Five Ways to Avoid a Terrible Internship
Not all internships are created equal, so here are some tips to ensure you get everything you’d like out of educational employment.
It’s no secret that not all summer experiences and internships are created equal. And if you choose poorly, you can walk away from the position feeling like you’ve wasted months of precious time.
There are dozens guides out there to help employment-seekers find the ideal job, but few designed to help young people avoid the common pitfalls of educational work. With the help of two career counselors, here is a plan for avoiding an internship that will leave you unhappy, unenriched, and generally burned-out.
With an effective search process, students and young people can find jobs well-suited to their own strengths and interests, and plan better for a future in the workforce.
1. Cast a wide net
The entire process of figuring out what to do over the summer can be so intimidating that students put it off for months, letting opportunities pass them by and leaving them with little control over how to spend their time off from school. Valinda Lee, a career counselor at Scripps College thinks that students can take some pressure off themselves by looking through a wide lens. Lee defines internships broadly, including “any substantive experience that gets you exposed to or experienced with the field you are interested.” This means an internship doesn’t have to be a 40-hour per week thing; it “might mean volunteering part-time, or working on your Spanish, or working in a coffee shop.”
Pursuing a range of opportunities will also help if plans fall through. If your first choice is an internship with a think tank in Washington, D.C., and your second is taking classes at a local college, then devoting all your time to planning for your summer in the District might leave you disappointed. Thinking realistically about how to make the most of your summer days can greatly lessen the sting of a rejection letter.
2. Consider the little things
Prospective interns should also not undervalue relaxation. School can be difficult and stressing, and if one starts the summer burnt out, a challenging job is only going to leave them returning to school as stressed as ever. Linda Bunch, a career counselor at Pitzer College worries about how ignoring this can take a toll on students. “I see a lot of depression in students whose lives are just push, push, push,” she says. This isn’t to say that all students should (or would want to) spend their summers relaxing poolside, but time off is an important part of staying sane.
To make this happen, both Bunch and Lee suggest bringing up vacation requests early on with your employer. It may feel awkward, but the recession has changed what students can reasonably ask for, according to Lee. “Fewer employers are willing to hire paid interns, but more are willing to be flexible with unpaid interns,” she says.
3. Ask specific questions
“During the interview process, it is just as important for the student to interview the employer as it is for the employer to interview the student,” says Lee. Asking for the details of your employment is not rude, and it shows a genuine interest in the position. If the details are unclear during the interview, you can always ask to follow up with someone who knows or ask the interviewer to get back to you. If no one seems to know or people don’t want to get back to you, that’s a good sign that the employment is neither well organized nor guaranteed.
“People need to learn to trust their guts because each circumstance is different,” says Bunch, who advises students to stay away if something doesn't feel right. Asking the right questions requires some preparation, and Lee suggests using Facebook to find former interns from prospective employers. She says students are often responsive to these requests because they’ll be able to relate with your plight.
4. Consider how you can communicate the experience to others
Whatever students choose to do for the summer, it’s useful to think ahead about how to convey in conversation and on résumés what they actually learned. “Doing [a crazy trip to Europe] can be just as résumé building as a full-time internship,” says Lee, but it may not initially sound that way on paper. Students who plan their own trip, raise outside funding, or help others become involved in their travels should say so to employers, rather than simply, “I toured Western Europe.” Getting involved in the organization of a trip shows initiative, which Lee says is one of the top five characteristics employers look for in candidates.
5. Have positive but realistic expectations
Starting the search process with the right expectations can go a long way toward preventing disaster. Lee says her time spent working with students has taught her that the worst searches happen when students’ expectations are disconnected from the realities of what is available. Not all students will find just what they are looking for, and it can take a long time for those who do to secure a full-time job. “Students forget how much time it will take to find something,” warns Lee. “It can feel like everyone has it figured out, but most people don’t.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean job-seekers should accept whatever comes their way. “Don’t accept something just because it’s there,” says Lee. “If you aren’t excited about the job, then you aren’t going to enjoy it.”
It might seem hard to walk away if you don’t have anything lined up, but putting yourself through a nightmarish internship just to fill a line on your résumé is seldom worth the anguish that comes with it.
Andrew Bluebond is a staff writer for Campus Progress. He attends Claremont McKenna College.
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