Updated: Dec 30, 2022
Interned at Georgia Tech, Georgia, US and SURA at IITD
Motivation and the Process of Application
I had planned to go for a corporate internship in my 3rd year, but as far as the 2nd year was concerned, the charms of a foreign research internship were quite persuasive, and the thought of a corporate internship never crossed my mind. I was specifically intrigued by Industrial Engineering as my major (ME2) focuses more on the aspects of mechanical engineering, whereas nobody seemed to speak much about Industrial Engineering. It was my father who told me that IE was a really interesting and important field, which sparked my initial interest in it. Trailing from one buzzword to another, guided by my seniors and Google, I discovered that the domain of Operations Research (OR) really interested me (although I didn’t really know about it at the time) - I wished to learn more about it through this internship.
I sent emails to professors working in this domain, but I was not very stressed about the success of this endeavour because I already planned on working on a SURA project at IITD. My search for a project in the field of Operations Research was driven more by the desire to explore. More than the apprehension of drafting excellent mails or gaining positive responses, I would say that the difficulties lay in absorbing the regular disheartening rejections and learning to be okay with the uncertainties of the mailing process. After sending out many emails, interestingly, the project I finally pursued was under the guidance of the professor I had sent my third email to, and he responded quite a while after I first reached out to him, in early June, setting up an interview via Zoom.
The Zoom call lasted roughly half an hour, and contrary to my initial beliefs about how that interview would go, he didn’t just wish to test my subject knowledge, but also wanted to gauge how well rounded I was. He did ask me about my past experience, but also wanted to know about my hobbies, interests and expectations from the internship. He seemed pleased with all my responses. At the end of what I would surmise was a great conversation, he gave me a set of research papers to read and comprehend the best I could. I selected the one I found most interesting, we discussed it over a second Zoom call, and I was allotted a project to work on in the virtual mode in the domain of the same research-work.
Pre Internship Preparations, Apprehensions, and Perceptions
I did not prepare for the internship in a very intense fashion; but I did study a few topics that interested me and completed some courses from Coursera on allied fields such as supply chains. As far as apprehensions are concerned, I was fearful regarding how successful I would be in living up to the expectations of the professor. Given that it was a very programming-intensive internship, I was anxious about asking the professor for help if I was stuck in some part of the code. I was usually irrationally apprehensive before each Zoom call, wherein I was required to update the professor about my progress. As the professor had also graduated from an IIT, I was aware he’d be well-versed in the academic rigour of an IIT and I was afraid that I’d disappoint him with my progress being insufficient. However, as the internship gradually progressed, my initial perceptions were not true. More than solving a problem or adopting a very innovative approach to an abstract problem, the expectation was to demonstrate a keen interest and learn in the process. The professor was extremely perceptive and supportive in this sense. I think what I have learned is that the purpose of a research internship is to explore a particular research domain, so enthusiasm is more important than knowledge. The entire point of customising emails is to highlight your enthusiasm and interest in the professor’s work, more than your awareness of the domain. Even though I haven’t done one myself yet, I’m led to believe that corporate internships involve a lot of spontaneous learning, influenced by many human factors, but I discovered that research internships are more sheltered and flexible.
The Internship: Challenges and Learnings
Initially, I had different plans for the summer and I was mentally prepared to go abroad and have a great offline experience. However, due to some complications with my visa, this couldn’t materialise. That was an emotionally challenging period for me, given that I was the only one among my friends stuck at home, but a short vacation rejuvenated me and allowed me to take on a fresh perspective.
A bulk of my project work continued from the end of June to October. It is based in Operations Research and aimed at building a mathematical model for manufacturing firms to optimise buying and selling using a dynamic inventory model; with the aim of maximising backlog orders sustainably. I was simultaneously working on a project under SURA that was based in manufacturing and was very practical, time-intensive and hands-on, whereas the Georgia Tech internship was very theoretical and coding-based, so the two projects were of contrasting nature. My SURA also took up the bulk of my time due to it being offline and hands on. However, the support from my professors and SURA team-mate really helped me compartmentalise and strike an equanimous and symbiotic balance.
As far as the flow of the project is concerned, it can be divided into three main phases. I first understood the algorithm governing the functioning of the optimisation model and coded it. Then I tested the code on simpler inputs involving discrete functions and smaller values. The final stage of testing involved testing the code on larger inputs involving different demand distributions after which came analysis of the results. In the course of the internship, the professor was extremely perceptive and willing to explain the large concepts I couldn’t understand, and he used supporting real-life applications to further my theoretical understanding. The challenging bit lay in the smaller problems, like debugging tiny errors that were time-intensive and hectic, so it was work-intensive in this sense. Bereft of any deadlines, the entire process was initiative-based and centred on my accepting the responsibility to regularly update the professor and seek guidance on matters.
Overall, the project itself and the valuable guidance from the professor helped me understand how essential and interesting the field of Operations Research is.
Foreign internships do have an innate charm, but do not dismiss the possibility of pursuing an internship under SURA or a project under a professor at IIT Delhi itself, for there is a great research environment here as well. Explore all your choices with an open mind.
Definitely try doing a research internship in the 2nd year, even if you have the slightest bit of uncertainty, because it is the best time to explore this opportunity and is a great experience in terms of learning skills.
Research may not necessarily be very theoretical; you may opt for an internship in entrepreneurship, management, or application-oriented subjects. Do not stress about the mailing process; choose your domains and universities wisely, according to what interests you, and display your specific interests clearly. For the interview, be thorough with your past experience, background in the domain, and the interests you have mentioned to demonstrate your passion and establish credibility.
As far as professionalism during the course of the internship is concerned, open and clear communication and transparency are extremely important. Be humble, courteous and responsive. When in doubt, ask.
Interviewed by - Aanya Khurana