Food for Thought: 7 tips to make the most of your internship


As a third-year intern here at SAS and rising sophomore in college, I’ve been fortunate enough to have completed a few projects in various corners of the tech space. Having gathered my third data point this summer, and in the spirit of SAS #analytics, I’ve started making some data-driven inferences and reflecting on how to make the most of the precious learning and growing experience that is an internship.

Julia gives interns tips as food for thought!
Julia serving up some "edibles to ponder" - aka food for thought!

More specifically, how can we as interns, often with little-to-no prior experience in a field, march on in to the office and tackle a meaningful project in two or three months’ time? How can we take advantage of this learning opportunity and not squander the little time that we have to work alongside brilliant and experienced professionals in the industry that we may wind up in a few years down the road?

While there are countless pieces of advice that I could and would love to give (I’m one of those big-sib-has-some-on-demand-free-shipping-advice-for-you friends), I love wordplay even more, so bear with me as I consolidate some of my insights into a handful of different interpretations of a single phrase (with a hat tip to Nike): JUST DO IT. Without further ado, I offer you below a few edibles to ponder - better known as food for thought.

[1] Just do it. Especially when it gets tough.

The key here lies in the word ‘especially’. Anyone can do easy work, and that anyone includes you, but it includes everyone else, too. As an intern, you don’t have as much industry experience as your full-time colleagues or even some of your fellow interns, so you can’t and shouldn’t expect to make a giant impact on the entire company. However, you can expect to contribute something unique to your group that someone else might need or not be able to do - whether it’s the extra time put in to learn new syntax or handle an inquiry, or the determination to work with a particularly knotty piece of software or algorithm.

Perseverance is not innate; it’s acquired. Especially as a student and active learner, this sort of keep-going-and-bite-the-bullet spirit is how you bring value to your group and yourself. If you push through, either you’ll achieve some sort of tangible outcome, or your hard work will be noticed, or both. Just as in fitness, you know the workout is most effective when your muscles are sore the next morning. When the going gets tough, that’s when the real learning begins.

Pieces of cake aren’t for learning and growing. They’re for eating. 🙂

[2] Even if it doesn’t immediately strike your fancy, or it’s not right up your alley, just do it.

Not every job is ideal. Even if you’re doing something you love, at a company you adore, in the industry you’ve always dreamed of being a part of since you were a child. That’s the beauty of an internship—you’re here to expand your horizons and challenge yourself, your limits, and your preconceptions, as well as orient your interests, your capabilities, your value, and your values. If every internship were exactly what you wanted, you’d never discover new things about yourself. You have to learn what kind of work you enjoy, or how you interact best with different colleagues, or how you can add to a company's culture. And yet, no matter what you do this summer, you’re going to be doing something worthwhile. You’re going to learn a lot if you open your mind, especially as someone new to the field.

So, if you’re given a job that isn’t exactly what you imagined you’d be spending a summer doing, don’t come in with the wrong attitude. Just do it, embrace it, and see where it takes you. Some paths are dead ends. But without a doubt, some are not. Keep an open mind because you won’t always know what you like until you try it.

In fact, there is significant research being done that shows that passions are not FOUND—they’re CREATED (check out a recent Stanford psychology paper). A passion you potentially have won’t reveal itself if you’re too close-minded to put in some work and give it a shot.

[3] Beyoncé advises us: if you like something, you should put a ring on it. My corollary: to know if you like it, just do it.

Julia Gong
Julia Gong, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning R&D

Yes, we shouldn’t get married to what we’re doing in an internship (sheesh! We’re still so young!), but we should figure out if we’d potentially like to get engaged. And getting engaged requires, well, engaging.

