Summer Intern vs. PhD attitude

Summer internship Ngram from 1930 - 2000

I wonder if all of us have this thought? At some point in our lives we’ve worked super hard and surprised everyone. We brought our A-game to the table and blew it right out of the park. This sets such an exemplar benchmark, that for the rest of our lives, we look back at this period of high intensity and make repeated attempts to recreate it.

I know I do. And most of the times, I fail.

I wonder if maybe it’s just not possible.

I like to think of it as the Summer Intern vs. PhD attitude.

When I was a summer intern back at NCL, I was crazy. The work I did in one summer pretty gave me my Stanford ticket. I would work almost all night. I used tricks like chewing dry instant coffee powder and drinking coke to keep me awake night after night.

During my two years as a grad student, I’ve had a couple of summer interns work with me. I see a similar inexhaustible energy supply in them. They’re fresh, have not seen much failure and have a will-die-or-kill-you attitude towards their experiments.

I suspect that the underlying cause of this attitude is a result of a time constraint, a guiding and troubleshooting mentor, and the most important – a reasonably well-defined problem. And perhaps lack of other distractions and commitments.

Even though this summer intern attitude results in tons of data/results, it may also a burn-out after the internship period. I knew I was exhausted and worn out after my intern.

On the other hand, I think of a PhD attitude as a more distributed energy output, long-term planning and balanced attitude. In most cases, there are no time constraints. A PhD student is his own guiding mentor. And he/she doesn’t have a very well-defined problem – but starts off with dabbling in more than one thing to see what works (or doesn’t).

Now, what a summer intern accomplishes in three months is almost impossible for a graduate student to achieve. I admit it, I find it difficult to keep up in terms of speed and agility with my last two summer interns. It’s as if they don’t sleep. And can survive on coke and chips alone.

It seems to me, that as life changes and goes on, the more divided one’s attention gets, the more impossible it gets to get back to the previous high energy state. I wonder if I can extend this analogy and construct a PhD vs. professor attitude. Or,  professor vs. emeritus professor attitude.

Maybe, if one doesn’t actively try to create an environment where one is focussed, the default is only towards a lower energy intensive state. Not that there is anything wrong with either attitude. With time, priorities change, and so do attitudes.

But occasionally, I wonder if I could switch off my graduate student mindset, and zone in to my inner summer intern attitude. As Pee says, sometimes all I need is, “to put my head down and power through”.


** The image is of the Ngram viewer for the term “summer internship”. I’m hard pressed to believe that the word summer internship didn’t exist before the 1940’s. But what is amazing to me is the exponential rise in the late nineties and early 2000’s. I can conclude from this graph that summer internships have become more popular only in the last 20 years or so. I suspect that the rise of the internet and growing career options play a major role.

So, I wonder what this means for the future?

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2 Responses to “Summer Intern vs. PhD attitude”

  1. Piyush January 10, 2013 at 4:43 pm #

    I have had this exact same feeling- how was I able to work so arduously for 3 months long intern and now even six months seems not enough for the same work.

    • Saad Bhamla January 10, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

      Glad I’m not the only one.