Choose Your Own Adventure: Finding Impactful Tech Internships

Ellie Czepiel
Impact Labs
Published in
8 min readNov 1, 2018

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Credit: Getty Images

We talk about CS for social good as if it’s a field — something comparable to Big Tech, or Consulting — but it’s not. The phrase “CS for social good” simply denotes an application of CS to solving social issues, but dictates nothing about the context in which tech is being used to solve those issues.

Because CS for good is an application — or rather a group of applications of CS to a huge range of issues — there is no singular field in which you can do CS for social good. This means that there is a huge range of internships that involve using CS for social good, and you get to choose which ones you apply to based on more than just the fact that they involve using your technical skills to do good in the world.

It is entirely feasible to find an internship relevant to your career goals that pays reasonably, all while doing good in the world. You do not have to sacrifice anything — except maybe the false sense of prestige that working in Big Tech provides — to use CS for social good. Working in CS for social good is not a compromise. It’s a potential career.

We’re here to help you figure out both where and on what issue you want to use your technical skills. We’ll help you narrow down which fields to explore and then provide some actual, tangible places you can search for internships that fit your criteria.

So begins your adventure!

1. Where do you want to go after graduation?

Let me start by saying this is a ridiculous question. Part of the value in internships is that they allow you to try things and realize you love or hate them, and poof! You’ve learned that about yourself and will be able to take it into account later when you’re looking for jobs.

So why am I asking? The context in which I am asking is very broad: how do you feel about working in industry versus academia five years from now? If you want to be at a company, do you want it to be closer to 5, 50, or 5,000 people?

If you’re looking at going to grad school for CS, then Research (listed below) is probably the category for you. If you’re more interested in industry, you should scroll down and take a look at Companies.

But wait! The career options for a graduating CS major are not limited to grad school and industry! We aren’t perpetuating the already-entrenched narrative of a binary career path for CS majors! Want to go to law school? Looking at public service? We’ve got sectors for you, too! Try Government or Nonprofits, all below!

2. What do you want to get out of your internship?

How much money do you need to make? How many other interns do you want to be around? Is having a close, informed mentor in tech important to you?

For the most lucrative internships, you’ll want to look at Companies and Research. However, if you’re interested in Nonprofits or Government, never fear! Scroll down for a section on getting outside funding if you’ve found your dream internship but can’t afford it.

These other questions about what you want to get out of your internship aren’t relevant — yet. You’ll find positions in all of these sectors with great mentorship programs and totally disorganized mentorship programs. It’s important for you to consider what’s important to you now so that when you start finding specific positions you’ll be able to sort through them based on your priorities.

Sectors & Finding Jobs

You’ve arrived at your destination! Congratulations! Skip down to the sector(s) that you’ve chosen for some more choose-your-own-adventure, job-finding fun!

Companies

Aha! You’ve chosen companies! First things first, you should check out the Impact Coalition, where we match CS students with positions at socially impactful startups!

Here’s the thing, though: we’ve narrowed you all the way down to working in tech at socially impactful companies, but that’s still a huge space! Your job now is to decide what problem you want to be working on solving and what problems you think are most important to be solving. For some more guidance, try taking this quiz, which combines your personal fit with a ranking of the most important issues facing the world today to find the best ones for you to work on.

Once you know what issue you want to work on, it’s time to find companies and startups to apply to. You can start by googling “startups working on ___”. If that doesn’t work, the super intense crazy (Impact Labs) way to do it is to search for VC’s that invest in socially impactful ventures and look through their portfolios. It’s up to you how hard you wanna go.

It’s also important to note that because startups are so fast-paced, many of them will not have their budgets finalized yet for next summer, so don’t worry if you don’t see openings! They’ll be there later on! That being said, a tasteful cold email to a company you love never hurt anyone ;)

Research

Woohoo! You’ve reached the end of your journey! Before we get to finding positions, though, we need to talk about impactful research. Your next step should be to read the “Can we expect research to be high-impact in the future?” and the “Maximising the impact of your research” sections of this article, before you even start looking for positions.

