IBM Research Internship – Application Process


For research students in the area of computer science, computational social sciences and just plain social sciences, a research internship can constitute a MAJOR aspect of the grad school experience. You learn a whole lot, build a great network of friends, mentors collaborators, work on an exciting research project and usually get a publication at the end. If you are reading this, a likely question you are seeking to get pointers on would be “How do I get accepted into IBM Research ?” or “What are the requirements for acceptance into IBM Research ?” or “What is the IBM Research Internship application timeline like ?” .. or some other variant of this question. I have recently interviewed for a Summer 2015 internship at IBM Research (Thomas J Watson Yorktown Heights) and I also had similar questions before the interview. This post aims to provide some timeline information and tips .

Pre Application

To give some background .. I am a PhD student in Information Systems (as at January 2015)  at City University of Hong Kong, hold an MSc in Information Networking from CMU. I mainly applied for roles related to user experience, user interface/interaction design , and user behavior research located in the US region. There are two main steps I took before applying for my internship position – building up a personal online research profile and updating my linkedin profile. Ofcourse, it is assumed that I already had dome some research work related to these areas – these are important to signal competence and interest.

Personal Research Profile – As I searched through the copious internship advice (from recruiters and previous interns) online, I came to understand online profiles play a great role. This is especially important for positions related to user experience research or user experience design which requires a portfolio. I purchased a domain name and spent a couple weeks to create a personal website and fill it up with content. I had a section introduce my interests/skills upfront, my research publications, personal news (awards, conference attendance, published papers, presentations etc), design research portfolio and CV.

The idea behind a personal website is to provide a summary of who I am, what I have done and what I am interested in doing.

Linkedin Profile – I did take time to update my linkedin profile – mainly my profile summary to highlight my interests and skills. I also updated previous work to highlight experience that was relevant to user research. Some extra details on improving your linkedin summary can be found here.

Application – December 2014

As I discovered, the competition for internships can be quite fierce. On linked alone ~ 80 people applied for the same position that I did. This means that one must advice their application strategy very wisely. Generally speaking, getting direct referrals (see : A brief guide to tech internships and An Intern’s Guide to a Summer in the Bay Area) from current employees or recruiters is the surest way to get an interview for an internship given the high level of competition. In the event that one cannot get a referral or recruiter contact .. as was my case … you simply go ahead and apply online. You can browse the job catalog for available intern positions and begin your application. I submitted my application on 8 December 2014 .. fingers crossed.

Interview Invitation

January 29, I got an email inviting me to indicate interest and availability for an interview. I was ecstatic. I replied with several available dates and was able to schedule an interview for February 2. I tried to read as much material on my team’s published research and get a feel of the kind of work being done there. I am not very sure that it helped much – the interview itself was more focused on ferreting out my actual skills and verifying my levels of expertise.

The Interview

Opposite time zones meant the time selected for the interview (12:15pm New York Time) was actually 1 am Hong Kong time (middle of the night). No big deal. I ran up and down 10 flights of stairs to get my blood pumping, had an energy drink for good measure to ensure I was alert and enthusiastic. The interview lasted about 50 minutes. My interviewer was very nice and I was informed 6 people were on the call even though I mainly spoke with 3 during the interview. I was asked about my background, previous research studies (methodologies, contributions and outcomes), my software expertise and my interests. These requirements were actually mentioned on the advert for the position. One very illuminating question was about what I hoped to get from the internship . Worth thinking carefully about before the interview. The call dropped atleast twice and the interviewer kindly encouraged me not to get too worried about that. At the end of the interview, I was told I would get an update by the end of the week. Overall, it was a positive experience, apart from the dropped calls (compared to an interview I’d had with Google about a year ago where the interviewer actually yawned out of boredom whilst I struggled with a brute force password generation coding problem).

