Whether you're looking for a career in STEM or space exploration, this three-part series will cover everything you need to know about the world of internships at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the skills and experience hiring managers are looking for, and how you can set yourself on the right trajectory even before you get to college.
In a typical year, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory brings in about 1,000 interns from schools across the country to take part in projects that range from building spacecraft to studying climate change to developing software for space exploration. One of 10 NASA centers in the United States, the Southern California laboratory receives thousands of applications. So what can students do to stand out and set themselves on the right trajectory?
We asked interns and the people who bring them to JPL about their tips for students and anyone interested in a STEM career or working at the Laboratory. We're sharing their advice in this three-part series.
First up: Learn about the kinds of opportunities available as well as where and how to apply.
The World of JPL Internships
If you found this article, you're probably already somewhat familiar with the work that goes on at JPL. But at a place that employs more than 6,000 people across hundreds of teams, it can be hard to keep track of it all.
Meet JPL Interns
Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.
In a broad sense, JPL explores Earth, other planets, and the universe beyond with robotic spacecraft – meaning no humans on board. But along with the engineers and scientists who design and build spacecraft and study the data they return, there are thousands of others working on all the in-between pieces that make Earth and space exploration possible and accessible to all. This includes software developers, machinists, microbiologists, writers, video producers, designers, finance and information technology professionals, and more.
Some of the best ways to learn about the Laboratory's work – and get a sense for the kinds of internships on offer – are to follow JPL news and social media channels, take part in virtual and in-person events such as monthly talks, and keep up on the latest research. There are also a host of articles and videos online about interns and employees and the kinds of work they do.
While STEM internships make up the majority of the Laboratory's offerings, there are a handful of opportunities for students studying other subjects as well. Depending on which camp you fit into, there are different places to apply.
Education Office Internships
The largest number of internships can be found on the JPL Education website. These opportunities, for students studying STEM, are offered through about a dozen programs catered to college students of various academic and demographic backgrounds. This includes programs for students attending community college, those at minority-serving institutions, and others at Los Angeles-area schools.
Students apply to a program, or programs, rather than a specific opening. (See the program details for more information about where to apply and what you will need.) It's then up to the folks with open opportunities, the mentors, to select applicants who are the best match for their project.
It may seem odd to send an application into the void with no idea of what offer might return. But there is a good reason behind the process, says Jenny Tieu, a project manager in JPL's Education Office, which manages the Laboratory's STEM internship programs.
"Applying to a specific program allows for the applicant to be seen by a much broader group of hiring managers and mentors and be considered for more opportunities as a result," says Tieu. "We look at the resumes that come in to see what skills are compatible with open projects and then match students to opportunities they may not have even realized were available to them."
Shirin Nataneli says she wouldn't have known there was an internship for her at the Laboratory were it not for a suggestion to apply from her professor. In 2020, Nataneli graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor's degree in biology. She was on the pre-med track, studying for the MCAT, when she decided to take a couple of courses in computer science.
"I got sucked in," says the Santa Monica College student and JPL intern, who is using computer science to help her team classify extreme bacteria that can survive on spacecraft. "I didn't even know there was an intersection between computer science and biology, but somehow I found a group at JPL that does just that."
University Recruiting Opportunities
For college students who are interested in space exploration but studying other fields, such as business, communications, and finance, as well as those studying STEM, there are additional opportunities on the JPL Jobs website. Listed by opportunity, more like a traditional job opening, these internships are managed by the Laboratory's University Recruiting team, which is active on LinkedIn and Instagram and can often be found at conferences and career fairs.
The When, What, and Where
Both Education Office and University Recruiting opportunities are paid and require a minimum 3.00 GPA, U.S. citizenship or legal permanent resident status, as well as an initial commitment of 10 weeks. Applicants must be enrolled in a college undergraduate or graduate program to be eligible. (See "The Pre-College Trajectory" section of this article below to learn about what high-school and younger students can do to prepare for a future JPL internship or STEM career.)
After pivoting to fully remote internships during the COVID-19 pandemic, JPL is looking at whether to continue offering some remote or hybrid internships once the Los Angeles-area campus opens back up.
