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How to Land the Perfect STEM Internship on Your Way Up the Ladder

Photo: Courtesy of Kate Gunderson

On her website, engineer and influencer Kate Gunderson says she’s on a mission to encourage more women to thrive in the world of STEM. In an interview, she answers questions about how she got her start and why internships are so important. 

What inspired you to become a STEM major?

My inspiration to become an engineer started in the second grade. I remember standing in the driveway with my dad one summer night, staring up at the night sky. I remember feeling awestruck, recognizing how small I was in relation to the rest of the universe. I wanted to understand how it all fit together. From that very moment, I decided that I wanted a front-row seat on mankind’s journey to discovery and I set my sights on a career at NASA.

In elementary school I had to research, dress like, and present on someone from history that I admired. I chose Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel to space, and proudly stood in front of the class dressed up as an astronaut, complete with an American flag taped to one shoulder of a bright orange snowmobiling suit, the helmet tucked under my arm. I never stopped talking about my dream of one day working for NASA, no matter how many people told me it would never happen. Sally Ride showed me that my dream was never out of reach and kept the flame of desire to accomplish that dream shining brightly within me.

What led you to start sharing your experiences and encouraging other women to pursue their interests in STEM?

While growing up, my parents always encouraged me to pursue whatever I was passionate about. Because they were so supportive, I had no idea that women weren’t equally represented in STEM fields. When I got to college, I was shocked at the small percentage of women in my engineering classes. Although I am incredibly outgoing, I had a difficult time connecting with the women in my classes who often seemed to try to blend in and not draw too much attention to themselves. Sometimes people said things to me like, “You’re too bubbly to be an engineer.” I wanted to show women that you can build a successful engineering career while staying true to who you are. Femininity and technical competence don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I hope to foster a community of successful female engineers where we never have to feel like we’re navigating the difficult times alone.

Why are internships important for women in STEM?

College can be incredibly challenging and at times I questioned my ability to succeed in the field of engineering. However, as I succeeded at my projects during my internships, I realized that I could thrive as a working engineer and saw that I would learn much of what I needed to know on the job. Furthermore, for me internships provided an opportunity to see examples of successful women thriving in their fields which I believe is incredibly important for young girls. I conducted research as an undergraduate student and we actually found that students’ self-efficacy increased dramatically through their participation in internships and helped retention rates in engineering students.

How should students seek out these internships and what should they look for?

Look for companies doing work you’re passionate about. Your passion will shine through when you interview for the internship. Furthermore, reach out directly to companies by searching for HR points of contact either on LinkedIn or through their website. It can make a huge difference to a recruiter if you take the initiative to send your resume directly to them and introduce yourself and why you are interested in working for them, as not everyone thinks to make this personal connection. Even if you still need to formally apply, your name will stand out in their minds while working through the stacks of resumes. I would also suggest students avoid applying only to internships available to them through their college’s career placement office. If I had done this, I never would have ended up at my dream job!

Are there challenges specifically for women when applying to internships?

I haven’t had any major roadblocks in applying to internships, however, I did have one negative experience while interviewing for one. During an interview for a manufacturing engineering internship, one of the two men interviewing me asked with a skeptical look on his face if I thought I could handle getting my hands dirty as much of my time would be spent on the manufacturing floor. I remember being taken aback by the question because I had never experienced such blatant sexism. In the end, I didn’t get the job and I have since learned that it was for the best. Seek out companies that embrace diversity and make it obvious that they will welcome you into the team with open arms, ready to provide you with a meaningful experience.

How can students make a big impression in their internship to ensure a potential job offer?

An internship is like an extended job interview. The best way to make an impact sounds simple because it is! Show that you have a good work ethic. If you finish a task and are looking for something else to do, don’t just sit around — ask your boss if there’s something else you can help with. Seek to learn from others around the office. Chances are there are many talented people around you, and they’d be happy to show you something about what they do. By showing that you’re passionate about what the company does and are a team player, you’re sure to be at the forefront of their minds when it comes to hiring for a full-time position.

What challenges did you have getting into leadership roles in your career?

The biggest challenges I’ve faced involve knowing when to speak up when I’m often the youngest person in the room. It’s so important to work towards developing your self-confidence when speaking up about technical matters which can be challenging when everyone in the room has ten or more years of experience than you do. Additionally, it can be difficult to navigate the issue of advocating for yourself. On one hand, you want managers to be aware of your goals and aspirations, but it can be challenging to know just how vocal you should be about those goals. I was once told I was being too “squeaky” by one colleague, and after being chosen for the position I was pursuing, was told this was exactly why I was selected. When in doubt, I lean more heavily towards being vocal about what I want. If those around me don’t know, they won’t be able to help me make it happen.

What was one of the coolest projects you’ve worked on?

One of my projects as an intern involved designing a tablet mount for the pilots to use in the cockpit of one of our aircrafts. It was incredibly rewarding to lead every aspect of the project at such a young age. From initial consultation with the pilots discussing their needs to coming up with a design that would be cost effective and easy to install in the aircraft, I was responsible for every aspect of the project. I advocated for the need to verify the design so I could observe how well it met the objectives through a real flight test and was pleasantly surprised when the organization agreed that it was a great idea and let me ride along! This project really helped grow my sense of confidence that I could rise to the challenge both technically and when it came to advocating for myself. The pilots still fly using my tablet mounts on every mission three years later.

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