As I near graduation, I realize that I’ve gained a fair amount of knowledge in the internship field. I wanted to share a few of my insights with you in hopes that I can save you from wasted time and unnecessary deliberations. I also hope this post can help you see the good in an internship, when your experience has not been what you were looking for!
I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but the reality of internships is that you won’t learn that much. Of course, I’m not saying that you won’t get anything at all out of your internship, but just don’t expect to come out of your internship a genius in whatever field of work the company was. Unless you land one of those dream internships at a large, prestigious corporation, you’ll probably end up doing menial work most of the time.
One thing I was expecting when I first started at a previous internship was that I was going to get this awesome mentor who would teach me all about marketing and the general operations of our workplace. This was not the case. My boss was actually for the most part unavailable, and a lot of what I learned was self-taught. If I was asked to create marketing material for some specific program in one of their many departments, I had to dig around on the internet to learn exactly what the program was, or I had to catch the department manager at a time when they weren’t busy to talk about it. You want me to fill out this financial transaction request or printing requisition form for you? No problem!! Let me just figure out what that is real quick… A lot of the tasks I was asked to do required me to learn from the other employees. So did I get the mentor I was hoping for? No. But perhaps I got something even better…I learned how to be resourceful and self-sufficient.
There were some awkward periods of downtime when I had completed an assignment and was waiting for the next one. After a while of staring at the wall and twiddling my thumbs, I quickly got bored and decided to use my time more efficiently. With all this extra time I had, I used it to study some marketing practices and pitch ideas to my boss. She let me go with it, and it was fun because I was pursuing projects I wanted to do. From this, I also learned to be a self-starter.
The bottom line is, work is not always easy and you won’t always have someone babying you. Once you start making the best out of bad situations, you’ll become a much more capable worker, and your boss will appreciate that.
2. Network, Network, Network
Talking and working with other employees definitely contributed to my success at my last internship. And this brings me to my next point: internships aren’t all about what you learn there, it’s also about who you meet. Don’t just hide out in your cubicle all day. Take the time to befriend your co-workers and boss, because it can help you out in the future. I hear this from my friends a lot: your network is your net worth. Hard work isn’t the only thing you need; you also need to form genuine relationships with people who can help you further your career.
I once came across this video from Gary Vaynerchuk about how to make the most of your internship. Check it out and consider what he says at your current or next interning gig! The duration of an internship is not very long, and you might not learn as much as you had hoped for. Relationships are probably the best thing you can get out of a short work experience.
3. Know Your Worth
Unpaid internships are (for the most part) a waste of time. Some businesses like to take advantage of students who are dying to get work experience before they graduate. They know that students are willing to work for free, and I think this is just so wrong. There is no reason for you to do work for them without compensation. You may be just a student, but you are still a valuable asset who can contribute to the company!
Now, I’m not trying to shun every company that does unpaid internships. Perhaps they just genuinely want to offer students valuable work experience, but they’re not a large enough sized company to pay them. Even so, I don’t think they should jump the gun too quickly and offer work opportunities until they have grown enough to pay their employees. If they don’t have enough money to pay their interns, they probably don’t even have enough resources, such as a mentor, who would be available to give you a worthwhile learning experience.
I speak pretty strongly on this topic because I personally experienced a situation recently that bothered me quite a bit… My summer vacation had started, and I was looking for a way to stay productive and make a little money, so I applied for a graphic design internship that I found through my school’s job listing website. They were looking for someone who had 3+ years of experience in the Adobe Suite, and it stated it was a paid position – seemed like a good fit for me.
So I submitted my application, and very soon after, I was called in for an interview. The interview went well and they informed me the last step of the hiring process was to see some design and photography samples. I spent a few days working on a portfolio I could show them, and after they saw my work, they happily offered me the job. I was thrilled and ready to work, so I asked about the job specifics, such as my work schedule and how compensation would work. That’s when they told me that it was actually an unpaid internship. This frustrated me because their job listing was basically false advertising, and a huge waste of time for both parties since we already went through the entire hiring process and I had spent a lot of effort on my design work. I suppose I could have saved myself from wasting time if I had clarified during the interview about how compensation would work, but I did not want to come off as crass, so I figured I would ask later if I was offered the job. After all, the job listing did say it was paid, so I was not at all expecting the response that I got.
Even after I told them there must have been some sort of misunderstanding, they still insisted that I work for them for free so I could gain some experience; and I just thought I was being taken for a fool. Firstly, I’ve already been doing this kind of stuff for about 8 years, so I asked myself, how much experience would I gain from taking this internship? Probably not a lot. Maybe I’d learn a tiny bit more about design and how their business works, but that’s not compelling enough for me to take an unpaid job. Secondly, I believe that people should be compensated for their creative efforts. I think we can all agree that not everyone is capable of specialized jobs such as design. Sure, anyone could learn how to use the software and the technical side of it, but not everyone will naturally have the eye for design, which is much harder to learn and takes time to develop. That’s why I knew I had to walk away. I knew my worth, and it wouldn’t have been very valuable to me besides acting as a resume fluffer. Besides, if I really wanted to pursue graphic design, I know I can go freelance, as I’ve done it before. I gained experience from that AND got paid, which was a much better use of my time.
Some of you may disagree with me, and if you truly think that an unpaid internship you have your eye on will help you further your career goals, by all means take it! What I am trying to say is that it’s important to know the difference between a good opportunity and a waste of time. It’s also important to stay practical. Does it make sense to you to accept an unpaid internship if it involves a long commute and you have other financial obligations to fulfill? As college students who are so eager to build up their resume, I think we lose sight of our own value. I know in college, they really stress the importance of doing internships. Just remember you don’t have to accept the first offer you get if it’s not ideal for you. There will always be new opportunities coming your way.
While this post reveals some of the not so glamorous aspects of interning, I still think they are necessary for everyone to experience. When you get that job, it ultimately defines who you are as a worker, and how you handle all the good and the bad. It will also help you get a clearer idea of what type of company you do (or do not) want to work at in the future. Hang in there fellow interns! Hope you got something out of this talk.