Kevin Womack

Kevin Womack was just weeks away from graduation from Morehouse College and a degree in math and computer science; but he had a tough decision to make. Should he accept a position with Google, go directly to work and start earning a paycheck? Or pursue a graduate degree at Columbia with time spent at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) as part of the GEM Fellowship Program. GEM is sponsored by the National Graduate Education for Minority Students Consortium.

After graduation, students are often eager to settle into a full-time position with steady pay and job security; however, this route may not be the most viable option for some students. Job postings in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields may be plentiful, but managers are fairly specific in their search criteria—often eliminating many recent graduates.

Even in entry-level positions, managers look for demonstrated experience of field-specific skills in a hands-on environment. Kathryn Jackson’s article in Perspectives in Health Information Management cites research stating that 76 percent of employers prefer to hire experienced people for entry-level positions.

While some potential candidates may be able to point to college and extracurricular activities that highlight experience in leadership or communication, attaining hands-on, industry-specific experience prior to an entry-level position may be more difficult without an internship.

Research consistently shows that internships help prepare students for the incongruities of book learning and field learning. While academic discipline is critical, the value of putting knowledge to work prepares students uniquely for a research or science career.

Across academic disciplines, 96 percent of colleges and universities perceive that their students are prepared for the workforce, while only 11 percent of employers agree, according to Jackson’s article.

This skills gap engenders the question of why students at higher education institutions make the choice between internships and part time/full time employment. Additionally, the STEM fields have been plagued by another chronic challenge: a lack of a diversity in the technology workforce. According to the 2018 White House’s America’s Strategy for STEM Education report, while minority candidates constitute 27% of the U.S. population, they only comprise 11% of the STEM workforce.

Some technology companies have taken considerable steps to ensure that students within the STEM fields are acquiring a balanced combination of both hard and soft skills needed to work and thrive in the organizations’ technical and cultural environments.

The Google Tech Exchange, one of the tech company’s diversity initiatives, addresses both the skills gap and workforce diversity challenges. As part of the program 65 students from HBCUs and Hispanic institutions head to Silicon Valley to enhance their computer science skills. This is an expansion of other Google diversity programs like Howard West and Google in Residence. After witnessing the impact that these programs made in the lives of the students who participated, Google wanted to offer the opportunity to students at other HBCUs.

Womack experienced the Google in Residence initiative first hand. That program embedded technical staff members at selected Historically Black Colleges and Institutions (HBCUs) across the country as faculty members who can identify top talent at the outset of their matriculation.

“They were super hands-on and had a team that dealt with student relations and then a software engineer who was teaching our course. So the software engineers would teach us the technical things we need to know, and hands-on student relations would give encouragement, help us with our resumes, and tell us the best ways to succeed. They were also in charge of retention, so doing things to keep us there (Google).”

After graduating from Morehouse College in 2019, Womack chose a path that would let him intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and obtain a master’s degree from Columbia University.

“I think it was more a personal thing where I had to say to myself: What am I interested in doing? What am I interested in working on? And I realized that I don’t want to do software engineering for the rest of my life. I liked the degree program at Colombia University. Through the GEM Fellowship Program, I’ll be able to pay for my graduate degree. So it was a natural transition for me to hop off the Google train and get on board at ORNL.”

If academic knowledge is the foundation of preparedness for the workforce, hands-on experience is the building itself. The opportunity to use the knowledge acquired during university, customize it to specific problems and merge it with new technologies is critical to transitioning into a full-time career. 

A first full-time job in a new graduate’s career is exciting, but students may want to ensure they are well prepared before jumping into the job search. Taking advantage of internship opportunities allows students to view and participate in a field while also gaining valuable life skills and networking with experienced mentors.

Advantages of an internship

Advantages of an entry-level position

  • Internships allow students to see how industry is using new technologies.
  • Internships may allow for quick exposure to a variety of research areas.
  • Internships provide opportunities to improve desirable professional traits, such as teamwork and interpersonal communication skills under the direction of a mentor and alongside peers.
  • New hires in an entry-level position learn the technology and programs specific to the job or research they will pursue in their career.
  • Students who have past hands-on experience and know the field they desire to pursue may benefit from seeking a full-time position.
  • Entry-level jobs provide a steady salary and benefits, as well as advancement opportunities.

Want to explore the internship route?

ORISE places more than 8,000 students and faculty members in internships and fellowships each year representing more than 750 colleges and universities in federal research facilities across the country. A complete listing of all of the available internships and fellowships can be found on this website or Zintellect.com.