Suppose there is an engineering PhD student who is unsure whether to join academia or the industry after his PhD. He does not want to take chances and applies for internship positions during the course of his PhD. Here is a dilemma: the internship is certain to eat into vital amount of time he could otherwise spend thinking about his research problem. OTOH, when he is not fully into research, he is unlikely to get attractive research-based internship positions.

How should a PhD candidate time his internship in a way that it does not affect his research and is also a very valuable experience on his PhD resume?


This is a "Goldilocks" problem—you should try to schedule an internship late enough that you have enough experience to be of interest to a potential internship sponsor, but early enough so that it can have an effect on your long-term development (if you feel it was a sufficiently positive or negative experience to sway your sentiments).

As a result, I would say that you should typically do this in the middle of your PhD—probably around your third year or so (assuming that you're in a typical US graduate program that runs five to six years for a PhD). If you're in a European-style system, where the coursework has been done before the PhD starts, then it should be done somewhat earlier—perhaps from the middle of the second year on.

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    This is exactly right. If you try for an internship too early, anything you're likely to get will not be interesting enough work from a research perspective. – Suresh Mar 16 '12 at 15:03

I think you're creating a false dichotomy by saying

the internship is certain to eat into vital amount of time he could otherwise spend thinking about research problems

Internships are places where sometimes REALLY interesting problems come up. Especially in engineering, while it's not critical, it's very important to keep a finger on what's happening in industry - the industry/academia divide is a matter of time-horizon rather than fundamental nature of the problem.

Of course you need to have enough experience to recognize interesting problems, which goes back to @aeismail's answer. I will also say that doing it late in your career isn't that bad either, because then you get a three-month interview for a job. That's how I got my first one :)

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Although the answers above are great, I would like to share a different perspective mainly because I disagree with necessarily waiting until the 3rd year of your Phd. In a lot of internships, you're exposed to new areas or new perspectives in the same area which can affect your current interests. Although school is good and working on research is even better, still, you learn work mainly at work.

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I think internships are an accessory to research. I believe that the positioning and frequency of internships doesn't matter as long as they are relevant to one's PhD [by relevant I mean that if work done on internships could be written down on the final PhD dissertation and/or lead to meaningful publications]. Finding/Securing the correct internship that could positively propel one's PhD is a challenge, but it is doable.

I believe having the wisdom to decide whether an internship could contribute to one's research depends on where you currently stand in the PhD timeline. There is a distinction between a PhD student and a PhD candidate, which I want to point out as you mentioned both the terms.

A PhD candidate is an advanced PhD student, which means he/she is aware of the fundamental concepts of a particular research area (since a PhD candidate has successfully qualified the core requirements of a dept., which involves getting satisfactory grades in certain key courses for his/her specialization track). So he/she is in a better position (in terms of judgement) to not settle for just any internship (as there are significant amount of internship opportunities for PhD students [this of course depends on country/funding/discipline]), but only the ones that ties well with one's PhD goals. For instance if someone's specialization area is compilers, then doing an internship on quantitative research might not be very useful in the near term.

For PhD students (in first or second year), since they are (relatively) new in the field and learning the ropes (as majority of their time is spent on courses, reviewing/reading papers, and doing research in whatever time is left), seeking counsel from mentors/adviser regarding internship is fruitful. They could help in a multitude of ways.

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