"We know that remote internships are effective," says Tieu. "Interns have said that they're able to foster connections with JPL employees and gain valuable experience even from home." She notes that while in-person internships give students maximum exposure to JPL – including visits to Laboratory attractions like mission control, the "clean room" where spacecraft are built, and a rover testing ground called the Mars Yard – remote internships have had a positive impact on students who previously weren't able to participate in person due to life constraints.
Most programs offer housing and travel allowances to students attending universities outside the 50-mile radius of JPL, so be sure to check the program details if traveling to or living in the Los Angeles area could be tricky financially.
Full-time and part-time opportunities can be found throughout the year with most openings in the summertime for full-time interns, meaning 40 hours per week. For summer opportunities, Tieu recommends applying no later than November or December. Applicants can usually expect to hear back by April if they are going to receive an offer for summer, but it's always a good idea to keep yourself in the running, as applicants may be considered for school-year opportunities.
Tieu adds, "If you haven't heard back, and you're closing in on the six-month mark of when you submitted your application, I recommend students go back in and renew their application [for the programs listed on the JPL Education website] so that it remains active in the candidate pool for consideration."
And unlike job applications, where it's sometimes frowned upon to apply to multiple positions at once, it's perfectly alright – and even encouraged – to apply to multiple internships.
You may also want to consider these opportunities, especially if you're looking for internships at other NASA centers, you're a foreign citizen, or you're interested in a postdoc position:
- NASA Internships
- JPL Visiting Student Researcher Program (international students eligible)
- JPL Postdoctoral Study
The most important thing is to not count yourself out, says Tieu. "If you're interested, work on that resume, get people to review your resume and provide input and feedback and apply. We don't expect students to come in knowing how to do everything. We're looking for students with demonstrated problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership skills. Software and other technical skills are an added bonus and icing on the cake."
More on that next, plus advice from JPL mentors on the skills and experience they look for from potential interns.
Skills for Space Explorers
JPL is known for doing the impossible, whether it's sending spacecraft to the farthest reaches of our solar system or landing a 2,000-pound rover on Mars. But potential applicants may be surprised to learn that reputation wasn't earned by always having the right answer on the first try – or even the second, third, or fourth.
In fact, the Laboratory has always had a penchant for experimentation, starting with its founders, Caltech students who in the 1930s would test rockets in the stairwells at their university. They had so many colossal (and dangerous) failures that they were banished to a dry riverbed north of Pasadena, which is now the site of JPL. Eventually, their rockets were successful and the laboratory they founded went on to build and launch the first American space satellite and send dozens of spacecraft to worlds throughout the solar system. But that trial-and-error attitude still permeates the Laboratory today.
As a result, potential interns who show enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, overcome obstacles, and work as part of a team often stand out more than those with academic achievements alone.
In an informal survey of JPL mentors, respondents most often cited problem-solving, communication, and teamwork skills as well as passion for learning and grit as the soft skills they look for when considering potential interns. Respondents added that students who can provide specific examples of these skills on their resume – and speak to them in an interview – stand out the most.
That doesn't necessarily have to mean leading your school’s robotics club or serving as your geology professor's teaching assistant, although those things don't hurt. But also consider less traditional examples, such as how critical thinking helps you overcome challenges while rock climbing or how you used leadership and teamwork to organize your friends to create a group costume for Comic Con.
"Students who share a link to their GitHub repository or online portfolio stand out to me because it shows they took the initiative and took time to build, develop, and create something on their own," says K'mar Grant-Smith, a JPL mentor who leads a team of developers in supporting and maintaining applications for the Laboratory's missions. "That vouches for you better than saying, 'I know these [coding] languages, and I took these courses.'"
Laurie Barge is a JPL scientist who co-leads an astrobiology lab exploring the possibility of life beyond Earth. The lab annually hosts about a dozen students and postdocs. Barge says that the top qualities she looks for in an intern are an expressed interest in her research and JPL as a whole as well as teamwork skills. "I look for students who are excited about the fact that they'll be working with 10 other students and postdocs and collaborating with other people on papers and abstracts."
Teamwork is also key for students working in engineering, software, or any other capacity across the Laboratory. When it comes to designing missions to go where nothing has gone before, collaboration between multi-disciplinary teams is a must.
In terms of technical skills, knowledge of coding languages is the most sought after, with Python, MATLAB, and C languages leading the pack. And in certain groups, like the one that helps identify where it's safe to land spacecraft on Mars, experience with specialized tools like Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, can help applicants stand out.
