Ankur's diary entry - Spring 2012

Adjusting to working life after being a university student has been tough for Ankur, but after a few months he’s found his stride and is making the most of his year-long industry internship.  

Ankur driving a speedboad to the Isle of Wight Six months completed, six months remaining. These six words sum up the crossroads that I consider myself to be at now as I’m halfway through my year-long undergraduate placement. To recap, I am working for a small firm in Fareham that develops and sells electronic design automation software.

What I do at my undergraduate placement

I could not have been more vague in my previous diary entry about what I actually *do* at work. In a nutshell I a) develop "process design kits" ("PDKs") according to specifications from different chip fabrication foundries for designing circuit layouts, physical designs, and running simulation on chip designs, b) bug triage and bug fix the design software and c) provide technical support to customers.

Sounded simple enough on paper when I signed up for the job. What I have discovered over the months though, is that when you are working on a complex software with a codebase going back at least a decade, things are not necessarily "Have you tried turning it on and off again?" simple.

Work placements are nothing like university life!

University life makes you complacent to an extent. Whether you sleep in for a 9am lecture or skip a lab session for a lunch date, the consequences of playing truant at university do not hit you immediately.

That luxury simply is not available at work. Every hour you arrive late at work has consequences. Customers’ projects get delayed, code development comes to a halt because an engineer needs your input on something you have written...the list goes on.

When I started my placement I was really excited about the opportunity to work in industry, but what I didn’t count on was that waking up on time for work so early in the mornings would be so hard. The unchanging schedule from day to day did not sit well with me either.

After the freedom of university, being straitjacketed into a daily routine felt...suffocating. I learned a lot at work, yet I could I struggled to shake off the nagging doubt of whether I was ready to face this for the rest of my working career!

Things began to fall into place and I started enjoying work

Then, somewhere along the way, the pieces started falling into place. I think the turning point was December last year, when many of the other engineers at my company went on leave and a greater - and more diverse - set of tasks fell at my desk.

I was at liberty to prioritise what tasks to do and how to accomplish them within reasonable timeframes - indeed, even having to decide what a “reasonable timeframe” would be! I did not have a formal job training programme per se, it was more of a hands-on approach and with a couple of months experience under my belt as well as more flexibility, I started truly enjoying my work.

Work outings were fun!

I adjusted to a life that was more routine than what I was used to, yet still found time to relax. Work outings added to the fun, such as getting to drive a speedboat to the Isle of Wight and dining on filet mignon cooked on volcanic rocks. Indulging in my hobby of backpacking helps too; I went to Morocco for winter break and I’ll be on my way to Jordan by the time you read this.

Not alone in how I felt

I was not the only one among my friends on placement who felt listless about work when we started. Six months down the line, I hear most of them echoing the same sentiments as I do - that they finally feel they are able to contribute at work in a way that makes an impact, however tiny it might be in the larger scheme of things.

From my exchange year in Singapore last year, I have remained in touch with friends from the US and Singapore. They, too, have internship programmes but instead of a year, theirs are typically six months long. What I hear from many of them is due to the duration of the internship, by the time they are up to speed with how things work around the company, it’s time for them to leave already. In some companies, there is hesitance on the part of company management to spend resources on training or allocating responsibilities in significant projects.

I do not deny that if you are driven and passionate, it is possible to learn something significant on a six month or even a summer internship. Still, because of the businesses work, the duration effectively limits how useful it can be.

The importance and kudos of UK industry internships

Hearing experiences from my friends around the world made me realise how unique the professional training year concept is in the UK. Knowing that an intern will be around for a significant period allows company management to feel more confident about assigning non-trivial projects.

Perhaps this is one thing that sets engineering graduates in the UK apart from their global counterparts. In times of economic uncertainty, companies scale back on their internship programmes but maybe this competitive edge in better-experienced graduates is precisely the sort of thing that UK needs to maintain its present importance in a world where more manufacturing jobs are migrating to East Asia.

I am not experienced enough to say how much of a difference it makes, but from a student’s perspective I believe it provides a boost in confidence of one’s own abilities, and that may make you even more passionate about a career in engineering.