Now that you’re equipped to find the most impactful research topics, there are a few directions you can go! Many undergrads in the US find (paid!) summer research opportunities here. To find the most impactful positions, filter the opportunities based on the areas of research you decided on after reading the article above.

You can also try looking for opportunities at your school, both within the CS department and in other departments! You’ll have to take the initiative to reach out to some people and figure out how finding summer research works at your particular school.

Your third option is to find private research positions. This is a bit less centralized, but if you read the 80,000 hours article and picked an area or two that you know you want to work in, feel free to search around for companies researching those areas!

Nonprofits

Wonderful! You’ve reached nonprofits, and what a place to be! This is the only sector we’ve highlighted here that only has impactful positions, so you get to skip the sorting-through-unimpactful-jobs phase! There are some other unique hurdles being thrown your way — but we’ll help you through them.

There are a ton of nonprofits out there. How are you going to choose which ones to apply to? Your first task is to read the “How to pick the right organisation” section of this article and pick some nonprofits you might want to apply to.

Now that you’ve found some nonprofits you could apply to, what should you consider as a tech student? First things first, salary may be an issue here, but don’t worry! Scroll down for tips on ways to fund unpaid and underpaid internships.

Beyond that, many of the positions you’ve found will likely be at nonprofits where tech is not the main focus, which is not inherently bad. However, you need to sort through your positions and decide which places have the resources to support you in the way that you expect to be supported this summer. If mentorship is important to you, ask them about it! If having other tech interns around is important, find out how many of you there would be!

Government

Civic tech is a growing field with a huge opportunity to create impact! It’s hard to break down civic tech jobs further, so you’re ready to begin your search!

The first thing you should do is subscribe to the Pivot to Civic newsletter and check out their past newsletters! Seriously, they’re basically a biweekly job board of entry-level civic tech jobs. In other words, it’s exactly what you’re looking for. How did we know about it? The Pivot to Civic newsletter grew out of the Coding it Forward fellowship, which is a summer civic tech fellowship you should also check out! Apps open Winter 2018 for the Summer 2019 cohort. They’re good friends of ours, so tell them that Impact Labs sent you ;)

There are also a few other places to check out! Lots of startups, nonprofits, and companies are involved in civic tech (the ACLU; the Innocence Project; Motivote; tons more!). If you’re open to working with an NGO, these might be some great places to check out!

Just like with nonprofits, you need to think carefully about what’s important to you in an internship — how much support and mentorship do you expect? How many other interns do you want there to be? It’s up to you to sort through the jobs you find and ask questions to figure out what positions will be the best fit for your skills and expectations.

But what if I don’t make money?!

First of all, you’ll make plenty of money if you work at companies or most NSF research. That being said, you should be able to do your dream internship even if you can’t afford it!

Your best bet is to look through the resources your school’s career education office provides. We can’t give you specific resources here, because what’s available to you will depend on what your school provides. Many colleges provide summer stipends and grants for unpaid and underpaid summer internships, and often they aren’t well advertised. If you can’t find them online, try contacting the office or scheduling a meeting to learn more!

Help! I still haven’t found a job!

Never fear! Here are some more places you can look (none of them are specific to internships, but they are all impactful positions!):

  • Our newsletter always highlights job opportunities! You can subscribe to it here
  • Check out Code for America’s job board!
  • 80,000 Hours also has a great job board!

Maybe I’ll do it next year…

No. You won’t. You’ve been telling yourself stories for years about how you’ll make an impact later, and those stories are not magically going to disappear by next year. Sure, you could wait until you’re out of college, or you’ve paid off your student debt, or you’re suddenly nearing the end of your career in Big Tech. But then you won’t have made nearly the impact you could have made had you used your tech skills for social good right now.

Consider all of the factors and positive reasons to make an impact. It’s more than feasible — we’ve just given you a path to finding the perfect job for you and made sure you’ll be paid comparably to industry, in addition to making an actual impact on the world and setting yourself up to be able to have a more impactful career later. If your goal in life is to maximize the impact you as an individual can have on the world, it only makes sense to act now.

You’re equipped to go out and find an impactful internship. The rest is up to you!

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Ellie Czepiel
Impact Labs

Software engineer & renewable energy enthusiast.