Still, for many mentors, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn and be proactive are far more important than any technical skill.
You don't have to be the most technically savvy person. If you have the initiative, the drive, and some experience, I find that to be more important than knowing 16 different [coding] languages," says Grant-Smith. "JPL is a unique place full of very smart people, but we're not good at what we do just because we have the know-how. We also have the drive and a passion for it."
So you're a rock-climbing Red Planet enthusiast who likes to create "Dune"-inspired stillsuits when you're not busy at your part-time job making frappuccinos with your fellow baristas. How do you improve the chances this information will land on a JPL mentor's desk?
In a sentence: Build a strong network. So says Rebecca Gio of what made all the difference when she was struggling to find her academic groove right after high school. After a year spent repeating classes, changing schools, and feeling discouraged about what was next, Gio discovered what she needed to change her trajectory. She joined clubs and organizations that aligned with her career goals, formed study groups with her peers, found a mentor who could help her navigate everything from college classes to internship opportunities, and wasn't afraid to ask when she had a question.
Now, Gio is thriving – academically and on her career path. She's a junior studying computer science at Cal Poly Pomona and a first-time intern at JPL, where she's testing the software that will serve as the brains of a spacecraft designed to explore Jupiter's moon Europa.
"Being part of a community and being with people who have gone through similar experiences and can push you to do better, I think that that is just super motivating," says Gio.
JPL Education Program Manager Jenny Tieu agrees. “Along with academic achievements, we’re looking for students with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences who can work collaboratively to learn, adapt to new situations, and solve problems.”
To that end, she suggests students get involved in campus STEM clubs and communities, NASA challenges and activities, and volunteer opportunities, which offer career experiences, introduce students to a network of peers and professionals, and look great on a resume.
Tieu leads a JPL internship program that partners with historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. She says that one way students get connected with the program is by word-of-mouth from current and former participants, who include students and faculty researchers.
"We see a lot of great allyship with interns and research fellows telling their classmates about their experience at JPL, how to apply, and what to expect," says Tieu. "We foster deep relationships with our partner campuses and their faculty as well." In other words, students may not have to look farther than their own professors, campus info sessions, or career fairs to learn about opportunities at the Laboratory.
A career fair is where Gio first connected with JPL's University Recruiting team after what she jokingly calls "stalking" them from LinkedIn to Handshake to the Grace Hopper conference – where she eventually handed over her resume. "Just get familiar with where JPL is going to be and try to make sure that you're there," says Gio.
In the sciences especially, those connections can also be made through a shared interest in a particular area of research. Barge says that most of the students she brings to JPL find out about her research from a peer or professor, exploring the lab's website, or from reading papers her team has published. Then, they reach out to her directly. This way she can create a position suited to a student's skills while also finding out if their interests mesh with the team.
"I want to know why they're interested in JPL and not a different institution," says Barge. "Why do they want to work with me and not another person at JPL? Why do they want to do this research and what specifically would they like to gain from this internship experience? I'm trying to figure out who really, really wants this particular opportunity."
As Gio points out, it's often the same advice that applies whether you're looking for an internship at JPL or in STEM or a future career.
"If you really want it, if you really want to be a STEM professional, make the most of your education, and find ways to apply those skills," says Gio. "I made sure that I was a part of campus groups where I was doing extra projects outside of schoolwork. I made sure that I was talking to other students to learn what they were doing. There's a lot of opportunities now to learn online for free. If there's something that you think would interest you, just go and do it."
Next, we'll share more ways students can prepare for a future internship or career in STEM before they get to college, plus resources parents and teachers can use to get younger students practicing STEM skills.
The Pre-College Trajectory
First, let's address one of the most common questions we get when it comes to internships at JPL. As of this writing, the Laboratory does not offer an open call for high-school interns. For most of the past several years, JPL has been able to bring in just a handful of high-school students from underserved communities thanks to partnerships with local school districts.
That's not to say that there won't be an open call for high-school internships at JPL in the future. If and when opportunities become available, they'll be posted here on the JPL Education website.
That said, there's still plenty students can and should do before college or when they're just entering college to explore STEM fields, get hands-on experience, and practice the skills they'll need for a future internship or career.
