Peer Review

Making the Most Out of Internships: An Interview with Christi M. Pedra, Senior Vice President for Strategic New Business Development and Marketing, Siemens Healthcare

Laura Donnelly-Smith, associate editor and staff writer at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, interviewed Christi M. Pedra, senior vice president for strategic new business development and marketing at Siemens Healthcare. Pedra discussed the internship program she developed and administered at Siemens Hearing Instruments, as well as her advice for how students can ensure their internships are meaningful and communicate clearly the learning outcomes they gain.

What was your motivation for developing a new internship program in 2007 when you were CEO at Siemens Hearing Instruments?

I learned a lot about internship programs simply from talking to my kids and my nieces and nephews. They were my best source of information, and they and their friends had some horror stories from college internships. In the Siemens hearing division, in the past, there had been an informal internship program. There was really no rhyme or reason to how the high school and college kids were selected, and it just kept them busy. Essentially, I said, if we’re going to have interns here, it’ll be because we have meaningful work for them to do, so that they can build their résumés. But money was tight. So we told all the department managers that we would approve between ten and fifteen paid interns for the summer, and managers would be awarded an intern based on the job they would propose for the intern to do. The scope for the work had to be a project that could be accomplished in ten weeks that had a measurable outcome and impact on the business, and could be done by a student. The best submissions won. On the student side, interns had to be juniors, seniors, or graduate students with at least a B average. Each prospective intern would be interviewed, selected from the candidate pool, and would work from June to early August. The interns would get work experience that would benefit their field of study, or business in general. We did this program three times—in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

What distinguishes a good internship program? Are there specific elements that should be present?

One important thing we did was to organize the interns to start and end together and to be a formal class, a cohort. It’s important to orient them to the company with a few days of classes and group activities. Every intern got a mentor in addition to the person who was his or her supervisor. We used the mentoring assignments as a developmental management tool for emerging talent within our organization. The internship must have a measurable project—so software engineers did research and development, marketing interns did marketing plans. One of our marketing interns worked on a video news release for a product. She did the planning, taping, and editing, and the release was distributed to media outlets. We’ve had interns do pricing analysis and help improve our pricing methodology. Another intern created user manuals for new software. It’s incredible the kind of projects interns can do! We redesigned our manufacturing line in light of some work a group of engineering interns did. The one thing they were not doing was filing or clerical work. We also did trainings on presentation skills, because at the end of the internship, as a capstone, each intern did a presentation about the project he or she had completed. And every Friday, we’d have a different executive team member host a “lunch and learn” so students could ask career questions and get to understand another aspect of the business.

What can a student do if she finds herself in an internship that isn’t effective—all “busywork,” or not tied to career or educational goals? Can the student turn the experience around?

Absolutely! I always say “Don’t let your first boss ruin your career.” Even if the job is not what you thought it would be, anything is bearable if you have a vision. The vision is about gaining the most experience from interacting with as many people as possible. Set up exploratory meetings in different departments to learn more about the business. If you hate your summer job, how can you look at the environment around you and capitalize on the assets? If you’re not happy, look to the right and left with the organization and find what’s interesting to you, and then volunteer for jobs outside your initial area of responsibility once you’ve completed your core assignments. Everyone in the company becomes part of the student’s network, and they need to make a favorable impression on everyone. This applies for students who have to make money over the summer, too—if you can’t find a paying internship, your summer job should still be something where you can do something that benefits you in the long term. Even if you’re tending bar, you’re able to make that job about timeliness, customer orientation, teamwork, trustworthiness, etc. It’s about marketing yourself. From that job, you’ll have the experience, skills, and competencies that you can bring into another situation—that are transferable.

As an employer, when you’re looking at recent graduates’ résumés, what stands out? Is simply having an internship enough, or are there specific elements that impress you?

