by Sarah K. White

5 tips for working with data science interns

Oct 26, 2015
Big Data Careers IT Leadership

Interns want valuable experience, and with a little effort, an internship can become just as fruitful for your department as it is for their resume. Here are five tips on how to get the best out of your data science interns.

Data science is quickly becoming a vital skill as more companies scramble to capitalize on the hordes of data they can collect on clients and customers. Naturally, as the demand for data scientists grows, more students want to break into the field, which means they’ll be looking for internships. In fact, a recent McKinsey report study on big data found that, demand for deep analytical talent in the United States could be 50 to 60 percent greater than its projected supply by 2018.”

Interns are a great way to bring new and innovative ideas onto the team, says Eric Frenkiel, co-founder and CEO of database startup, MemSQL. “Because interns come to data science with a fresh set of eyes, companies can use this perspective to their advantage by working closely with interns to develop and test new hypotheses.”

But how can you best use these entry-level data science grads so that they not only gain valuable experience, but also help improve your business? Here are five tips to get the most out of data science interns, and to make sure they walk away with a great learning experience in the process.

Consider their background

Students can bring a fresh perspective to the workplace, especially because they are generally in — or just out of — school. Therefore, you can expect interns to be well-versed in the latest technology and resources in the field. Look at what they are studying to figure out how to use them best, because not every data science intern has a background in IT or computer science. In fact, data science spans across nearly every discipline in different ways, and that can benefit your company.

“People from backgrounds that emphasize modeling techniques, such as finance or physics, often translate well to data science because they tend to have a practical intuition and are wired-up to solve data science problems. This means they can immediately become productive on pure data science tasks, but they will also bring ideas from their respective fields that might be relevant to data science but have not appeared there yet. Looking for these kinds of backgrounds from the start sets everyone up for success,” says Ankur Goyal, vice president of Engineering at MemSQL.

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Give them high-concept problems to work on

If you’ve ever had a bad internship, you know how discouraging it can be to get stuck sorting mail or doing grunt work that your superiors don’t want to do themselves. Interns aren’t there to get your coffee and drop packages off at UPS, they’re there to learn and gain valuable experience. Besides, using interns for busy work is just as detrimental to your department as it is to the intern’s experience. Putting an intern to work — real work — can benefit you just as much as it can benefit them. So don’t shy away from giving data science interns complex problems to work out, you never know, they might see something you don’t, Goyal says.

“Look for questions you cannot currently answer with data science and push the interns to figure out how to answer those questions. Interns have bright ideas, but don’t always have in-depth business backgrounds.” Goyal says. “This is actually the perfect combination that can be used as a problem-solving advantage because you can optimize for intellectual experience and lack of preconceived notions.”

Provide strong leadership

If you plan to bring on interns, make sure your team has an organized plan by assigning someone with strong leadership skills and extensive experience to head up the intern program. Pairing more experienced data scientists — the “people who know how to ask the right questions, and how to answer them,” as Goyal puts it — with interns can create the right balance of experience and inexperience. “There is a yin and yang between the experienced veteran and up-and-comers. The right mix of these people can result in key data science breakthroughs,” Goyal says.

Interns can bring a unique perspective and new ideas to your team, which can offer valuable insights you might not get from workers who are busy with their day to day tasks. But you can’t forget that interns need leadership, especially since this is their first experience in a workplace setting, so to get the best out of your interns, you need to give them the right guidance.

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Try new things

When you’ve got extra manpower on the team, even in the form of interns, it can be a great opportunity to try new things you might not have had the time for otherwise. Interns want responsibility, and you should be more than happy to give it to them. Assigning interns to new and inventive projects is a great way to give them the sense of responsibility they need, but also in a low-risk scenario.

“You also want to make sure interns are not limited in scope. Give them as much responsibility as you can get away with in the organization. A good way to do this is to find projects where potential mistakes won’t be seen as a huge loss, but success can immediately provide huge value to company,” says Goyal.

Capitalize on limited time

Interns won’t be with the team forever, and some might be there only one or two days a week, while other interns might be in the office full-time for a semester. Make sure you have a clear understanding of each intern’s schedule before he or she starts and then take some time to figure out what projects can work within those parameters. Rather than waiting until their first day to throw some assignments at them, have a plan in place ahead of time. Meet with relevant team members and ask what they need help on or if they have projects they think will be beneficial for the internship program. You’ll probably end up with more work for the interns than they can even get to during their internship.

“Because interns usually have a window of a few months or so to make an impact, it helps to work with them on well-defined projects and agree on objectives that can be achieved within two to three months to ensure a successful and rewarding internship for everyone involved,” says Frenkiel.

You can also view this limited time as a test run if you’re considering hiring interns after they graduate. By priming them and getting them caught up on the systems and the way your business runs, you can have a trained future employee at the ready.