Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Finding a new intern

Working with undergrads was some of my favorite experiences from grad school, so every time I get approval to hire an intern, I get pumped.

The problem with interviewing undergrads is that they're desperate for things to slap on their resumes, so they'll say anything: "I designed complicated circuits", "I can use machine shop equipment", "I know advanced biology/chemistry/physics", etc.  They often overestimate their abilities because they don't know any better and they think the skills they've learned are advanced.  Unfortunately, they're taught at a very basic level and aren't really taught the knowledge in detail before the application. 

So I ask a few basic questions in each interview. The questions vary based on what's going through my mind, but they usually encompass these questions depending on the type of position I'm trying to fill:

Why is the sky blue?
If I have a bath with saline residue, how would I clean it?
How do I make 0.1M of NaOH?
How does the heart beat?
How can I sterilize this equipment?
*Solve dy/dx=x for x
Heat conduction is a function of what?
What's Snell's law?
What do the kidneys do and what's the functional unit?
Name 5 components of a eukaryotic cell
What's mechanical stress?
**What's the unit of electrical current?

Really simple questions depending on the position. Today I interviewed a student who has a 4.0 from a top 20 university. She's finishing her MS I'm biomedical engineering after a BS in biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering. Her answer to * was "x"; her answer to ** was "watt".  What the heck?  Is this seriously what schools are pumping out?!?

I wanted to scream. Of course, I corrected her and explained it. It seemed like it was the first time she was seeing these answers. At first I thought she was nervous, but if she was, she masked it very well. She seemed quite confident in herself. I really hope she was just not in the proper state of mind today, because I'm probably not going to be interviewing too many people from her background or university. I hate to stereotype, but I don't have time for this crap.  I hire interns to have someone to mentor, but ultimately I have to get things done.  When someone is this far behind, by the time they are ready to actually contribute, their seven month internship is over.  I've been pretty lucky with interns where they can usually contribute within a couple months.  Interns of all races and sexes.  Unfortunately, this young woman is not going to cut it.  Schools, please do better.  I haven't started my academic post yet, but I'm really hoping I don't let kids pass by with this remedial knowledge.


  1. My sentiment is very similar to your's. For some reason bioengineering students that come out with the BSs and MSs are jacks-of-all-trade and masters-of-none. The bioengineering community needs to determine guidelines to ensure students make good engineers. The PhDs I have come across are okay, but the 'lower' degreed students are not up to any kind of realistic standard.

  2. I've met some that are solid, and I think I may have been too quick to judge. But I'm constantly getting burned with this particular undergraduate degree.

    1. My DH is solid (and could answer some of these questions from high school classes)! But... he was a double major, and one class away from a CS minor in addition. He has said he doesn't think much of the interdisciplinary major (compared to the standard engineering major he got) because you get a lot of breadth but not much depth.

    2. Bingo! I highly advise any undergraduate against it. For some reason, students I've seen that have a BS in an interdisciplinary field, even with a PhD in an interdisciplinary field just aren't as technically sound as their standard engineering BS peers, even though they have the same PhD. Colleges really need to start reconsidering their standards. An interesting stat from my old school 0/27 BS holders in bioengineering found a job straight outa BS (14 weren't planning on doing grad school). It really is a shame.

  3. Forgive me for disagreeing, but isn't the point of hiring interns to train them and prepare then for future careers? She didn't know these basic principles, but maybe it's because she's dedicated memory to more advanced topics. Or, maybe like you said, she was nervous. You could have trained her to relax so she can perform better in the future.

    1. Don't apologize for disagreeing! When I hire interns it's for three reasons: 1. I like mentoring students, 2. I like cheap labor, 3. I'm scouting potential future-employees. I would get ripped if I paid someone to do remedial work. I need to maximize the chances that 1-3 get fulfilled. She might have been nervous, but we have tons of high-pressure situations where the intern would have to perform. Maybe she'll find a position in process engineering or manufacturing, but my group does some of the most advanced science and engineering in the entire medical device industry. We need the cream-o-da-crop, and I can't invest in nurturing the crop. I want some GMO crop that's built with talent in the genes! :)