What’s the deal with internships anyway?
An important part of my advising is guiding first and second year college students around the topic of internships. In the course of these conversations I find myself reframing how students define an internship. Internships are incredible opportunities for a college student to gain real-life work experience while exploring careers and industries that are of interest. There certainly is nothing wrong with part-time summer job–camp counselor, waiting tables, tending bar, etc. However, when students say they are interested in, let’s say, finance but have no exposure to it other than what they have seen on tv or read about in a book/magazine/newspaper, how do they know its really a good fit? Additionally, how can they make themselves a competitive applicant without some exposure to the field? The answers are they don’t. Certainly you can insert any career or industry in lieu of finance, and the logic still holds. At the end of the day no one wants a student to be in their first week of their dream job, suddenly realizing “I didn’t know THIS is what it meant to do this job”–a verbal manifestation of their sudden epiphany that their dream job is not such a dream.
So before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s address what an internship is. Broadly speaking it is an experience that provides some work experience as it relates to one’s professional and/or academic interest(s). A student could be working for a for-profit company, non-profit organization, or even conducting academic research. While the title of the job might not say “internship” I argue that under a broader definition, it qualifies. I don’t think it matters if it is paid or unpaid, during the summer or school year, or for course credit. I think it does matter that a student is engaging in an experience that will provide him/her with a meaningful work experience, gain relevant insight into the field, and learn transferable skills.
The benefits of an internship have lasting ripple effects on a student’s undergraduate experience. It is an opportunity for a student to build their resume with something that will prepare them for their future. Working in a professional space–whether it be academia, corporate, or corporate-like office– will help a student develop valuable skills which will be attractive to any future employer or graduate school. Students will learn technical skills that will be helpful when they apply for full-time positions. Additionally, students learn how to navigate a professional work-space, learning about office politics, bureaucracy, hierarchical structures, and so on. Working in an office is far different than school–the only environment, other than home, that a student has known for the previous 13-15 years. Students can start to build relationships, expanding their professional network. This will help when they are searching for a full-time job in senior year. An internship experience, either good or bad, will also give a student career direction. It can validate what they think a job/career is all about and/or it can help further inform a student’s professional interests–maybe even re-directing him/her to a different profession.
So the inevitable next question I usually get is, “Evan, how do I search for and apply to an internship?” My #1 answer: career services. Other resources that could be helpful include professors and job search sites/search engines. That said, either of those resources will likely be available via the on-campus career services office–so save yourself some steps and just start there. Career services will not only have a list of internships, it usually also has any undergraduate research opportunities (or if they don’t, they generally know where students can learn about those programs). Career services is more than just an office and staff who can help students find an internship or job. They can help with crafting a resume, writing a cover letter, creating a career plan, developing career goals, learning about various industries/careers, providing networking opportunities, and so on. Many students already know the value that career services play, but are unclear how to engage the office. The answer is simple: show up. The career services office hosts all kinds of programming throughout the year. So go to the website/twitter feed/facebook page/etc., find an event they are hosting, put it on your calendar, and go. “But Evan, it can’t be that simple”….oh but it is. The hard-work comes in using career services regularly.
Look, obviously I’m a fan of students pursuing an internship experience of some kind. At least one. The benefits far outweigh the pitfalls. Figuring out the details and how it fits within your context (finances, location, goals, etc.) is a challenge, there is no doubt about that. That said, you can devise a solution that will help you achieve your goal. It won’t be a perfect solution, you will likely have to make some sacrifices. 5 or 10 years from now, when you look back you will be grateful for the experience and opportunity because it will have set you on a path towards figuring out who you are, who you want to be, and the impact you want to have on the world. At the end of the day, it’s not about the money you made or didn’t make, the grade you did or didn’t get, the opportunity you did or didn’t get. It is about identifying how you will navigate your life, to make the world a slightly better place then it was yesterday.
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