Summer Internship: Microsoft Research Case
Now that the summer is moving to its end, let’s recall how we, the graduate students of the NLP community, have spent it. Apart from some travelling thanks to the attendance of various great conferences such as NAACL-HLT in Atlanta, GA, in the beginning of June or ACL in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the beginning of August, most of us spent their time… yeah, again, working in the lab! Some were trying to meet the deadlines (how about the EMNLP one?), others were deeply submerged into ongoing experiments to be able to advance in their theses at least a little bit, the luckiest ones were able to slip away for couple weeks to the beach. Yet for the most of the graduate students (not only in the NLP I might say) vacations have been showing up only in dreams for the past…how many? 2, 3, maybe 4 summers? Well, guys, that’s the sad reality we all live in.
Or it could be that sad were it not for a great opportunity to travel (or at least to change your plain old boring lab to a different one) and to make great research project at the same time. I am talking about the internships! Internship is a great opportunity to work out of your “home-lab” during 3-6 months, most commonly in a big company or another university, participate in a project that might be somewhat different from the PhD thesis work, gain new skills, meet new people, and even get the results published! I hope that this idea looks exciting to you, so let’s get into details.
Yet for the most of the graduate students (not only in the NLP I might say) vacations have been showing up only in dreams for the past…how many? 2, 3, maybe 4 summers?
Generally speaking, an internship could be taken any time during the year. However, the most common season is summer when the weather is great and most other students participate in internships that helps forming a great community. Then, there are roughly two types of internships: industrial and research. If you are an undergrad or a Master student, an industrial internship might be an option. However, if you are in your quest to obtain the PhD degree, the research internship should suit you best. So I will be talking mostly about the second option, although the application processes have some similarities.
Now the question is why I am talking about the summer internships in the end of the summer? So you could get ready to the application process which normally starts right now and has its deadlines somewhere at the beginning of October.
To be more particular, I will be explaining the whole process by the example of the Microsoft Research internship. Before you apply, you should determine which region you are in. There are special application procedures for Latin America (as in my case), Russia, and China that are slightly different from those for USA, Europe and India. So the easiest way to check out the exact requisites and deadlines for your region is to search in your-favorite-search-system for something like “Microsoft Research Internship” for most of the world regions, and “Microsoft Research Latin America Internship” or “Microsoft Research Internship Russia” for specific regions.
The trickiest and the most time consuming part might be a school nomination letter.
Now that you see the exact to-do list, which is quite straightforward and not too complicated (if you’re a grad student, you know how to write a strong motivation letter and even a draft of a recommendation), be sure to submit everything before the deadline. The trickiest and the most time consuming part might be a school nomination letter (which is not mandatory but is of great-great-great help). This letter should be sent on behalf of the head of your school or your department, depending on the academic division of your institution, so it’s better to make an appointment in advance. Some schools might decide to set their inner competitions to see who they want to recommend.
After you have submitted all the papers in time, you should keep calm and wait approximately till December or January when somebody would want to contact you for an interview. Here is where the industry internship application process and the research one go apart, because as I have heard from industrial interns, their interview process is different and has more stages. Anyway, somebody would contact you and set up the date and time for a phone (or Skype) interview. All in all it’s not that bad, but first of all, be prepared to speak English. With people who are not English native-speakers. Over the phone/Skype. Ready? Then, the rest is easy. You should have a smooth story about your research interests and the ongoing research, and be ready to outline a solution for a small research problem from your field (e.g. “How to determine the topic of a text?”).
If you had enough luck, in several weeks you will get a notification that you have been accepted.
If you had enough luck, in several weeks you will get a notification that you have been accepted. The coordinators on the MSR (short for Microsoft Research) will guide you through the necessary paperwork. If you need a visa, let the coordinators know as soon as possible and try to get the papers necessary for the interview at the US embassy quickly. The internship at Microsoft is very well organized (even compared to other big CS companies, as other interns rumored), so they will be in charge of your airline tickets, transportation, and housing.
Now that you are in the right place (let’s assume that it is Redmond, WA, where the main MS campus is located), there will be an orientation session and you will be assigned to a mentor who will lead your research project. And here comes the deal: you have abundant resources, a competitive community, a research mentor… and only 12 weeks to fulfill your project! Well, don’t worry, if everybody else can do it, you also can
The good news for NLP people is that Microsoft Research has several groups that focus on NLP problems. That is why we have a good chance to participate in the internship, because there is a lot of work to do! However, do not expect that you will be working on the same PhD project but in a different environment. By the restrictions of intellectual property, the topic of the project must not intersect with your thesis. However, I personally consider it as an advantage, because it pushes you to learn new skills and to see new perspectives.
Apart from your research project, MSR internship offers a lot of engaging activities! There are boat rides, soccer games, Mountain Rainier tour, social events, dinners every last Friday of the month, and whatnot! In addition, Seattle area has a lot entertainment to offer as well! Definitely not your regular dull “summer-in-the-lab”!
The internship ends with a public presentation of the results of your work in front of your research group mates. Normally, you work till the last minute of your internship and, if you plan to write a research paper, write a text after the internship is over at the calmness of your sweet home-lab.
Hope that now you know what you are going to do the next summer! Good luck!
About the author
Alisa Zhila is a PhD student in the Natural Text and Language Processing Lab at the Center for Computing Research at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in Mexico. She was awarded Microsoft Research Latin America Fellowship in 2012. Previously Alisa had been working in a machine translation project for ABBYY in Russia. She is graduating in 2014 and will be looking for a job in industry.