More than ever, a college degree (or even a graduate degree!) does not a career make. You need to back up what you know with hands-on experience and proof that you know how to perform the job. And the best way to do that is by procuring an internship in your field. (Pro tip: Don’t get an internship at a place or field of business in which you have no interest in pursuing a career. You will waste your time and their time, and it will be almost meaningless when you try to use it to leverage for a job in an unrelated field.)
Here are eight things to keep in mind when it comes to internships:
1. Seek advice before choosing an internship
And not just from your parents. Although they know you well, they may not know school-you or career-you and what drives you. Talk to your instructors, friends, and fellow students, suggests Heidi Nolta, director of career services at The Art Institute of Raleigh. (Most colleges have career guidance centers on campus that can provide plenty of resources.) Ask them if they know of any companies that are hiring or that they may be a good fit. Your professor may have a connection at a certain place and may even offer to make a call or send a recommendation letter on your behalf.
2. Find a place that pays
Even if it’s just minimum wage. In fact, unpaid internships are sometimes illegal so work for a company that isn’t looking for free labor. (What’s more, paid interns are more likely to get hired so win-win.) However, if your dream internship is unpaid, make sure it follows six legal requirements including that it does not replace the roles of paid employees, that it does provide educational training, and that both you and your employer fully understand that you will not be receiving pay.
3. Find an internship that teaches marketable skills
For the most part, gone are the days of running errands and fetching coffee. But if you are doing assistant-type work, at least strive to intern at a place that counterbalances personal errands with actual learning opportunities like sitting in on meetings or coordinating the social media pages. You need (and deserve) to be in a place that values you as an intern and wants to see you learn and blossom throughout your tenure. "I prepare a ‘curriculum’ for my interns (e.g., ‘By the end of the summer, you will be able to do x, y, and z.’), says Nancy Shenker, Founder and CEO of theONswitch and author of Don’t Hook Up With the Dude in the Next Cube: 200+ Career Secrets for 20-Somethings. "When you graduate, prospective employers are going to want to know what you can do." But don’t turn your nose up at assignments that are less than thrilling. Some tasks will be glamorous and others will be taxing, but it’s important that you take it all in stride and learn what you can from each assignment.
4. Know what your prospective employer is looking for
Whether it’s expertise in specific software programs, social media, or risk management, employers know what skill sets they want and need and hire those who have them, according to an analysis by Burning Glass Technologies. And while most internships are still aimed at undergraduates, science and IT Development postings are increasingly geared towards grad students.
5. Ask questions during the interview
Because not all internships are the same, it’s important to do your research and due diligence prior to accepting the position. And during the interview process, ask questions to ensure it’s the right fit, says Nolta. She suggests asking questions like:
Regarding my work schedule, are weekends expected?
Is my schedule flexible, especially around classes or exams?
Will I have a mentor? If so, what will that partnership look like?
I have a portfolio I would like to improve. Will this internship be hands-on so I can update it?
Will I primarily be working alone or on a team?
Do I need to have my own equipment? Phone, laptop, car?
What, if any, has the company’s experience been like with other interns? Are there examples of any work or projects that they have completed?
6. Intern for a company that has strong conversion rates
Because although pay and hands-on experience are important in an internship, so, too, is the employer’s conversion rates, says Steven Rothberg, President and Founder of College Recruiter. When deciding on an internship, do some research on the employer (check out the company’s website, LinkedIn page, or Glassdoor reviews) and look at how often their interns find careers there after graduation: "What percentage of interns from last year and the year before were offered permanent positions upon graduation? An employer who offers 75 percent of its interns jobs upon graduation uses its internship program as a recruiting tool, and that's good for the intern," says Rothberg.
7. Have an open mind
And ignore any pre-conceived ideas about what you think you want. For example, you may think you want to work for a large corporation (because that’s where the money is, right?). But if you give interning at a small business a chance, you might like knowing everyone’s name at work and feeling that you’re part of a team and making a valuable contribution, says Nolta.
8. Be a sponge
Soak it all in. Remember, you’re not an employee, you’re an intern. Take the opportunity to work, yes, but also absorb and observe everything, says Nolta: "Note management styles that you believe are effective and ones that aren’t. Then, when you are running the show, remember those valuable leadership lessons."
While in college – or even post-college if you’re thinking of changing careers – get an internship or two to stand out from the crowd. Not only can it help you land a job, it will give you a chance to meet other like-minded individuals and make great connections in your field. By seeking advice, doing research, and asking the right questions during your interview, you’ll surely find the perfect one for you. And while you’re there, enjoy yourself. Work hard, of course, but learn, absorb, and thrive so you can be ahead of the game when you start applying for jobs.
Image: Nirzar Pangarkar