Early Notification of Favorable Recommendation

After a few days (Feb 7), I received an email notifying me that the decision process had taken longer than expected, a great candidate pool had been received, but that I had been shortlisted. At this point, I wasn’t sure how to feel, but tried to keep my emotions neutral. I couldn’t celebrate because I knew I hadn’t been selected. But at same time, I felt great because I hadn’t been rejected. Radio silence. A week later (felt longer), I got an email – I was being recommended for an offer by my interviewing team and but should wait until IBM approves the recommendation and issues an official offer. I am guessing this was because they needed to verify logistics associated with hiring a non-stateside international intern, amidst other internal procedures. This was really great news. I do understand that many applicants may not pass through this stage, but directly get an offer.

Official Offer

2 weeks later, and after providing some additional information on my application  – work history, education history, credits completed, residence history etc – I finally received an official offer. Whooohoooo!! I read and promptly accepted the offer next day.  The offer contained information on stipend, housing arrangements, supervision, policies etc . Interns at Yorktown heights had the opportunity to indicate interest in intern accommodation quarters.  The offer was followed some weeks after with an initiation of the visa process.

J1 Visa

As a student enrolled in a full time research degree outside the USA, there is an elaborate visa process that must be initiated in order to take up an internship offer (after a successful applicaiton). This process culminates in the issuance of a J1 visa internship visa (exchange visitor). To apply for said visa, there are a few requirements , a DS2019 form (which was issued by IBM and sent to me) and a valid passport . I also had to pay two (not one) sets of fees-  USD 120 (visa application fee), and USD 180 (SEVIS fee). The visa interview itself was a very brief affair – a short conversation about my education, current work as a PhD student and what I’ll be doing during my internship. It took about a week from the time of application to getting back my passport with visa attached (this was because I learned about the SEVIS fee on my interview day and paid for it the day after my interview. The visa itself was approved on the spot). In the process of researching a J1 visa, I did learn of the 212e home residence requirement (HRR). HRR specifies that certain exchange visitors may be required to return to their home country for two years before being eligible to apply for any immigrant visa to the USA. This was important to note, because it applies to me (based on skills list) and helps me better understand my current and future work options. I hope to revisit this topic in a future post.

Full Application Timeline

Submission of online application – 8 December 2014
Invitation to Interview – January 29 2015
Interview – February 2, 2015
Interviewer Informal recommendation – February 14, 2015
Official Offer – Feb 28, 2015
Initiation of Visa Process  – March 23, 2015

Some Things Which were Helpful

– My Personal Website.
During my internship application period, I did get multiple site visits from various locations I applied to, both from IBM and several other research labs. In essence, recruiters/interviewers who received my CV did go on to peruse my website.
– Clear Evidence of Passion and Interest.
The way I see it, all PhD students are very smart individuals, and potentially capable of conducting internship related research. With this in mind, I think recruiters look for evidence of passion and interest in an area as a distinguishing characteristic, and a possible marker for culture fit. To reflect this, I ensured I shared presentations I’d given on my work with interfaces for wearables,  wrote multiple blog posts on same and also put up a related conference paper draft on my personal website. This was a MAJOR discussion point during my interview. It is also important that you are familiar with the content of your CV and your relevant research work.
– I Applied.
A few people I talked with earlier seemed to be of the opinion that being an international student and also studying outside the USA significantly reduces one’s chances of acceptance. I managed to not let these discourage me and went for it ..  and even applied to tonnes of places. Turned out fine. Like this brilliant article on internship says

You miss 100% of the shots you dont take

At this moment, I cant exactly say with total confidence why I was selected, but I am tempted to imagine there was a role played by the points I have highlighted above and a certain fit between my previous research studies or projects and the kind of work to be assigned to me during the internship. I’ll find out soon enough I guess.

I am quite excited about  and thankful for the opportunity and I look forward to learning lots over the summer. Hopefully I get to interact with or work on Watson. Applying for or applied for an internship position ? Feel free to share your experience!

About Vykthur

Mobile and Web App Developer and Researcher. Passionate about learning, teaching, and recently - writing.
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