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IGDA Summit: Carnegie Mellon's Schnell On Making The Most Of Internships

At the 2008 GDC IGDA Education Summit, Carnegie Mellon's Jesse Schell gave his audience tips about how to make the most of an internship program for the school, the students and the game companies who hire them.
Jesse Schell helps manage the internship program at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is a professor. He spoke at the IGDA Education Summit, a two-day conference at the 2008 GDC, about how to make the most of an internship program, for the school, and the students and the game companies who hire them. The session was focused primarily to help other school faculty who handle internship assistance, or who want to start such a program, and answered questions such as: How should the program be set up so that students benefit the most? How can the school work with companies to place interns? How can schools build lasting relationships with companies that take interns? Students, of course, need to be at the forefront of the internship relationship, especially from the school's point of view. According to Schell, graduate students often start out in one direction but shift gears once they get into their education. The purpose of the internship “is to get them to pursue a job that is going to answer questions for them,” he said. “One thing we try to do is a lot of personal one-on-one counseling to ask them 'what questions do you have about your career?'” From the school's point of view, its role is to help students find internships, but not directly place them. However, there are a number of measures the school and individual professors can take to aide the process. A good way to start a relationship with a company, as a university, is to try and work on the level of individuals. Instead of trying to connect a huge company with a huge university, take one faculty member and connect them with one project supervisor, Schell said. Additionally, it helps when a student or faculty member is passionate about the company and can approach a company representative with a compliment. “At the end of the first semester, we have a big student showcase,” Schell said. “We put on a big show. It was a campus thing. But what happened was the companies wanted to come and see it” as a way of seeing the “best of the best student work all at once, in one place.” Over time, it became both a scouting and recruiting event as much a networking event. When universities have shows of these kinds in place, and when the professors know what mutually beneficial relationship might be born from these shows, they can help drive the students to produce appropriate work to show off there, for all intern-seeking companies to see. The ETC tries to make it easier for employers to take on interns, Schell said. Companies think they can get a bargain with an intern, but that has to be the case in order for the relationship to work. In other words, they have to get out of the intern more than what they put in, in training time, in the cost of interviewing, and so forth. It's a “try before you buy” scheme for many employers who can work with an intern for a little while and then, if they don't work out, not have unemployment payments go up as the result of letting go a hired employee. “The companies want to get the resumes they want” and they want them quickly, Schell said. These companies will get into the habit of seeing the school as a service, and if it works, they will come back to the school again and again. If the school can give the companies bundles of well-labeled resumes in categories, such as “environment artist,” the more the school is seen as providing a placement service. As the school facilitates the process, taking the interns becomes more valuable to the companies, who suddenly have to do less to find talented individuals. Instructors at the schools can - and should - also provide an impartial assessment of the student when asked. It isn't an appropriate time for a glowing review, said Schell, but rather a frank and honest review of each student's strengths and weakness. Being honest builds trust between the school and the companies looking for interns, which will extend the life of the relationship. The IGDA Education Summit, which discusses educational issues in the field of video game development from several angles, continues through Feb. 19 at the 2008 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

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