Monday, June 24, 2013

How to Make the Most of Your Internship

'Tis the season for summer internships! Whether you are in high school or university, being thrown into a company for a three month work marathon can be a daunting task. I've had a lot of internships, and made my fair share of mistakes along the way. Now I have a lot of interns working for me, so I've had time to compile a list of 10 tips for making the best of your internship while my interns do my busy work (just kidding... Sort of).

1) Internships are three month long interviews. It's easy to forget this once you get comfortable in your position, but keep in mind your performance will decide if you are offered a future position.

2) You will need somebody to give you a recommendation. Talk with your boss and at least one other full time person at the company regularly enough so that they can give you personal recommendations for your next internship or job. Even if you absolutely hate the internship, you may need these contacts for up to seven years after you finish your  internship.

3) You don't need a degree to be a great engineer. Just because you haven't finished your degree program doesn't mean you can't make some major contributions to a company. Don't be afraid to take ownership of your tasks, and express your ideas.

4) Internships are not summer camps. While it is a great opportunity to meet some awesome new people and go to company organized fun, your internship is still a job not a vacation.

5) Use your internship as an opportunity to network. Most engineering students I know end up interning at more than one company. Use your summer as an opportunity to network not just with full time employees, but other interns. You never know where people will end up, the engineering community is actually a pretty small world.

6) Don't over-commit yourself. One of the biggest mistakes I made was taking difficult college courses while working full time at an internship. If you end up with a big deadline for work and a midterm- something has to give. Not only was I not able to give either my internship or my classes the level of attention I would have liked, but I started the school year completely burned out. If possible, take the summer as an opportunity to focus on one thing so you can go back to your school refreshed and ready for another year.

7) Don't be afraid to ask questions. Asking questions is not a bad thing. As an intern it is expected that you will have a steep learning curve at the beginning of your work (unless you are put in the unfortunate position of coffee runner and photocopier). Just make sure to listen carefully to the answer- because asking the same question multiple times can make it seem like you are incompetent or don't care.

Picture thanks to Ruby Stubson
8) Be wary of the line between work and personal life. This line can be very blurry in internships, especially those where housing is provided and shared with other interns. But nothing in company housing stays secret for long.

9) You are competing with other interns for a job offer. People have a tendency to compare interns to one another.  So while being a team player is important, you should also make a special effort to not fall behind the curve.

10) Use your internship as an opportunity to learn about what you want in an employer. Compile a mental or physical list at the end of each summer about what is important for you to have in a workplace. This will come in handy when you are coming up with questions for future interviews, and making the decision between multiple offers.

Good luck. Go own that internship.



P. S. Do YOU have any tips for engineering and science interns?  Leave them in the comments below!

Monday, June 17, 2013

How to Not be an Anti-Feminist

DISCLAIMER: I realize this post is lacking my normal humor, but some issues need to be addressed more seriously.

As a professional female engineer I am constantly fighting stereotypes.  Some people see  me and think I'm a secretary. Some people assume I'm dumb and just got the job because I'm a woman.  Some people assume my gender precludes me from certain types of work. While it's weirdly fulfilling to shock people with my ninja engineering skills,  it definitely can wear on me.

The easy solution is to blame these associations on the men that dominate the profession,. But the truth is  some of the biggest opposition in making engineering a normal job for women is actually other women.

In engineering,  I've come across a spectrum of women:

Note that this is a spectrum, and that not all women fall into a single category

On one extreme is the ultra feminist who constantly points out oppression.  She asks that women not be forgotten, and constantly reminds people of the gender divide.

In the middle is the woman who counts herself as equal to (not better than) male counterparts. When at work her focus is her job, not her gender.

On the other extreme is the woman who was forced into engineering and is waiting to get married. She asks that men continue to treat her as a "lady".

All three groups arguably have their issues, which I can discuss in a future post. But some members of group 3 voice their lack of passion for engineering in such a way that they reinforce damaging stereotypes -  holding the rest of women back. It is this group which I think can have the same impact as a misogynistic man, and which I believe warrants further discussion.

For example there is the case of Jane, a Type 3 engineer.  Jane is a 3rd generation engineer,  and a nth generation aspiring housewife. Whenever Jane gets work she doesn't want to have to do, she denies it because it is not "women's work" and would be shameful to undertake. Things that are not "women's work"  include : driving,  making large decisions rationally, and anything else she doesn't feel like doing that day. She also frequently asks if her clients will be young eligible bachelors when she is assigned a project. I wish I was joking.

