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How to get practical experience in engineering while doing your degree

Katie Schenk - April 14, 2017

How to get practical
experience in engineering while doing your degree

Unless you’re planning to pursue more education, the goal of any advanced engineering degree is a job. In some parts of the world, a job placement is almost guaranteed by the university; but that’s hardly the case in every country.

And, an advanced engineering degree – even from a top university – isn’t always enough to secure a placement. Often, recruiters look for practical experience. While it would seem that this would lead to a catch-22 situation, it’s not impossible to gain practical experience while doing your degree.

Practical experience at universities

In some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, work placements often form part of the engineering curriculum. For some engineering degrees at the University of Sydney, it’s impossible to graduate without the relevant work experience. It all boils down to industry demand for grads that can get to work quickly on real-world problems and solutions.

This mandate offers a fantastic opportunity to international students hoping to secure a position in Australia after receiving their degree.

You’ll find similar initiatives in American engineering courses. The Master of Science in Chemical Engineering Practice (M.S.CEP) degree from MIT requires a one-semester industrial internship. At the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California, a practical internship isn’t a requirement for their Master of Science in Computer Science, but it’s listed at the top of their recommended electives list.

If your university mandates work or co-op experiences for graduation, you can expect the institution to facilitate or assist you to pursue these opportunities. However, you will still need to undertake final responsibility as the experience forms part of your core graduation requirements.

Clearly, practical experience is an important part of any masters engineering degree. And, because universities don’t often require work experience for admission into engineering programmes (unlike MBA programmes which tend to look for five to seven years of work experience before application), schools need to make it work experience possible.

How practical is practical?

Speaking to international students enrolled in engineering master’s programme in the United States, it’s not difficult to see that practical experience takes centre stage. Prodigy Finance-funded students attending USC Viterbi and Carnegie Mellon University all find the emphasis placed on practical application is superior. Rather than focusing solely on theory, these students feel ready for a job placement – whether or not they pursue a practical internship.

Whether you’re in or out of the classroom, you should expect a fair amount of practical experience when pursuing your MS Engineering in the United States – and countries like the United Kingdom and Australia.

In addition, it’s possible to secure research or teaching assistantships when studying at American universities. These posts are typically paid according to a pay scale determined by the university. Although these positions aren’t usually well paid, they are in high-demand according to Prodigy Finance-funded students currently pursuing their degrees. It’s one of the best ways to secure some level of practical experience while on campus, so you should start researching options and reaching out to the relevant professors as soon as possible after admission.

But, of course, campus positions don’t always provide the practical experience that employers look for after graduation. As you might imagine, short of previous work experience, they’re most interested in grads that have undertaken internships during or immediately following their studies.

When do international students pursue practical internships?

International students pursuing their MS Engineering in the United States will find that many universities offer a choice of admission terms – spring and autumn (which will likely be known as fall, not autumn). While fall admission is more traditional for Americans, there are internship benefits to both that should be considered before applying or accepting an intake semester.

Students who begin their studies during spring often have the option of pursuing internships during the summer term (when most colleges function with lower staffing and support services), before continuing with their classroom studies in the autumn. A fall start usually entails two full semesters of classroom work before they have the option of doing an internship – and according to the limits placed on student visas, this could involve an additional round of bureaucratic applications.

But, it is possible – even in the United States.

The US government offers international students the opportunity to extend their student visa to pursue an internship without requiring an H-1B. But, these Optional Practical Training (OPT) visas have conditions attached.

International students pursuing a degree in the US (either bachelors or masters levels) are eligible to apply for an OPT extension that lasts 12 months; STEM graduates have an option to extend this period for a further 24 months, for a total of 36 months in the United States after graduation. However, this extension is only available to students interning at companies that have officially registered with the E-Verify programme.

You can apply for pre-completion OPT status during your studies to pursue paid internships during your course (including those during the summer semester). If you want to take advantage of the post-completion option, you will need to have your OPT status verified before your official graduation date. OPT status is, of course, subject to immigration regulations and must be officially granted; it can take up to 120 days for processing (and you must have a valid H-1 visa at the time of application).

The good news is that you don’t need to have a job or internship offer on the table when you apply for OPT status. But, your legal status can be revoked if you are unemployed for 90 days during the original 12 month period or 150 days on the full three-year provision.

As it currently stands, the OPT programme is the best way to gain practical experience during or following your MS Engineering degree in the United States, and it’s important to consider the timing and opportunities available. There are similar initiatives in place in other countries, especially considering the emphasis placed on practical experience in Australia and Europe.

Keep in mind, however, just as the onus is on you to find a position post-graduation, so too is the responsibility for securing internships – and the visas required to complete them legally. And, you’ll want to make sure you do, as practical experience is one thing every employer considers when extending job offers – and that’s what you’re after when pursuing an advanced degree, isn’t it?

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