Most students think it’s crucial to find the “right” internship, otherwise they’ll be saddled with the “wrong” experience on their resumes for applying to full-time jobs later on. It’s not that simple, and that’s a good thing.
Since I run my organization’s fellowship program for students, I recently asked our fellows–many of whom have interned at other places, too–to weigh in on the experience: Why intern? What differentiates a good internship from a crappy one? And how do you make the most out of any internship experience, including one that might not be ideal? These are a few of their tips and insights.
Start in high school! Some of your peers will spend four years studying something in college that they decide they don’t want to pursue after earning their degree. One summer internship could save you from taking the “scenic route” toward a career you want (which, however, isn’t the end of the world).
The high-achieving behaviors that tend to work in high school (talk a lot, give teachers what they want, play by the rules, etc.) don’t necessarily work in business. There are no right answers when your intern manager asks you to build the company’s first artificial-intelligence sentiment analyzer–just ask our three high school fellows. One of them, Liam, told me he’s more often judged by what he accomplishes than by how he does it. His AP computer science class was hard, not because of the problems he had to solve, but because the teacher wanted them solved in prescribed ways. Internships will liberate you from an education built around “right” answers, and the sooner you can get started on that, the better.
Focus on what you can learn (about yourself)
If you’ve been playing the I-want-to-look-impressive game, stop. Internships are for trying career paths on for size. They reveal what you like and don’t like, how you work, and with whom you collaborate well. Internships are ways to learn about yourself–at least as much as they are about picking up skills and knowledge–and to meet the people you could become.
Sahar, our fellow who works on user-interface design, notes that internships take you to depths that college classes can’t. Whereas you and your classmates are trying to balance five courses and get good grades, full-time employees are focused. They’re invested in the mission of the company but also work to raise families, pay mortgages, care for parents, and live comfortably. By getting to know them, you can better envision how you want your life to look in the years after graduating.
Think creatively about offsetting drawbacks
A few potential risks and downsides can be mitigated. For example, many internships require some degree of grunt work, but you don’t want to take one where that’s the main event. If some of your responsibilities involve crucial yet boring tasks, make sure the majority of the experience will function like an apprenticeship or fellowship. Great internships embed you in the workflow of the company and make you accountable for something more important than administrative duties (at a different company, one of our fellows recalled handling so much paperwork that he developed a coffee habit just to stay awake).
Low or no pay might not necessarily be a disqualifier; it’s possible the internship offers so much value in relationships and mentoring that the money doesn’t matter. Just make sure the internship is valuable to you in some meaningful way. And keep in mind that nonprofits or even your own university may be able to support you with scholarships, or even by opening doors to internship opportunities that do pay well. For example, our fellow Waliyah came our way via the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., which provides $20,000 in tuition assistance to students.
Watch out for red flags
Other red flags are a lot easier to spot. For starters, find out whether you have a designated manager. If not, you’re probably going to be passed around and lost. Second, note how much or how little the internship coordinator scrutinizes you. Bad internship programs just need a warm body in the room to do rote work, so the interview tends to be pretty fluffy. Ask the interviewer about how many people applied, how many were offered interviews, and how many the company will hire.
Third, when you tour the office, scan the culture. Do you see a room of jaded, bitter faces? Can you imagine them taking your input and offering insightful critique? Always ask to speak with former interns during the interview process. If the program is legitimate, there will be references ready and eager to speak. You can check Glassdoor, but nothing compares to a conversation with someone who actually did the job.
Our doctoral fellow Kevin adds that it’s important to look at the moral fabric of the company: What does the organization do and why? If you have ethical qualms about the work, the prestige of the job probably won’t counterbalance them.
Show what you can do, and be upfront about what you can’t
On day one, ask your manager about the expectations. You need to establish goals, deadlines, and intended outcomes. If there’s not already a system for check-ins and feedback sessions, ask for one. Likewise, if you’re asked to do something you aren’t prepared to do–like code in Python–be honest. If you have the rudimentary skills, go for it and push your comfort zone, but try to avoid getting in over your head.
And for high schoolers, don’t be afraid to bother adults. Robert, one of our high school engineering interns, stresses that it’s actually crucial to ask questions and bug people. Consider how much more time they’re going to spend fixing your mess if they don’t help you succeed!
Finally, as your internship unfolds, keep asking yourself this question that our fellow Sima recommends: If you did this full-time, what would your life look like? Unless you take an internship that challenges you and demands your full commitment, you won’t be able to answer it. Building your career is an experiment, and internships provide the best data you can collect.
Ximena Hartsock, PhD, is the cofounder and president of Phone2Action.