Turning a JPL Internship Into a JPL Career

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August 17, 2011

It's a typical story and one Harish Manohara isn't fond of hearing. "Many times when I ask job candidates why they want to work at JPL, they have an answer like, 'I've just always loved space,'" said Manohara. "So I probe them for an honest answer. Sometimes honesty goes a long way."

As part of their eight to 10 weeks at the lab, summer interns at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory take on projects ranging from 3D modeling and spacecraft design to research and data analysis, which gives them a rare opportunity to get hands-on experience and assess their interest in a particular field. But for many, it's more than that; it's an audition for a job. Landing an internship at JPL is just the beginning.

"I ask unconventional questions because I like to test if you can think on your feet," said Manohara, the supervisor for JPL's Nano and Microsystems group, who this year ran practice interviews with JPL interns. "I'm looking for entrepreneurial candidates, someone who can develop ideas in a non-traditional manner and sell them."

Whether it's simply walking around the office asking questions or presenting their research to a group of their peers, JPL interns do everything they can to give themselves an edge over the competition. And because the budget is not limitless and jobs are harder to come by, finding a unique way to network and get noticed is key.

"I peek my head into the different buildings and try to see what else is going on," said summer intern Elisha Marquez during JPL's Career Week, which allows students the opportunity to meet with JPL employers and apply in-person for open positions. "I am taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me here. There are a lot of people around with the same or better qualifications, so I know it's important to develop my communication skills early."

Paula Caterina, who's in charge of university recruiting for JPL, says job-seekers should be clear about their strengths and promote them. "Have an understanding of where you think you want to go," she said. "A successful JPLer has an urge to explore and is driven by making or doing something that has never been done before."

For many of the interns who attended JPL's Career Week this summer, it was also about knowing where and how far to take their education. In other words, go for the doctorate before even thinking about applying, or dive right in?

"After attending the career fair, I learned that I still had a very long way to go before I could work for NASA," said Erik Lopez, a JPL intern and freshman aerospace engineering major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "But talking to accomplished scientists and engineers is very motivating and will definitely make me work harder in college and during my internship."

More than anything, having passion for the work at hand seems to be a key to landing a job at JPL. But as both Manohara and Caterina warn, that passion should be conveyed honestly and uniquely.

"It's important to express a passion for your work," said Caterina, "But saying something like 'I've always liked space since I was 10,' is like saying nothing. Be specific. Employers here will interview three candidates about their work and almost always pick the one who shows the most passion."