A sincere survival guide from past and present PEY students
Your professional experience year (PEY) is a valuable undertaking. It gives you a chance to use your skills, a taste of what industry is like, a break from school and a steady income for a few months. You may have heard upper-years tell you that their PEY was amazing and they would do anything go back. However, the fact of the matter is that work life is a big change from student life and, like most change, the beginning can be hard.
Working in a small company, I have always admired people who have the courage to move to Silicon Valley and work for well-known firms. I recently met up with one of my friends who had made this big leap. She still looked the same and as she sat there in the chilly fall weather, it was hard to think that it had been five months since I last saw her. Excited and ready to hear about her adventures and get some top notch tech news, I asked “So, how is your PEY going”?
“It’s actually not that good”, she looked down and answered hesitantly. “Until recently I had nothing to do, and most of the work I had been doing consisted of changing configuration files. Everyone in my team seemed to be busy and there was little guidance. I really don’t think I was working up to my potential.”
She talked about how in the beginning of her placement she felt like she was not being given enough work. She said “At the end of one my one-on-one meetings with my manager, I got the message that she didn’t trust me to do any important work at the start of my internship and therefore only gave me simple and repetitive tasks. I was relieved that she had finally communicated this to me because I had been miserably doubting myself and the work I had been doing every single day for the first three months.”
As she spoke, I let out a sigh of relief because she had been echoing the same concerns I had at my own job. So, it’s not just me?
I was no different in my own company, a relatively small place that consisted of software developers and finance graduates. I remember staring at the set up documents on my first day, afraid to disturb the developers around me to ask why my compiler was complaining about a missing folder during installation. I remember digging into the code for hours only to change one line of configuration. I remember standing there silently listening to colleagues talking about marriage and kids and something so distant that was almost alien to me.
From talking to a lot of my fellow classmates, I have heard that a lot of internships start the same way. You have to learn to navigate through new waters and that can be a scary. When you are a student, you are juggling so many things at once. You are used to not having a second to breathe and you struggle to put your best into everything that you do. So, understandably, when you get an internship, you are more than prepared to put your best foot forward, and when you feel like you’re not doing that, you feel disappointed, confused and a little worthless.
What happened? This is not what we signed up for. We are Engineering students from the University of Toronto, the top Engineering school in the country. Aren’t we capable of more?
“Maybe there’s someone out there that’s doing fantastic work for their team, we just haven’t talked to the right PEY student,” she said after I conveyed to her my own experiences at work.
However, almost six months in to my PEY, I can say that things do get better. I encountered the same problems, but like my friend, I had a conversation with my manager. Maybe it’s the amount of determination in my eyes or he has recognized my hard work, but he recently suggested that I do a side project and has included me in all the design meetings. Things started to get better when I actively pushed for changes and asked why. I signed up to be responsible for system alerts, I proposed organizational improvements, and I will soon host my own meeting to share my findings for our new systems. All my poking around is turning into valuable learnings that will be both useful for me and for the company.
Unfortunately, our internship may not always live up to our expectations but at least we now have an understanding of what the industry is like. You are given a set amount of tasks and, regardless of whether it is boring or up to your liking, you are obligated to complete them. PEY will not have any value if you are not actively seeking out opportunities and pushing yourself to ask for help and advice. And PEY is the best time for you to take care of yourself instead of coming home to review lecture notes and do assignments. Use that leisure time to develop hobbies, and by the end of it, you will look back and say “That was quite an experience”.
So, my advice for you? Make sure you have an idea of what you want to get out of your internship experience before you start applying. Applying to as many jobs as possible is good, but definitely ask what the employers’ expectations are during the interview if their description is not clear. Also, do not expect too much work to be given to you on the first day. You are an intern and more work will be given to you once you prove you are capable of it.