Beyond College: Internships (Part I)

Originally published August 2013, online student newsletter.

We all know those people. The ones who never study, yet ace every exam. The ones who don’t have to pick up the phone for an interview or internship; instead, organizations are calling them. Their first choice for a job is also their only choice… and everything just seems to work out exactly as they hoped and planned.

While we may have had an occasional experience that allowed me to glimpse that life, chances are that most of us have a fair bit of work to do to pass that test, land that interview, or get hired for our ‘dream job.’  In fact, I would wager that any person with that level of success also had a lot of hard work to get to that point.  So how can you become that person? How do you start the process of finishing your degree and finding yourself doing something you love?

Let me introduce you to the world of internships.  Internships provide a myriad of incredible opportunities, no matter where you are in your studies, your interests, or your life goals. Internships allow you to…

  • Explore various fields (if you are not sure what you want to do long-term).

  • Network with key people in your field of choice.

  • Discover or develop specific skill sets.

  • Avoid getting stuck in a job or field that you ultimately discover you don’t enjoy.

  • Obtain references and experience to move into a job you love post-degree.

Getting Started

Let’s say you know you want to do an internship: where to start?  How do you find opportunities, fill out applications, or even figure out what internship to pursue?

While a single article can’t give you a comprehensive game plan for your specific situation, there are a few steps every person can take to get started.

1. Identify your end goal.

Imagine yourself a year from now. You successfully landed and completed an internship. Now it’s time to ask a few questions. What skills have I gained? What have I learned about my field, myself, and how the two fit together?  What could an introduction to a job or a letter of recommendation look like?

By answering these questions now, you will have a better idea of what kind of internship you are looking for and can find the best fit for you.

2. Plan

Once you have your end goal in mind, it is time to brainstorm some additional parameters.  You want a great internship that will build your skill set and prepare you for what comes next in life. Yet you also want to focus your time on connections and opportunities that will meet your needs.  It will do no good to land an internship halfway across the country, only to realize you really wanted something close to home.

So think about what an internship would look like on a practical level. Do you want to be paid or are you willing to consider an unpaid or even a pay-for-the-experience internship? Will it be close to home or are you willing to travel?  How long should it be—do you have six months, one year, or more?  What field are you considering?  Or, if that isn’t certain yet, what fields are you not interested in exploring? Sometimes, knowing what doesn’t work can be just as helpful in narrowing down the opportunities.

3. Network

Once you have general parameters in place, you could look up internships online and start submitting five applications a day. However, if you’re serious about finding a great fit, internships (like jobs) generally happen best when you have connections.  Think of people you know who are doing something you find intriguing or that you want to learn more about.  Call them up, ask questions, and find out if they need help in their business or organization.  Don’t know anyone who fits that description? Branch out. Find out who your friends know and ask for introductions.

That doesn’t mean you should never submit an application for an internship you found online. But still make use of your network. See if someone you know has a connection with that business or list a person in the industry as a reference.

If you’re ambitious, consider finding a local business or organization you’d like to work for or that could connect you with an internship.  Go introduce yourself and offer to volunteer for a few weeks or months. You won’t get paid, but you’ll gain experience while getting to know people who have connections. You may even find that business is a great fit for what you want to do!

Image: “Booking Office, St Pancras International Station, NW1” by Ewan Munro, CC