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Women in STEM: 36 weeks, eight internships, invaluable experience

University of Sussex engineering student Abigail Berhane has undertaken several internships to boost her employability but realises that it’s also important to strike a better work-life balance 

    Abigail Berhane's avatar

    Abigail Berhane

    March 28 2019
    Women in STEM, internships, work experience, university


    Over the past four years, I have spent approximately 36 weeks on eight internships at some amazing companies. Sometimes it has meant that I have missed out on holidays, festivals and experiences with my friends but overall the sacrifice has been worth it.

    It all started when I won a place on the Career Ready programme that linked me up with a mentor, electrical engineer Tony Gale, who helped me secure two internships for the summer of 2015. During my five-week internship at BP, I worked in Oil and Gas PPM. During a presentation, I must have made an impression on the CEO as he invited me to shadow him for the day.

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    Later that summer I spent two weeks at engineering and design company Arup. This was when I first became familiar with computational fluid dynamics (CFD). That experience stayed with me and now I hope to do a CFD-related PhD.

    I returned to Arup the following summer for more structural analysis and data handling work. Then in 2018, I was a finalist in both the IMechE Speak Out for Engineers and the Ricardo Most Promising Female Engineer Award. Part of the prize for the latter was a six week internship with Ricardo as a simulation engineer. On finishing that placement, I had a three-day break before returning to Arup for six weeks with their Advanced Technology and Research team.

    In November 2018, I started working 20 hours a week as a Southern Water Data Analyst. Balancing my third year at university and working part-time was pretty crazy. I was determined my new role would not impact on my studies but I had to push myself really hard to ensure that I got good scores on my three modules for the term.

    In my job, I was in charge of calculating pump isentropic efficiencies at different pumping stations and monitoring their performance. It was a high-pressured role because I had sole responsibility.

    While I’ve gained many new skills in engineering from my internships, probably the most valuable lesson I’ve learnt is that asking questions and showing an interest can take you a long way. There have been a lot of high points during my internships but also some low times. I’ve felt bad for not understanding something that I was expected to know. Sometimes it can be embarrassing to ask for help when a task appears simple to others who have been doing it a long time. But that shouldn’t stop you from asking.

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    Last summer, all my friends went to the El Dorado festival and I really wanted to go too. But because I was only at my two placements for six weeks each and I had already taken time out to attend the Formula Student event as part of my university course, I didn’t feel I was able to go. I was sad to be missing out and found myself questioning why I was having to work that much harder than everyone else. In hindsight, it’s important to have the right balance between interning opportunities and spending time with family and friends.

    For anyone considering an internship, try looking at the websites of companies in your areas of interest and making a LinkedIn profile. Get in touch with a company’s HR team – I’ve always found HR staff to be helpful and they will be able to answer any questions you have.

    Ask your lecturers and academic advisors for recommendations on companies to target. Career fairs are also a good opportunity to check out companies that you are interested in.

    Apply to as many as you can because the competition can be quite stiff. I have missed out on a number of internship roles but the important thing is not to get disheartened or take it personally. I asked for feedback when I wasn’t selected, applied again the next year and got it. 

    My top tip for making the most of your internship is to always ask for more work. There have been plenty of times where I have finished tasks too soon or there is no work for me to do. Usually I like to walk around the office and ask people about what they do and if there is anything I can do to help.

    But be careful when doing this, and read body language. You do not want to disturb someone if they are busy but most of the time people are happy to help you out and talk.

    And unfortunately, not all internships are paid. I’ve had to reject certain internships that I really wanted because they were unpaid and would require accommodation.

    To combat this I believe that there should be government schemes to support students on internships, especially those without financial support, so that everyone, regardless of background or family wealth, can take up opportunities to develop new skills and add to their CVs.

    Internships are obviously a great way to develop employment skills and experience to impress future employers, but they are also equally valuable for students looking to pursue a career in academia.

    My parents are originally from Eritrea. I have cousins there who have not had half the opportunities I have been granted. I have always been taught to be grateful for what I have been given and to take advantage of any opportunity I’m presented with. Understanding how lucky I am to even be in the UK and have a good education is more than enough motivation for me to push myself to do more internships.

    Read more: How work experience can help you get ahead at university

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