The problem with this is not only that she is destroying her own reputation, but that the men who have worked with her for years come to actually believe that there is such a thing as "women's work"  and hesitate assigning projects to other women. Several men have voiced concern when assigning me complex tasks, since Jane had previously complained that it was "man's work". In my mind,  this is the single most damaging thing to the inclusion of women in the workplace -  because while men can be punished for expressing that women are unable to complete tasks as a result of their gender,  women are less likely to be chastised for the same behavior. And, generalizations are more likely to be considered true when they are endorsed by a member of that group.

While I understand that behavior in Jane and others like her is not necessarily driven by a hatred of other women, I believe it is driven by an appalling lack of respect for the capabilities of women. The damage that this behavior causes, and the number of women who can be negatively impacted by the actions of just one other woman is staggering.

In order to prevent this damage, we each do two simple things to help change the world's perception of female engineers:

1) Attribute your own likes and dislikes and strengths and weaknesses to yourself instead of your gender.  We are all individuals and have different tastes and interests.

2) Encourage women to pursue a career they are passionate about (not necessarily just engineering).  There is a thin line between encouraging someone to consider a different field and forcing her to join a career which does not interest her.

Each one of us has the power to impact how society views female professionals, so if we all take simple measures we can make the lives of other women just a little bit easier.



Monday, June 10, 2013

How to Avoid the Hangry Pains

My lunch for today consisted of an apple, a granola bar, six Hershey’s Kisses, and a juice box. It’s not the healthiest lunch, I know. And it’s not really the type of brain food I was hoping to have while developing my next experiment. However, there wasn’t much I could do about it. That happened to be all the food I could find stashed in my desk today.

I try to be good about brown-bagging my lunch most days. After all, bringing your lunch has all those great advantages like saving money and eating healthier. Except, somehow, life seems to thwart my plans of health and budgeting with its habitual obstacles. So, on those days, instead of packing myself lunch, I plan to eat in the cafeteria or go out to a local restaurant (read: fast food joint).

Unfortunately, most of my days of planning to outsource lunch prep happen to also fall on disorganized and hectic days. Today was one of those days where the forces of the universe collided and cause me to not bring a lunch, to have a busy work day, and to have forgotten my wallet.

Such days are bad days. Days like today cause the hangry pains – you know, when you’re hungry AND angry. Or become angry because you are hungry. Days like today result in some behavior like:
a)       Stalking the lunch room hoping someone has left a box of donuts for people to eat
b)       Pouncing on people’s leftovers like a vulture
c)       Crawling around the parking lot looking for change to use in a vending machine
d)       Any other type of unsettling, unprofessional behavior

However, there’s a step you can take to avoid acting like a hyperactive squirrel and grabbing all the food in sight. Take my advice: start to create a stockpile of snacks in the bottom drawer of your desk. And yes, I realize that my squirrel analogy has failed because you’ll be stashing food for when it becomes scarce later.

Honestly, though, having a cache of food for the days when everything goes wrong is the easiest solution. That way, when you forget your wallet, your lunch, and your zen state of mind, you can just reach into your desk for a granola bar, an apple sauce, and an instant cup of soup. It’s not the most healthful lunch, but it’ll be sufficient to abate the hangry pains, thus saving your reputation and potentially your job. 

Best of luck, 

Monday, June 3, 2013

How To Not Get Hep A from Coworkers

WARNING: This article is not for the squeamish.

So, you work with a lot of men. Well sister, I've got an unpleasant realization for you: a lot of those guys do not wash their hands. According to a 2009 study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine only 31% of dudes wash their hands after using a public bathroom. My private research shows it is a little closer to 60%, which is still disgustingly low.

But Vanessa, how do you know how many men wash their hands? I'll tell you. I have a coworker who loves to complain, and who as over time compiled a list for me of all of the men who don't wash their hands at work. Given, a single violation puts you on the "filthy" list for good- so this doesn't account for the casual hand washer who sometimes just is too busy to follow through and clean the feces off of his hands.

But it shouldn't account for the casual hand washer. Because that is gross.

Now, think of knowing that all these people don't ever wash their hands and then having to shake their hands, and share pens, pencils, calculators, tools and computers with them. Some of the more extreme offenders apparently even bring business papers and business calls into the stall with them. Gross. I strongly suspect this is why people in workplaces tend to get sick so often.
Is it just me, or does the context make this photo seem super gross?
At this point, I know the mysophobes among you are wishing you could rock one of these babies to work:

Germs be gone!
Alas, it simply does not comply to business casual standards.

BUT ALL HOPE IS NOT LOST. Just get a giant bottle of Purell. And if you know somebody doesn't wash his hands (because I've honestly never seen a girl leave a bathroom without washing her hands), then douse everything in sanitizer when they leave. Try to do this as quickly and quietly as possible, as people tend to get easily offended when they realize you think you are going contract a disease from them.

You may now live a happy, healthy, Hep A free life.