Exploring STEM Fields
Ota Lutz, a former classroom teacher, leads JPL's K-12 education team, which takes the Laboratory's science, engineering, and technical work and translates it into STEM education resources for teachers, students, and families.
Other than exploring high-school internships at other organizations, Lutz says that students in grades K-12 can get hands-on experience through clubs, competitions, and camps offered in person and online.
Schools often have engineering, robotics, math, and science clubs, but if not, look for one in your community or encourage students to start their own, perhaps with the help of a teacher.
If cost is an issue for camps or competitions, Lutz recommends that parents or guardians reach out to the host organization to see if scholarships are available and that they explore free events offered by groups such as NASA's Solar System Ambassadors and Night Sky Network as well as programs at museums, science centers, and libraries in their community.
NASA also offers a number of citizen science projects that give students (and adults) opportunities to contribute to real research, from identifying near-Earth asteroids to observing and cataloging clouds to searching for planets beyond our solar system.
Building Foundational Skills
All of the above can help students explore whether they might be interested in STEM, but it's also important that kids start practicing the skills they will need to succeed academically and in a future internship or career.
"Developing those foundational STEM and language arts skills are incredibly important to future success," says Lutz, adding that, generally, students should practice what are called scientific habits of mind, "learning how to think critically, problem solve and do so in a methodical way as well as learning to examine data to determine trends without personal bias."
One way students can gain skills and knowledge directly related to a future STEM internship or career is by trying these educational projects and activities offered free online from the JPL Education Office. (Teachers can explore this page to find out how to turn these activities into standards-aligned classroom lessons.) Activities include engineering projects and science experiments as well as math and coding challenges, all of which feature the latest NASA missions and science.
Coding skills, in particular, will serve students well no matter what career path they take, says Lutz. "Coding is something that is applicable across a broad range of subject areas and majors, so we strongly encourage students to learn some coding."
She points to the plethora of online courses and tutorials in coding and other STEM subjects that give students a chance to explore on their own and work on projects that interest them.
Parents and guardians can also help their kids develop foundational skills by allowing them to explore and tinker at home. "In every house, there's something that needs fixing," says Lutz. "Have the kid figure out how to fix a wobbly chair, but be patient with mistakes and encourage them to keep trying." That persistence and determination in overcoming obstacles will come in handy throughout their education and career path, whether it's learning how to code, getting into a robotics club in high school, applying and reapplying for internships, or figuring out how to land a spacecraft on Mars.
Similarly, it's never too early to start learning those ever-important soft skills such as teamwork, communication, and leadership. There's no single or right place to gain these skills, rather they come from a range of experiences that can include a school project, a part-time job, or a volunteer opportunity.
Lutz grew up in a small town in Central California and says, "I was a smart kid, but these things called soft skills were beyond me, and I was the shyest kid in my class." That is until she joined her high school's service club. "Through volunteering, I ended up interacting with people from all walks of life and learned how to work with teams. My club advisor coached me, and I started taking on more leadership roles in the club and in class projects."
Later, it was that same club advisor and her youth pastor who encouraged Lutz to attend a college that would challenge her academically despite pressures to stay closer to home.
"You never know what experiences or conversations might open up opportunities for you," says Lutz, which is why she recommends that students get comfortable talking with peers and teachers – and especially asking questions. "It's really important to learn to ask questions so you build your confidence in learning and also develop relationships with people."
Launching into College
As Lutz experienced, those foundational skills can make all the difference when it comes to transitioning into college, too.
"When I got to college, I discovered I was woefully unprepared even though I had been at the top of my class in high school," says Lutz. "I never learned how to study, and I mistakenly believed that asking questions would make me look dumb. After struggling on my own for a couple of years, I learned that study groups existed and they helped me get to know my peers, build my confidence, and improve my GPA."
While building a support network is key, don't overload yourself the first year, Lutz says. But do start taking classes in the field you're interested in to see if it's the right fit. "The important thing is getting some experience in the field that you think you want to go into."
After that, internships, whether they're at JPL, NASA or elsewhere, will give you an even deeper look at what a future career might be like. When the time comes, you'll know exactly where to look to set yourself on the right trajectory – that is just above under "The World of JPL Internships" and "Skills for Space Explorers."
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.