Here's how $58 billion Two Sigma is extending internships for undergrads who want to keep working instead of going back to virtual class at Harvard and other top schools

  • Claire Zhou, 19, is taking the semester off from Harvard to intern in software engineering at Two Sigma, which manages $58 billion in assets with businesses that include a quantitative hedge fund, private equity, and market making.
  • Zhou, who interned at Two Sigma this summer, asked the firm to let her extend her internship into the fall semester in lieu of taking virtual classes at Harvard this fall.
  • Two Sigma gave Business Insider an exclusive look inside how it's extending internships for Zhou and three other students as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
  • At Two Sigma, interns earn a pro-rated portion of a $135,000 annual salary.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

For 19-year-old Claire Zhou, life has been a lesson in the art of substitutions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Zhou, who finished her first year at Harvard University this spring studying math and computer science, used to start her day with breakfast surrounded by friends before heading to her first 9 a.m. class on the Ivy League campus.

Nowadays, Cambridge, Mass., has been replaced with her hometown of Houston. Her classroom traded places with her bedroom, which doubles as an office. Late-night study sessions with friends in the dorms swapped for catchups on FaceTime. 

This fall, Zhou is taking the semester off from Harvard to intern in software engineering at Two Sigma, a financial firm that manages $58 billion in assets. Its businesses include a quantitative hedge fund, private equity, and market making. In July, while Zhou was completing her first 10-week summer internship with the firm, Harvard announced that, "with only rare exceptions," it would shift all of its classes online for the fall semester.

Feeling less than enthused by the news that she would be in for another virtual semester at Harvard, akin to the one that she had completed in springtime, Zhou approached her managers at Two Sigma in the summer with an unusual request: to extend her internship through the fall semester.

"I had already started looking, honestly, quite frantically for fall internship opportunities" while awaiting Two Sigma's answer, she said.

But during her search, she ran into a snag: "Based on how the recruiting timeline is structured today," she said, "looking for a September start date internship in late July and August is really just too late."

Inside Two Sigma, Zhou's request prompted some introspection about how best to accommodate it, and what it could mean for the future of the firm's internship program. Should the firm offer this extension to all of its interns? Only a select few? 

Ultimately, by early September, Two Sigma decided to offer an internship extension to Zhou and a number of its summer intern class who, given their performance, were in good standing to be invited back to complete either another summer internship at a later date, or be offered a full-time position in the future.

While not all of the interns who were offered the autumn extension accepted it, Zhou and three others — students from Harvard, Stanford, and Caltech — did, and now have the option of extending through the spring semester as well.

College students nationwide have been experimenting with alternatives to online education during the pandemic

When Two Sigma made Zhou's extension official right after Labor Day, "I was beyond thrilled," she recalled. In addition to the chance to stick around through the spring, if she desires, Zhou has already been offered an internship spot at Two Sigma for summer 2021, too.

Zhou's decision to abstain from online classes in favor of sticking with Two Sigma comes amid a broader national trend. More than one third (34.6%) of college students said they planned to withdraw from their fall semester if their classes were fully online, according to the results of a survey released in May by OneClass, a website that offers study materials for students. 

Read more: Data scientists and engineers are leaving Amazon and Facebook for hedge funds. Here are the firms that are winning the battle for top tech talent.

Now, Two Sigma is considering making these autumn internships part of its long-term plans. 

"This has been a great test case for us, and certainly something we're going to be assessing for future years to see if this is something we'll want to continue to offer," Scott Grabarski, a managing director at Two Sigma and its head of engineering HR and talent acquisition, told Business Insider.

"In terms of online schooling, I do think that there's still merit to taking online courses, but there are just some aspects of in-person learning that can't be replaced or replicated in a virtual format," Zhou said. "Coming back to Two Sigma is just a way to continue learning from the environment, all along doing something that I find challenging, fulfilling, as well as impactful."

Zhou's internship extension has led to meaningful growth

For Zhou, the experience she gained having gone through onboarding and training on her summer internship made her transition to her fall internship smoother. "I was already really familiar with how my team operates," she said, and "how to collaborate with my team on a day-to-day basis."

Among the highlights so far: working this summer on a user interface for a tool that displays recommended trades; flexing her software engineering muscle by learning a new coding language; and participating in professional development workshops about networking or how to deliver effective presentations.

See more: Colleges thought they could manage financially in the pandemic. Dropping enrollment rates and COVID-19 outbreaks cropping up on campuses suggest they're wrong.

So far, she's remained on her original team doing software work — only one of the four interns switched teams, Zhou said — but she's now exposed to a variety of projects that are challenging and deepening her knowledge, versus solely focusing on one.

Compared to online classes, this internship has provided a crucial learning opportunity, Zhou said.

"The main differentiating factor is the amount of initiative that I put into doing research … and figuring out how to implement things on my own," she explained. "I have a lot more freedom to kind of go around and work on what I want to as well as just be really open with my teammates and collaborate with them at a level in which I'm not just an intern, but also their equal."

Many students have expressed disappointment with virtual classes

In March, colleges and universities nationwide shuttered their doors and pivoted to online classes as the coronavirus spread rapidly. But as many as 75% of students said they were unsatisfied by the quality of their digital learning experience, according to the results of survey conducted by OneClass which were published in April. 

This fall, Zhou said that she has noticed "a surge in students on leave."

"A lot of my friends are actually also taking leaves of absence this semester," she said, and, while that was an element motivating Zhou's request to stay at Two Sigma, the chance to grow her skills was the overarching factor underpinning her decision.

Read more: Colleges thought they could manage financially in the pandemic. Dropping enrollment rates and COVID-19 outbreaks cropping up on campuses suggest they're wrong.

Meanwhile, universities are likely to face tough questions over how to make a case for high tuition costs while offering a virtual-only product. Indeed, undergraduate tuition for the 2020-2021 school year at Harvard College is $49,653. 

At Two Sigma, interns earn a salary that would be commensurate with a $135,000 annual salary, a source familiar with the matter told Business Insider. Representatives for Harvard University did not respond to a request for comment.

But in spite of Two Sigma's internship extensions this year, Grabarski signaled that it shouldn't be seen as the firm diminishing how it sees the value of a college degree.

"We definitely do value education and we're not looking to encourage students to be dropping out of school," Garbarski said. "While the pandemic has certainly changed how and where our employees work, and in many ways how we recruit, it is too early to say if it will have a broader impact on academic requirements."

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