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Engineering internships: a beginner’s guide

Tony Hadlow

Theory is seldom the same as practice, so engineering internships are an excellent way to see what the life of an engineer is really like. The experience you gain will help you make informed career decisions after you graduate, and provide you with something you can use to impress recruiters. So how do you go about finding an internship that matches your goals and then successfully apply for it?

The value of an internship

Recruiters think highly of graduates with relevant field experience. An engineering placement is particularly valued – it shows that you have practical experience, in addition to the theoretical grounding provided by your degree, and shows that you’re committed to an engineering career. It also demonstrates that you’ve made an informed choice about where you want to work.

Getting started with internships

The good news is that many leading engineering companies in Australia offer work experience or internships to student engineers. It’s in their best interest to attract and retain talented graduates, so you’ll find that many firms make a concerted effort to reach out to engineering students through on-campus advertising and careers fairs. Attending these events offers a valuable opportunity to make a strong first impression and ask questions of people who have worked at firms you might be interested in.

Of course, nothing beats initiative, so it’s a good idea to start early by researching firms aligned with your interests and academic expertise. You can start your search on the GradAustralia website, or reach out directly to any firms that have piqued your interest. To make a strong application, you might find it helpful to read our guides on writing a standout resume and preparing for engineering interviews.

The shorter alternative: engineering placements

Some degrees are structured such that work experience is a mandatory module. However, if your degree isn’t like this, don’t despair - you may be able to organise a placement that fits within your academic calendar. For example, summer internships can last for up to three months. Alternatively, you can look for organisations that offer more convenient placements during the Easter break.

Placements will allow you to experience the life of a graduate engineer first hand, while also helping you to develop your skills and network with other professionals. This is an invaluable opportunity - for, as Wallace Steven wrote, there’s a critical difference between ‘ideas about the thing and the thing itself’. To know if the engineering life is for you, you’re going to have to give it shot.

Tips for getting an engineering placement

  • Start planning your work experience from your first year of study! Most employers only take placement applications from students in at least their second year of study, but planning ahead is ideal. You’ll probably end up far busier than you anticipate, so getting started early is a huge advantage.
  • Aim to stand out from the crowd - employers will view your application favourably if you combine strong academic results with evidence of diverse interests or genuine enthusiasm for your chosen career.
  • Use your university careers service - University staff can draw on a wealth of experience in guiding you towards suitable placement and internship opportunities. They can also keep you informed of any relevant career fairs or on-campus events.
  • Take advantage of your contacts - It’s true that ‘who you know’ is often more useful than ‘what you know’. So, if you know somebody who works in an engineering firm, see if you can arrange to shadow them or even organise a placement of your own. Confidence and initiative goes a long way.

What if I don’t get an engineering internship?

First of all, take a deep breath - you’re going to be fine. Engineering internships are helpful, but there are plenty of other ways to show that you’re the type of committed and talented graduate who will make a positive contribution to your future workplace. It’s possible to pick up some more low-key work experience, or boost your employability through activities that have nothing to do with engineering.

Alternatives to placements and internships within the engineering sector

There are options available for people who don’t have time to complete full internships or who aren’t successful at applying for them. You can even use your success at arranging an alternative as promising evidence of your determination to succeed in engineering with or without an industry placement. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Research local engineering companies and apply (in writing) for a week or two weeks’ unpaid work experience. Smaller firms may be more more enthusiastic about this idea because they aren’t bound by strict company-wide policies.
  • If you’re looking at small companies, consider dropping your CV off in person and asking to speak to someone about a placement. Be prepared to discuss what you can contribute, and what you’re hoping to get out of your experience.
  • Apply to a breadth of engineering sectors – any experience is preferable to none. So, even if you’re studying mechanical engineering, see if you can capitalize on your more general skills to apply for experience at, say, a structural engineering firm.

Gaining skills and experience outside engineering

There’s more to succeeding in engineering than specific industry experience. Firms are also attracted to interesting and enthusiastic graduates who have demonstrated the generic skills required to succeed in any career - and there are a variety of ways you can do this. Here are just a few:

  • All experience is valuable. In fact, recruiters will often ask graduates what experience they have outside of engineering. So even if you end up working in a burger bar (which is, by no means, a bad thing), make the most of it - ask for more responsibility, learn how the business is run and focus on developing transferable skills such as leadership, teamwork and communication. These are all things you can discuss or demonstrate in future work applications.
  • Learn how to program (sites like CodeAcademy are a great place to start).
  • Go travelling (participation in programs like Outward Bound can look particularly impressive on your CV).
  • Try to get some experience writing reports.
  • Do something unpaid, like charity work, to develop your soft skills and demonstrate your commitment to community engagement.
  • Join campus clubs and societies - the more involved you can be, the better.
  • Master a foreign language (Duolingo is popular among beginners, or you can considering enrolling in a course at a local community college)
  • Build something - a boat, or a robot or even a chest of drawers. That is engineering at its purest.
  • Read widely - the more you learn, the more knowledge you’ll have to draw upon when answering interview questions or approaching unfamiliar challenges.
  • Don’t give up - all roads lead to Rome, so don’t be too discouraged if yours doesn’t include a cushy detour at a reputable engineering firm. You’ll get where you want to.