My internship has recently gotten over and yes, after having spent fours months in England shuttling between Exeter and Edinburgh working on the mechanics of translational research on cancer and biomedicine, I think I am all set to return to Maastricht before I leave for India. So, this would be my last post from England and I am certainly happy about it.
I could always talk about my experience as an intern, but, I think the post would end up being sullen details of really random things that I read to get through the day while working on a field that I had no clue about, four months ago. It would be about travelling and trying to figure out short stays in different cities, interviewing people from departments of science and technology studies, genomics, informatics and medicine and in the middle of it all, taking care of my landlord’s cats in Edinburgh. But, that’s been my experience and I am sure that when you go for your internship, you would have something as unique as I did. So, what can I possibly tell you that would make sense in your world as well.
I thought about it and I figured that I should talk about six things. I am not sure that it is the only six things that I have or if these are the only six things that you need to know about internships, but the number was chosen because the White Queen asserted that with practice she regularly believes six impossible things before breakfast. Me, I’m still practicing. (If, by chance, you have no idea who I am talking about, then stop reading this immediately and obtain a copy of Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Reading it is much more important for your development as a student than anything I can tell you.)
So here we go,
- Start with an impossible internship
Always and I mean, always, have an impossible internship in mind before you start making applications. Start early and choose a lot of internship options. When I say impossible internship, I mean, that when you think about that particular internship, you know that there is no chance in hell that you would get it. Start from there and I will tell you why, because sometimes those ideas of impossible internships lead you into the space which is in between what you could achieve without giving your impossible dream a shot and your impossible dream itself. Maybe you would end up with that impossible internship itself. Who knows! Otherwise, that in between space, is your first step towards that impossible job/internship you had in mind in the first place.
- Know where you are going to land up
Okay… this comes from a guy whose first rule of travelling is, “We Will Manage!” But, it is definitely the most important thing that you need to do after you know the institution that you are going to be interning with. Figure out where you are going to stay and I mean, really figure it out and don’t leave it to the last moment or try and assume that you will live in a hostel for a few days and start looking for accommodation after you reach your place of work. Trust me, those in between days should best be avoided because they are utterly stressful. Look at Accommodation woes, something I wrote a few months back for a few tips.
- Ideas come from the 8th dimension
Okay, let me be clear about what I mean here. You have a lot of ideas and they come to you all the time. New ways of talking about what you are doing, new ways of collecting information, new hypothesis or theory that you have come up with and the list can go on. Not all of these come from the 8th dimension, that is, not all of them are great. In fact, most of them are utterly useless. So, learn to let go of bad ideas and know that only a few of them come from the 8th dimension.
So, we need a coolness test to figure out if an idea is from the 8th dimension aka GREAT! and it’s pretty easy. Just ask yourself a simple question: Is it so absolutely cool that someone else to whom you tell it cannot stand not to know the answer to your research question? (Or, in other words, do you need to know the answer?)
How do you get hold of such an idea? Well that answer to that one is simpler. Read. A lot. Read everything you find interesting, inside and outside your field, and then read everything else. By ‘‘read’’ I do not mean look at the abstract (although that is a start) or download the PDF (ditto). If you are reading five to ten papers per day, you’ve got the gist of it. If you are new to this, it is very slow going at first, but you can get very fast at this, really.
Having been an intern I know the feeling of utter dissatisfaction when you just sit at your desk (if you get one!), just read and being afraid that that you don’t ‘‘look busy enough.’’ This idea that reading is not ‘‘work’’ is nonsense. But that doesn’t mean that you can go around showing a list of things that you are reading and assume that your job is done. If your supervisor asks where you were, rather than presenting a list of what you were reading, turn the discussion to the cool ideas you have gotten out of the things that you were reading. And that will only happen, if you actually READ.
- You’re not Superman or Superwoman
A new place always gives you the opportunity of being more than what you have been. You are excited and people around you are, more often than not, excited about having you. The problem is that they don’t really know you that well, and so they don’t know your limits. DO NOT take up more things than what you can possibly handle. Don’t make promises that will eventually require you to pull off an all-nighter to get through. While an all-nighter might be a good thing every once in a while, but you see, since these new people only know you by what you do around them, they would assume that you can do more than what you can.
Trust me, that will eventually backfire. Because it is those things that don’t snap at us and demand our attention, those deadlineless things, like the final outcome of your internship that gets lost in the process of doing other random things to just be accepted in a new setting. Learn to say NO!
- You are not always in Control
The first thoughts that you have about your research question for an internship or the nature of your work itself at the internship might not exactly end the way you expected. Maybe by the time you reach the end of your internship, your first thoughts would seem naive and useless. But, they are all part of the process, a chain of events. It’s like what they say in chaos theory, something as small as the flutter of the wings of a butterfly can cause a hurricane (I assume here that you won’t take this idea on face value.) Your initial assumptions have landed you to the place where you are at the end of the internship. It’s a journey and sometimes you really have no control over where your research is taking you. Learn to go with the flow and know how to turn your sporadic research into something concrete. That is what an internship is actually about. How you cope with your research questions in an unfamiliar environment? So, know that you will lose control but, be cool about it.
- Be an Athlete!
You would know this if you have played enough soccer and been a regular jogger. There is this thing called ‘‘the wall,’’ a point at which the body simply cannot continue to sustain the physical hardship of the game or the exercise. Athletes find a way to dig deep and press through the wall; they do it by training, experience, and sheer will. What an internship requires is not dissimilar (although I suspect it has a different underlying physiology)— you have to be mental athletes who struggle with difficult concepts and ideas (sometimes they might be completely new to you) until you hit a wall, but you keep thinking. And when your ideas are wrong, and the internship is going nowhere, you keep thinking.
So, before I end this, let me just add that parts of the ideas in this post have been borrowed from something really random I found while doing research on biomedicine. The random paper is called Stress in Biomedical Research: Six Impossible Things by Douglas R. Green. Creativity is a combinatorial process in which bits of information are rearranged and extrapolated at a subconscious level—think of it as a conceptual smoothie sloshing around in your brain. So, reading random things will help your research, otherwise, they could just as well help you write a blog post.
This profile page belongs to Ranjit Singh, an Indian who is currently lost in Maastricht and has been trying to find a way to complete a Research Masters degree in Cultures of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST) at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS), Maastricht University. I am currently in the second year of this degree which also suggests the successful completion of the first. Usually my profile page has a single quote by Bill Waterson’s character Calvin which goes something like this: “Why isn't my life like a situation comedy? Why don't I have a bunch of friends with nothing better to do but drop by and instigate wacky adventures? Why aren't my conversations peppered with spontaneous witticisms? Why don't my friends demonstrate heartfelt concern for my well being when I have problems? ...I gotta get my life some writers.” I usually write to fill up the space of these missing writers, trying to find things that are worth a mention in an otherwise mundane existence. I have pretty straightforward hobbies, first, travelling and the second, writing short fiction. The first hobby also explains one of the many reasons why I came to do CAST at Maastricht University, apart from that fact, that CAST is developing into one of the most prestigious STS programs in the world. Though it doesn’t really hold much value if I as a student go on bragging about the course. As for the second hobby, interested people may visit: http://dropsfromsolaris.posterous.com/ Being primarily from a city in India, specifically Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, I have had consistent difficulties in treating Maastricht as a city. It is just too small to be called a city from Indian standards. But, I guess if you overlook the size of this small little space struggling to breather between Belgium and Germany, I suppose being in Maastricht has its perks: a strong community of international students, a complete constellation of events organized by Studium Generale and a wide collection of pubs to hang out.