Hungry for a Great Internship? Know Where to Find the Meat.

Internships are considered a must-have for many college students (and even some high schoolers) looking for a leg up in getting a job upon graduation. They hunt to find them, compete to get them, and strive to multiply them–all for good reason.

Internships are real workplace experiences that build and showcase the job knowledge, skills, and behaviors essential to career success.

So why do so many complain about those internships once they’ve been landed?

  • The work is too menial. I feel like a lackey.
  • I don’t have enough autonomy.
  • There’s too much/too little/no supervision.
  • I’m left on my own to figure out what to do.
  • I do all this work and don’t get paid (or am paid a paltry sum).

Welcome to the business world!

There is often a misconception that, once you get a real job with a real title, all the work is meaty, independent initiatives are applauded, your supervisor is supportive, and the compensation commensurate with the work. Sorry this isn’t so, but internships can help you recalibrate your expectations.

Internship Lesson #1: Teach yourself to see and understand the realities of the work place and what drives it.

You can’t see what’s really going on unless you look. Too many student interns limit their focus to the work they are asked to perform and not the experience as a whole.

Initially, there’s good reason for that: the tasks are new to them and they want to do them well. That’s a good thing but not the only thing.

The real meat is between the bun.

Internship Lesson #2:  Learn what did or did not fit you about the company, the work, and/or the environment and why.

Your internship helps clarify what you need from a job to perform at your best and stay motivated.

That means discovering are how effectively you:

  • Handle ambiguity and too little/too much direction
  • Perform under pressure
  • Communicate with executives, managers, your boss, and coworkers
  • Overcome flagging self-confidence and self-doubt
  • Use strengths and overcome weaknesses
  • Make independent decisions and come up with new ideas
  • See your work in the context of the company’s big picture
  • Influence or take the lead when there’s an opportunity
  • Stay positive and avoid getting caught up in office gripes
  • Put knowledge and skills to use in the right way

You need to make your internship as much about discovering who you are within the dynamics of the job as you do about future line items on your resume.

Here comes the judge.

This week I served on a panel to judge internship presentations at a local university. The fifteen students in this six hour undergraduate course interned with major corporations like AT&T, Guardian Life, Allstate, Abercrombie & Fitch and small businesses including a restaurant, spa/pool company, law office, and long-term care facility. Most students were business and/or marketing majors.

The students who stood out were those who discovered the most about themselves while interning. One learned he didn’t want to be in law because he knew he couldn’t defend someone he knew had committed the crime. Another loved the company she interned with (they wanted to hire her) but realized she wanted to work for a large firm. Two other students surprised themselves at how effective they were talking to front-line employees as well as the company president, seeing how they were able to adapt their communications styles successfully. Others learned how it felt to own and defend their web design assignments.

Win-win internships

There are no bad internships unless you choose not to learn anything from them. Every business is fascinating in its own right. Each has a unique business model, leader-driven culture, performance history, cadre of employees, and customers/clients. No matter what your internship role, you are always in a position to observe, explore, and contribute. So whenever you can, take a big bite and savor the flavor.

Photo from Lego-LM via Flickr

The Internship Game—Step Up or Get Left Out

Internships are almost a right of passage to getting hired. The thirst for them has stirred businesses of every stripe to offer internship opportunities, particularly unpaid ones. 

There’s an upside and a downside to unpaid internships. So you need to know how to get the most “up” out of your choices. 

Make your free labor pay. 

The CBS Sunday Morning program ran an eye-opening segment called, “Internships: A foot in the door?” 

Lauren Berger, blogger known as the Intern Queen, made this telling comment: 

“The most common question that employers are asking in that job interview after graduation is, ‘Where did you intern?’ And if the person next to you even had one internship and you didn’t, there’s a good chance that that other person is gonna land the opportunity….” 

Internships are like any other commodity. If the demand for internships is greater than the supply, then economic principles take over. Businesses have work they can’t or won’t pay for, but if they can get it done for free, they’re in. Voila, the unpaid internship. 

Here’s how internships are playing out according to the Sunday Morning segment:

“In a 2010 survey, 42% of college students who graduated with an internship on their resume received a job offer, compared to just 30% for students with no intern experience. And, those graduates with internships received a higher starting salary, about $42,000, compared to just $35,000 for those without.”

It’s not, however, any old internship that’s going to deliver positive results. It’s only internships that add to your skill set and experience base. So if you’re going to work for free, you have to get marketable value from it. The only one who can convert the asset-value of free work into paid work is you.

No plan. No chance.

If you go into the internship race without a plan, you’ll likely end up losing. When you go after an unpaid internship you’re making an investment, not in dollars but in time. And you know that time is money.

Internships are the starter kit for your career. When you’re selecting an internship, you need to be specific about what you want from the experience. After all, you’ll be using your internship experience on your resume, so it needs to give you outcomes that will mean something to a recruiter.

Select internships that provide opportunities to:

  • Learn and/or apply knowledge that aligns with your career interests (i.e., IT, customer service, marketing, teaching, finance)
  • Lead, work independently, and/or assume responsibility for outcomes
  • Build your interpersonal skills, confidence, and experiences
  • Meet and build relationships with all kinds of people (i.e, customers, vendors, leaders)

There are great internships, awful ones, and everything in between. Your job is to land the ones that will do the most for you.

Working for free is a luxury that not everyone can afford. This reality can be tough to swallow. 

In the Sunday Morning piece, here’s what Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit Washington think tank, explained:

 “…increasingly the top internships are going to kids from the top of the income ladder. ‘Who can afford to come to Washingtonand spend $4,000 on housing and food and then work without being paid? It is not the children of farm workers or factory workers or, you know, the children of people who are unemployed right now. It’s going to be upper middle class kids….’”

This reality intensifies the need for planning way ahead to get internships that fit and make you a more attractive candidate for the next work-for-free opportunity or that all important paid job.

Keep working

Internships aren’t just for college kids anymore. Unemployed workers abound. People used to working don’t like being idle. So, unpaid internships are in their line of sight too.

There is no better credential than meaningful work where you add value and demonstrate your commitment to your career. Even though there are arguments decrying unpaid internships, they’re here to stay. Now is the time to make them work for you.

Photo from Samuel Mann via Flickr