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Professional Environment vs. Academia: A College Intern's Perspective

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Hello,

This week I will be comparing classroom and professional settings. STEM employment and a background in academia are nearly inseparable, and the way I treat them, they are not as different as others seem to think.

First of all, I should start by saying that I have a very different attitude toward college than most people do.  As a chemical engineering student I know that the base of math that I have built, and the most essential fundamentals of my physics, chemistry, etc., will be with me the rest of my life. However, I completely understand that the majority of what I learn will be—for lack of a better term—useless in industry, and expect to learn the majority of the details on-site (I understand my prospective degree in chemical engineering to be more like a degree in problem solving than anything else). Having a long background in athletics, I view college as a performance. I am there strictly to prove that I have the capacity to learn a vast breadth in a short period of time and to prove that I can perform under pressure; essentially that I have the ability to “hit the ground running.” Though I am absolutely fascinated with what I learn in the classroom, from a professional perspective I am completely uninterested. What I am interested in, professionally, are the skills that I develop as a result.

With that being said, I feel as though my experience in school and my internships each sharpen my skills for the other. I say this because I did them almost simultaneously and a “chicken or the egg” argument arises in my head when I try to put one ahead of the other.

Internships:

 Not only has every internship I have had thus far mainly consisted of me working on a project so large that there is no expectation that I finish, but there also has been no “template” for me to follow. To be honest, every time I sat in front of my supervisor on the first day I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about or what they wanted. After the initial meeting they would say, ‘Get to work!’ and I would go to my desk slightly flustered because I had a general idea of what the end goal was. But I had no idea what that looked like, how to get there, or even where to start. In retrospect, I love that about Indium Corporation. They are not afraid and resolute enough to not only give the intern a project that actually means something, but they don’t “helicopter” over them and hold their hand through the process. This experience has taught me to how to move fast, make decisions on my own, and effectively present/communicate information; I learned those lessons very quickly (out of fear of not being productive or not meeting expectations). Probably the biggest lesson these internships have taught me, and skill they have sharpened, however, is how to seek help; this one took more time to learn. I take great pride in being independent and working through a situation myself, but I also understand that the majority of people love to help (especially at Indium Corporation). I eventually learned who had knowledge or connections that could help me - or who could direct me to someone that could help, and went to those people whenever I “got in over my head.” By putting my best effort into my work and leveraging these people I was then able to ensure that the final product I offered my supervisors was of high quality.

Academics:

Studying engineering hits you from the beginning (just like each internship did). Mohawk Valley Community College has a very well respected Engineering Science program; one that results in standing articulation agreements with Clarkson, RPI, and RIT (just to name a few) for seamless transfer into their programs.  Professors begin trying to thin out the engineering crowd from the first day. My program was rather small with only ~55 students; by midterms of the first semester we were down to 15, 12 by the end of the second year. One professor in particular, Derrick Stevens, has trained me in the same way that Indium Corporation has. He instructed me in Physics 2 (Electricity & Magnetism) and in Dynamics (non-equilibria vector mechanics). Not only did this man want to weed out those who did not want to be there, but he wanted to humble those who did. That style of teaching caused me to resort to the same faculties that Indium Corporation did. On any assignment/test he gave I had to think fast, I had to work efficiently, I had to be confident in my work and I had to be able to seek the right resources to help me. Though his courses were always the toughest and most taxing, those were the classes that I enjoyed the most and learned the most in.

Yes, the atmosphere may be very different at a school and we all can find details that would dichotomize these two, but with the right perspective and attitude a person can use the skills learned in one arena to become more effective in the other.

Until next time,

Sean McKenna