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January externships launch careers

When Kevin Caldwell ‘08 began his first day as an extern at ­Manhattan-based National Economic Research Associates (NERA) in January 2007, he was understandably nervous. “I’d heard horror stories about corporate culture in New York. I thought it was going to be dog-eat-dog,” says Caldwell, an economics major from Nashville. But he was an extern. He was representing MIT. He was prepared to persevere.

Aurora Flight Sciences aerospace engineer Adam Woodworth ’07 (seated) reviews a project with externs Patrick Shannon ’09, who’s majoring in aeronautics and astronautics, and Ming Leong ’09, a mechanical-engineering major.

In fact, he found that NERA, which performs economic analyses for parties undergoing or anticipating litigation, was a very welcoming environment. “My coworkers were great. Everything was much less brutal than I expected,” he says. And so began another success story in the MIT Alumni Association’s 12-year-old Student/Alumni Externship Program.

Last January, 269 externs participated in the program, which matches students with alumni sponsors for short-term work experiences during the January Independent Activities Period (IAP). The program is open to all undergradu­ates and graduate students. In September, interested students review the externship listings posted on MITAA’s website, select up to three opportunities each, and submit résumés and cover letters electronically. Alumni sponsors then review the applications, select candidates to interview, and notify MIT of their top choices. Software maximizes the number of matches between students and externships, and students are notified of matches in mid-November.

Growing Interest and Opportunities

Since its inception, the externship ­program has achieved steady gains. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of applicants rose from 455 to 691, and the number of students placed increased from 163 to 269. And as the program has grown, so has students’ willingness to share their experiences. “In 2008, three students posted blogs about their externships,” says Katie Maloney, associate director of student and alumni relations. “It was fun to read each day about their adventures in their workplace and in a new city. They got real-world experience and discovered great restaurants and museums as well.”

An externship may last just a week or span the entire IAP. Students are responsible for living and travel expenses, but sponsoring companies may provide stipends or help with housing and transportation. NERA, for example, offers a stipend of $18 an hour, and Caldwell combed Craigslist until he found a room to rent with a ­family in Brooklyn.

While the specifics of an externship vary by company, the program benefits alumni and students alike. Alumni sponsors get to introduce their companies to MIT students, discover potential interns or employees, and reconnect with MIT. Externs gain valuable work experience and contacts. “An externship provides externs an understanding of how different work environments and cultures can be, as well as what best suits their personality and nature,” says Maloney.

Three-time extern Jameel Khalfan ‘06 had a model experience. He worked at a New Jersey government agency as a sophomore, at IBM Research as a junior, and at AIG Real Estate Investments as a senior. In between, he held summer internships at French cell-phone carrier Orange and Boston-based advertising agency Digitas. Now a product manager for the Windows Business Group at Microsoft, Khalfan credits the externship program with helping him land those valuable internships and, ultimately, his current job.

After a year at Microsoft, Khalfan became a host himself. He sponsored two students, including one who subsequently landed a summer internship at the software giant. “Neither extern was from Seattle, and they came here and didn’t know many people,” Khalfan says. “I think it was helpful to have someone so recently out of school [as their sponsor]. I’m thankful that the Alumni Association made it so easy to participate.”

Nurturing New Talent

David Tabak ‘90, senior vice president at NERA, says that the externship program has helped his company find and nurture new talent. In 2000, NERA sponsored one extern; last year, it sponsored 19. Two former externs have since joined the company full time. But slouches need not apply. “We look for a good quantitative background, and we really are looking for students who take the time to prepare a good résumé and application,” says Tabak. “We put them to work doing the same types of things as new college graduates–running statistics or other economic analyses.”

Likewise, Khalfan says that Microsoft externs do not get stuck on Xerox or coffee-­making duty. They have created product demos that were distributed worldwide to Microsoft salespeople, and they have performed competitive research that was used in sales presentations. “The work that they did helped us out and was seen by a lot of people,” Khalfan says.

Caldwell says that his own externship offered the same type of hands-on, guts-of-the-business experience. “When I came here that January, I had taken theoretical economics, but I hadn’t used any of what I’d learned,” he says. The externship gave him a chance to put theory into practice–and to get a good taste of the Big Apple.

Caldwell lauds the program for giving students the opportunity to sample the real work world without making a commitment to it. “If you have a good experience, you almost always have an opportunity to come back, and if you don’t have a good experience–well, it was only four weeks,” he says. As it turned out, Caldwell was in the first category: he signed on full time shortly after graduation.

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