Three Lessons From My Summer as a Research Intern at Carnegie Mellon University
Real talk, new experiences can be terrifying. But yet somehow, despite their nerve racking nature, new experiences remain paramount to our personal development.
And although external circumstances may determine the frequency or types of new experiences a person encounters, the coping mechanism underlying our innate response to new experiences may be more similar than we think.
But first, to make salient what I mean by new experiences, let your mind reminisce on your most memorable new experiences. Perhaps these include:
Your first day of elementary, middle, high school or college.
Your first date.
Your first trip out of the country.
Your first day as a parent.
Your first day at your new job.
This list could go on and on, but my point is that most new experiences require us to develop new mental schemas in order to reduce the uncertainty we encounter as we navigate uncharted territory.
For nonPsychology nerds: "A schema is a mental concept that informs a person about what to expect from a variety of experiences and situations. Our brains create and use schemas as a short cut to make future encounters with similar situations easier to navigate." Often times schemas are developed through direct experience.
But let’s be honest, waiting to develop a new schema based solely on our lived experience is not for the faint of heart or impatient.
So what do we do? Well naturally, we seek or rely on information separate from lived experience that would inform us about what to expect from our next new experience or situation. Such information comes from our family, friends, the internet, mentors, personal expectations, etc.
And while I think there is something unique about lived-experience that is near impossible to communicate through the aforementioned mediums.
There is something insanely powerful about communicating snit bits of our lived experiences and contributing to the ecology of information seeking as we all navigate an endless array of new experiences and situations.
So that is what I want to do today—to communicate a few of the lessons I learned from my first equally thrilling and terrifying research internship this summer at Carnegie Mellon University.
Because in all honesty, my first internship forced me to develop a schema based solely on my raw lived experience, rather than previously gathered information. And the lessons mentioned in this post are those that certainly would've prepared me for my crazy first experience in the "real world."
So without further ado, here are three main lessons I learned this summer:
1.) Where’s the syllabus? Aka why ambiguity is actually an opportunity for innovation and growth.
Raise your hand if you’re a type A planner—*RAISES TWO HANDS*
Of course, it's hard to deny that there is a certain level of uncertainty associated with being a student (e.g. first day of class, first test, etc.).
But regardless of this uncertainty, type A student planners such as myself still have the comfort of studying a neatly organized syllabus or rubric—oh the joy of being spoon feed what we need to do to reach X goal.
Now when I started my first internship I thought work in the “real work world” would essentially be school 2.0.
Like many college students, I can’t count the number of adults who warned me that “work is different than school”— but alas, I didn’t believe them and preferred to stick with my comforting school 2.0 schema of work.
So when did I start to believe them?
While there wasn't an exact moment, but I'd say I started to understand what they actually meant when I was forced to over and over again to take initiative and approach an assignment or problem without any handholding or guidebook.
Now if you’re anything like me, not having a syllabus or immediate answer to rely on when you encounter a daunting assignment or problem may leave you in a pit of ambiguity—and although this feeling is natural, how we respond may not be.
Without structure or metrics to measure success, it's natural to want to run and hide or feel like a down right fraud when you enter the "real work world."
To summarize this lesson, here’s application #1: An internship is a great opportunity to embrace, rather than resist the ambiguity one might encounter in the “real world.”
So to interns like myself, I say embrace unconventional and perhaps uncomfortable opportunity you have to become a fearless problem-solver. And if you’re lucky enough to land an internship in a work climate that encourages growth, soak up the rare privilege you have to fail, learn and grow with guidance of seasoned mentors.
2.) Wait, Asking Questions? You’re joking right? Aka why acting like an expert when you’re not doesn’t help anyone.
Let’s flashback six week ago to a brainstorm meeting with my graduate student, shall we?
It was Friday, and after spending the night before working late into the night on an assignment, I was emotionally and physically depleted.
Yet of course, not wanting to admit to my graduate school student that I scanned quickly skimmed, rather than actually read a 40 page report our advisor sent the night before, I referenced one of the points I *actually* remembered from the report.
And drum roll please, seconds later, the conversation I didn’t want to happen, happened.
Graduate student: “Oh yeah, I haven’t read that yet, have you?”
*Cue my ego.
Me: “Oh, yeah.”
Grad student: “Oh great, so can you summarize it for me?”
*Cue internal freakout.
“Oh well, I just skimmed it really, uh.”
*Cue long, and uncomfortable pause; My heart drops, and I know what she’s going to say.
Grad student: “Okay, this is important…”
I don’t want to butcher her eloquent response, so here's a synopsis of what came next
Essentially she reminded me that saying you know something when you don’t doesn’t help anyone. And that of course, leads into application #2:
Application #2: Wanting to prove yourself at your internship is normal and quite frankly, expected. Yet sometimes the best way to prove yourself is to be humble, and admit your shortcomings, knowledge gaps, etc.
And guess what? I can’t tell you how many times, I thought, “Oh wow, I wish I would’ve been honest about how I was feeling earlier.”
Because the truth is being vulnerable, especially in a new environment, may surprise you--it may unlock a door for deeper connection with your superiors and peers alike.
3.) Wait, so my opinion matters? Aka the importance of even the small voices.
“If you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room."
The above quote took on a new meaning for me this summer. The truth is, I’ve always had a deep aversion to being a small fish in a big pond.
But this summer I learned that regardless of this aversion, I really have two options...
I can either embrace being a small fish in the big pond who is humble, but eager to contribute and grow.
I can work to avoid any precarious big pond arrangements and instead resort back to my comfort zone, where I feel superior and rarely second guess my opinions.
Application #3: You can still be a small fish in a big pond and make meaningful contributions.
As the above quote communicates, one of the most powerful ways to grow is to constantly put yourself in an environment where you’re the small fish.
Despite our natural tendency to silence our voice in a crowd of experts, novices perspective are valuable and inspire novel ideas, reveal expert blindspots, and so much more.
So when appropriate, my advice is to be confident in what you have to contribute to your team—even if you feel you're just a small intern in a big pond.
Application #4: Internships can be used as trial runs to determine what type of work climate you want to work in.
Specifically for example, I learned that my experience in a big pond is largely influenced by the climate the leaders around me promote. In other words, I learned that the best type of leaders are humble enough to both empower and encourage even the smallest voices.
Of course, there are MANY, MANY other ingredients that influence a work climate; So why not use your internship to explore what exactly those ingredients are?
Well, those are the three MAIN (key word main, because let's be honest, I could go on for days) lessons I learned from my first college internship. Here's to learning and growing together & thank you Carnegie Mellon University for an incredible summer.