Personally, I need to actually do something to know for sure if I like it. And I need to do a lot of it, to the best of my ability, for a good while, actively, while thinking about it, and while talking to others who also do it to arrive at a verdict. This is one of the biggest things I’ve realized about myself. I think many, if not all of us, share this in common. We are biologically wired to learn by doing—from birth, we are imitating everything and everyone we see or are exposed to, trying to make sense of how we fit in this complex, crazy world. We correct ourselves when something goes wrong, and we try something new next time. On an even smaller scale, we often don’t feel comfortable purchasing a new pair of pants without having tried them on first.

When it comes to our careers, it’s the same principle. How will we know if we enjoy interfacing with customers if we’ve never talked to one? How will we know if we’re a statistics nerd without reading up on some models and implementing them? How will we know if we like working in AI if we don’t watch videos on model architectures and complete Keras tutorials on building a neural network? How will we know if we want to design if we don’t…design?

Before my first internship at SAS, I didn’t know too much about statistical modeling and marrying that with biomedical imaging. But I had the idea of creating a skin cancer detection software plugin and was determined to make it happen, so I stuck my nose into the material and jumped straight in for hours on end, trying it firsthand and brainstorming ideas with my mentor. I emerged with a product, and I emerged enlightened. I had fallen in love with biomedical image analytics because of the tantalizing potential for it to save lives. And I learned so much in the process. If I hadn’t been proactive about completing this project, nobody would have pushed me to do it (I actually was hired as a marketing intern). So, push boundaries. Try things. Push on walls that don’t seem to budge. Then, watch them fall down.

Finding what we truly enjoy requires our initiative and active pursuit. Talk to your manager, your mentor, your coworker, your fellow intern, your parents, your professor, your friend. Make pacts with colleagues and promises to yourself. Hold yourself accountable. We should try our hand at it because it won’t get handed to us.

If you want to read more in-depth about the power of education and how actually DOING complements what we learn, or you just want a great summer book that makes you think, I highly recommend Sal Khan’s (founder of Khan Academy) book, The One World Schoolhouse.

[4] If you aren’t sure if you should ask for help, or are too intimidated to reach out to someone you look up to, you guessed it—just do it.

Seek help when you need it—it’s tried and true. We’ve heard this one a lot, so I won’t belabor the point.

One interesting observation for you to consider, though, is this: interns (and students in general), with the big stamp of “STUDENT DRIVER” on our foreheads, have a particularly magical and unique unicorn power. What is it? If we reach out for help, guidance, or just a friendly chat with a potential mentor or advisor, we will very often actually get responses if we show genuine interest in learning or in their work. Everyone wants to help a young sapling grow into a tree because they’re kindhearted people (especially the folks at SAS).

For this reason, an internship is a wonderful, nurturing, and safe environment in which to spread our wings and grow our network. Whether it’s for career advice, troubleshooting a problem, or just meeting new people, reaching out to others is one of the most important skills we as interns can develop. And that includes connecting with peers and mentors on LinkedIn, going to intern networking and social events, and staying in touch with people even after the internship. One governing principle: just do it.

We’ve got this special power-up as a limited time offer (million-dollar value for just 5 easy installments of $0.00), so use it wisely and use it well!

[5] If you see something that can be fixed, just do it. If you have an idea for how to approach something, just try it.

(Just don’t commit the changes without approval. 'Just do it' isn't a blanket term, after all.)

This all goes back to the idea of being a proactive learner and being well-attuned to the needs of the team you’re in. Managers and mentors have full-time jobs and are busy, and even the best of the best (like those I’ve been fortunate enough to have here) may sometimes give you high-level instructions and guidance, and you’ll need to have the guts to play MadLibs with them. How do you fill in the blanks?

If you see a tool that could be improved, draft up a proof-of-concept for it to demo to your team. Any pain points in your workflow? Document them so the team can do something about it. Know a good bug fix that hasn’t been implemented? Try it out. Found something the team might find useful? Share the resource. Discover a shaky point in your group’s work? Test it rigorously and see if you can find some fixes. Find problems and then brainstorm solutions. A valuable intern is one that absorbs guidance in the beginning, learns how to fish, and then goes fishing all the time. What a catch.