When I see internships on a résumé, what I really want to understand is not the job title, but what were the tasks and what was accomplished? What did they actually do? The other thing is that I look for is whether students were in an environment where they had to work in a team. Did they have to collaborate? Did they work in one-on-one, one-to-many communication situations? I look for these in the context of every role. I spend a lot of time speaking with young people and helping them make the leap from college to career, and a lot of time it’s just about helping them articulate clearly what they have done. It doesn’t come naturally. I have three kids, two out of college, one in, and I’ve helped rewrite twenty-plus résumés of friends and family, even after they’ve been to career centers. Students need to be able to illustrate on the résumé the five Cs: Communication, Collaboration, Culture/diversity, the Capital system of business, and Context. That often doesn’t come through in résumés. I helped a friend’s daughter work on her résumé—she had a 3.8 GPA in marketing. But on her résumé, it had things like babysitting and teaching gymnastics. I suggested she drop the babysitting, and instead of just putting “taught gymnastics,” I had her explain how she developed a plan to organize and run gymnastic events. I want to see specific tasks and what they’ve accomplished. They’ve been told to put their courses and GPA on the résumé, and that doesn’t make sense. Course titles and the content vary from school to school. It’s not the course, but what you derived from it, and how you applied the skills from classes that matters.

Internship Best Practices

What can companies and organizations hosting interns do to ensure that an internship experience is mutually beneficial? Siemens Healthcare vice president Christi Pedra’s advice:

  • Develop a plan for a structured internship experience. If possible, incoming interns should start together, in a cohort, so they can share ideas and interact across departmental or office boundaries. Where start dates are staggered throughout the year, it is beneficial to develop intern clusters, to accomplish the same effect. Weekly or monthly seminars or lunch meetings with company executives can provide multiple perspectives, and should allow time for questions.
  • Give interns significant, goals-focused assignments. Intern assignments should be closely tied to the student’s area of study or the company’s core expertise, require communication and collaboration, and have a measurable outcome. Keep administrative/clerical tasks to a minimum; allow interns to focus on tasks relative to their projects.
  • Provide interns a platform to demonstrate their learning. A capstone presentation or demonstration for an audience of employees, executives, and other interns at the end of the internship allows students to gain confidence talking about their learning.
  • Help interns describe their experience. Counsel interns on using active, task-related language to describe their internship on resumes and in cover letters. Remember to highlight the five Cs: Communication, Collaboration, Culture/diversity, Capital systems, and Context.


Intern Voices

Donnelly-Smith also interviewed two former Siemens Hearing Instruments interns who parlayed their internships into full-time jobs.

Sapna Swamy, who was an information systems major, is an online marketing specialist at Siemens Hearing Instruments. She started as a full-time summer intern in 2008 and also completed part-time semester internships at Siemens in fall 2008 and spring 2009. After her graduation from Stephens Institute of Technology, she was hired as a full-time employee in June 2009.

What advice do you have for students starting their own internships?
I have heard from friends who are doing data entry [at their internships], and tell them to find out how they can help the company in other ways. We can always look for ways to improve certain processes. In my fall internship, I was working on both the US and Canada websites, and in the spring, I picked up the e-mail communications campaigns and started tracking analytics. I didn’t take it all on at once—I gained more experience over time. Interns should also always try to track and measure their results. They can present what they’ve done later, and often numbers speak more strongly than words. In my summer internship, they had presentation classes, where they gave tips on how to present what you’ve learned. And we were given opportunities to meet interns from other divisions to share ideas and experiences. That was great.

Jason Scherr, who double majored in international business and media communications, is a sales support specialist at Siemens Hearing Instruments, where he manages a customer loyalty program. He completed a summer internship in 2007, after his graduation from Muhlenberg College.

What advice do you have for students starting their own internships?
I would say that basically, you need to focus on the task you’re assigned. There might be one small part of it that really interests you. You can take that and make it your own, and use it to help the organization. Hopefully that can turn into a project you’d be proud of. Find something and make it your own within the realm of responsibility you’re given. And being able to communicate with lots of different people is really helpful. At another company, an intern might never get to talk to the VP of sales. [Pedra], who was the CEO, was really visible. I definitely learned to communicate with the higher-ups.

How can college career offices help prepare students to succeed as interns?
The best thing that my college did was to hold a seminar about preparing for an interview. Even if you didn’t have a specific interview lined up, they’d help prepare you. There were mock interviews so you could role-play and make sure you’d know how to handle yourself, and you were required to do a certain number of seminars and practice interviews before you were allowed to interview with any of the recruiters who came to campus.

Laura Donnelly-Smith is a staff writer and associate editor at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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