educational institutions so seek out groups on your campus to see if they have connections with organizations where you would like to work.

Apply even if you think you’re under-qualified

When applying for internships you may feel under-qualified and hopeless about being selected. You shouldn’t let these feelings get in the way of applying. You may not get the position, but researching the skills you would need to be selected and crafting a cover letter tailored to that position will help you figure out where the gaps are in your skills. You can use this information to try to fill in those gaps.

For instance, my heart was set on an internship this Summer involving embedded programming for satellites on the International Space Station. The internship information page listed the skills they were looking for in an applicant. I used these keywords to find books and online courses where I could teach myself. Employers are really impressed by hands-on experience more than coursework so I rolled all of that information together and developed a research proposal for an embedded robotics project and presented it to a faculty member on my campus. By working on that project next year I will be doing exactly the kind of work NASA employers in my field are looking for.

Don’t get discouraged!

There are lots of internships out there and lots of people applying for them. Each program has different needs so expect to apply to numerous programs before you receive a positive response. Over the course of 4 months I applied for 15 different summer internships. I was rejected from all them except for one: a paid NASA internship in Mountain View, CA. I applied for 6 different internships this summer specifically through NASA. I did not hear back about any of them! However, one day I got a call from someone at NASA asking if I’d be interested in applying for an internship that had just been funded. I said yes, and a week later I got an email with the job offer. You will face rejection It is unavoidable. But if you don’t keep trying, you will never get an acceptance letter.

Doing the work you are passionate about is a long game. It takes strategy and determination. Whatever stage you are in, you can work right now on the skills you will need next summer, two summers from now, and when you are applying for your dream job.