I remember looking at internships freshman year and thinking… ‘wow, that’s impossible.’ The requirements included having previous internship experience, junior or senior status, and moving halfway across the country — all for an unpaid job. If all internships were that difficult to get, where did students find their initial intern experience? Who wanted to wait till junior or senior year? How could anyone afford to return to school in the fall if they weren’t getting paid? Yet everyone said, especially for my field of interest, internships were a must.
Over the past four years, I have worked around 11 different jobs, 3 of them specifically “internships.” While I am by no means an expert, I have picked up a thing or two so here are 9 general tips I have about internships:
- If it is unpaid, tread with care.
This is one of my favorite pieces of advice from Charles Murray, author of A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead (a book you should buy if you haven’t already.) If a company really considers the position vital, they will pay someone to do it. Unpaid internships often imply unnecessary jobs because the market doesn’t necessitate their existence. Chance are, the job will not be worth your time because it isn’t worth the company’s investment. A real job earning real money offers many more advantages for challenge and character growth, even if the title reflects a less glamorous position.
There may be exceptions to the rule, especially if you are trying to network in a specific company, or are padding a resume. But generally, go where they pay, because that means they need you.
- Internships provide unique learning opportunities. Use them!
An internship can give you an exclusive look at the inner workings of a company and offer a front row view of what does and doesn’t work. You can gain valuable experience using your “intern status” to meet people up and down the leadership ladder. When I interned for Human Resources, my first “office” was right next to the Vice President of the company! I had access to Lunch-n-Learns, where I met engineers, accountants, and project managers. I started at a branch office and got to know the men on the ground.
An intern comes to learn, so it is a great opportunity to ask questions: people expect it! Get to know the company even if it isn’t where you plan on staying long term. The attributes that make a company or a leader successful overlap in various occupations and fields. The idea works in reverse as well: poor leadership or a bad company policy shows, and you will notice what needs to be changed. You can take this is wisdom with you to other jobs. Identifying those attributes will benefit you wherever you go.
- It doesn’t have to be in your field of interest.
While interning with a company you want to work for when you graduate is a great opportunity, it isn’t always available. Though “internship experience, ANY internship experience” might not be the best plan, an openness to different fields provides some unique opportunities. My first two internships were with a company of electricians. Surrounded by fellow interns with degrees in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, my Politics and Government/Criminal Justice double major stood out like a sore thumb. How did pre-law transfer to the trades? A lot smoother than I expected. During my time there, I absorbed information on unions, safety classes, and light fixtures. I learned about biding a job, billing a company, and handling Affirmative Action paperwork. I gained practical, real-world knowledge that has given me a relationship with people in an area I would have known nothing about if I had stuck to my “field” of law/politics. If nothing else, the experience developed me as a person. It is worth looking off the beaten path, especially for your first few internships.
- Find where your connections work.
Internships, like job hunting, involves networking. It takes practice. Where do your friends and family members work? Where do your friends’ parents work? Instead of starting with a company, it might help to start with your connections. I got the job in the trades because of my uncle. I gained my third internship through someone I volunteered with in high school. Every job I have had since working in the Sam’s Club bakery after my freshman year came from knowing someone. Use the people in your life!
- Be open to relocating, but don’t be stupid.
New places can be lots of fun. I moved to college in Tennessee without knowing anyone. The same happened during my experience studying abroad in England. If you can fight the homesickness, openness to adventure can lead to fabulous places. Use those connections. Do you have an aunt who could house you for a summer in a different city? Do you have a friend who has extra room in her off-campus living arrangements? Look for internships there. It could be fun and you will be doubly challenged.
However, remember that you are still in college. It may seem glamorous to move across the country for an internship somewhere, but first weigh the costs and benefits carefully. A less exciting but more practical internship could allow you to live at home and save money. There will be opportunities for new places once you graduate.
- Don’t think in terms of the unattainable.
A dream cannot become a reality unless you walk towards it. Practically, my semester abroad should never have happened. I could not afford it. Family, friends, and professors went out of their way to make it happen, but first I had to begin the process. I had to learn about the program, and apply. I had to explain what I needed and request financial support. In the end it worked out, but only after I took the first step.
A specific thing, like an internship or studying abroad, may seem impossible, but it can never become possible if you don’t work towards it. So dream crazy dreams! Set goals. Don’t limit yourself. Right now you might not be qualified, but discover what it would take to become qualified. Work with your connections. Don’t limit yourself because of external hindrances. With hard work and planning, they can be overcome.
- Develop a work ethic.
I know this seems rather self-evident, but how you approach a job makes a difference. There will tasks you really dislike doing, but you will have to do them anyway. If you can push through those tasks with a good attitude, it shows. It will show character to your bosses and co-workers, even if they never mention it. If nothing else, you will know what you can accomplish in less-than-favored circumstances.
Also, be willing to do what is needed of you. Take out the garbage, shred the papers, staple the documents. It isn’t glamorous, I know. As an intern, you probably won’t be doing anything that fabulous or ground breaking, but if you learn to work hard and do the little things well, it will transfer over to the big things. When I worked in HR, I handled a lot of paperwork. I am not a detail-person. I quickly grew bored with endless Affirmative Action forms. However, I learned to work quickly and persistently. I enjoyed my work as a Field Director with AFP last year, but there were days when I was exhausted. The attitude I had learned from working in HR kept me going. Stick with it when the work is hard. A job well done makes the effort worth it.
- Have fun!
You have the job for a summer. It isn’t a lifetime commitment. Use this season to explore! What do you like doing? What do you hate? Try something new. While this isn’t always possible if you need a consistent, well-paying job (because…. you know, college kid), there are still many ways to discover new things. Get to know your coworkers. Try different fields and companies. Learn what works for you. Do you like order, or prefer making your own rules? Do you want to stay behind the desk, or get your hands dirty? Do you want a specific job description, or to create the position as you go? An internship provides a taste of the professional world with comparatively short-term commitments.
- Take internships seriously, but not too seriously.
There are many factors to getting a job, and a positive internship experience can be one of them. However, it isn’t the only thing. Do not stress about getting the perfect internship with the perfect company. When you do get an internship, learn from it. Work hard. Focus on developing your character. Make connections and use them to your benefit. Enjoy it as an end as well as a means to an end. Be willing to try new things. Give your passions and talents a go and spend those summers developing the person you are becoming! That will stick with you for the rest of your life.