We don’t have as much expertise, but we have just as much time. Use it wisely and see where it takes you.

[6] Set goals for yourself along the way. And then do it.

An internship is an apprenticeship. You’re trying on a career to see if it fits. If you’re anything like me, you also have big visions and big dreams. You’ll have to set goals and checkpoints to get anywhere near there.

You might walk into an internship and get assigned to a project or have the chance to develop the project with your mentor. If you’re fortunate enough to get that privilege, use that freedom and get creative. Bring your fresh, well-thought ideas to the table and see if they can be integrated into the bigger plan. Even if they’re seemingly outrageous or unattainable, it’s always worth a shot to bring it into the conversation. Often, when you break big goals into bite-sized chunks, you’ll find the goals were in fact very much reachable in the first place, and those same goals may be well-aligned with those of the company and your group, making them valuable for all involved and even more likely to be supported.

And what’s a better place to explore your biggest dreams and ambitions than an internship, an environment designed to do just that?

[7] Finally, once you do it - share it.

While you’re completing your project, you can’t just be going through the motions and doing tasks blindly. Actively synthesize and reflect on your work. How can you improve? What value do you bring? What does this work mean to you? What do you like about it? What should change? Actively thinking about your work as you do it and truly engaging with the tasks and people at hand will lead to much better results and more fulfilling experiences. After all, an internship isn’t just about the work, either.

And once you’ve done it, you can’t just do it, either. That’s right—you can’t JUST do it; you have to package it, too. In other words, you can’t just do the work and not communicate it to others. Once you’ve completed your project or made your contribution, it’s your time to shine! Find opportunities to showcase your work, whether it’s through coordinated events like the amazing Intern Expo that SAS has at the end of the summer, or through department-wide meetings where you can present a brief overview of what you’ve worked on. If you can, try to meet up with professionals in other groups who might be interested in or are impacted by your work and present your work to them.

You may not know where these presentations might lead, but you will always benefit from dialogue with others who have different perspectives from you and who have an interest and investment in what you’ve done. Presentations and showcases are for helping you to hone your communication skills and be proud of what you accomplished in your time as an apprentice. They also really force you to reflect on your experience and what you gained from it, which is an invaluable skill in and of itself.

Companies hire you because they are investing in you. You are the future of the art, and also possibly even a future full-time employee. Everyone who’s worked with you and even those beyond are therefore genuinely interested in hearing about what you’ve done during your internship, how it impacts the company, what you’ve taken away from it, what went well and what didn’t, and what insights you have. Your enthusiasm and energy as an intern are a fresh and powerful force in a corporate environment, even in one as upbeat, fun, and relaxed as SAS. So get out there and show them—and yourself—what you’ve got! I haven’t heard a single person say they regretted it.

Your internship experience is not all under your control, but much of it can be in your hands. Seven tips, one goal. Once you’re done, give yourself a hand.

Because you just did it.

Thanks for reading! What other tips for interns and lifelong learners have I missed? What are you doing in your internship that you’d want to pass along to others? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

Feel free to contact me or connect on LinkedIn. I promise I don't byte!


About Author

Julia Gong

Julia Gong is a sophomore at Stanford University majoring in Mathematical and Computational Science and minoring in Linguistics. She started at SAS in the summer of 2016, when she created a skin cancer detection software at JMP using image analysis and statistical modeling techniques. In the summer of 2017, she used JMP Scripting Language to build an interactive custom R add-in builder for JMP. In the summer of 2018, she built an end-to-end, automated data pipeline for liver tumor segmentation in 3D CT scans using deep learning and computer vision for biomedical image analytics in SAS Viya and CAS. She has been recognized in international technology competitions, loves public speaking and puns, and enjoys seeking novel solutions in overlooked intersections of AI, machine learning, language, environmental conservation, medicine, service, and art. Julia hopes to pursue a career that unites her many interests in computer vision, artificial intelligence, medicine, natural language processing, social good, education, and sustainability.

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