Not All Internships Are Created Equal: 3 Tips to Help You Pick the Right One
Forget Revenge of the Nerds. With all the lawsuits against companies like Fox Searchlight1 and Conde Nast,2 it has become revenge of the unpaid interns. And they are winning. While TIME says the Black Swan ruling is “The Beginning of the End of the Unpaid Internship,”3 it won’t stop internships from being a normal part of our culture.
Yes, there are internships that make you feel like wearing frosting all over you would be more beneficial, but (and this is coming from someone who participated in two of them) there are others that make you realize just how valuable your education and skills are. Internships are the missing piece in that catch-22 argument about getting experience when they won’t hire you. The bad side to this solution? Not—I repeat—NOT all internships are created equal.
It is your responsibility as the applicant to understand what you are volunteering for. Here are 3 tips to help you figure out how to succeed while at an internship.
1. Treat finding an internship like finding a job.
Internships are supposed to give you real-world experience in the industry, right? Combine that industry experience with job-searching experience. Research the company, build your resume, and most importantly, ask questions.
My first internship was unpaid in Washington, D.C. However, my university was so serious about the program we had to take a 3-hour-a-week prep course for 4 months before we ever left. I created my own resumes and cover letters. I researched each company and the position. I even interviewed a previous intern from one of the companies I was applying at. (Highly recommend this one!)
Not all internships have a strenuous interview process. In fact, for my first internship, the employer took one look at my resume and accepted me without even talking to me on the phone. In these cases, it is even more imperative to ask questions. What does a typical day look like? What duties will I be responsible for? Have you had past interns get jobs in your company? I didn’t ask these things with my second internship and had a less than lackluster experience. If you want to work in graphic arts, but your entire internship consists of coffee runs and print pick-ups, then it may be a waste of time. It isn’t that office tasks make an internship worthless, but make sure that is not the only thing you are going to acquire. If you are working for free, the only capital you’re getting is experience and connections. Know what you are getting in for.
2. Trust is not just given. Earn it!
I was working full-time, four days a week as an editing department intern for a travel magazine, and they only gave me one task for three weeks: updating and maintaining the database information. It wasn’t that doing this task bothered me, but I wanted more responsibility, and it certainly wasn’t keeping me fully occupied for the entire day. I wanted to get editing and magazine experience. I would leave work every day feeling like I had wasted all my time coming out there.
As the monthly deadline approached, all three editors were scrambling to compile pictures, finish their pieces, and correct all the edits. Meanwhile, I was trying to create stuff for me to do across the hall. I knew I could be of value to them. Finally, I walked into an office and asked, “Is there anything I can help you edit?” While she looked a little skeptical, she gave me a calendar page to fact-check. About an hour later, I returned the paper having checked every link and marked every error. With wide eyes her response was, “You know editing marks?” I had put this on my resume, but apparently that had slipped their minds.
All interns aren’t created equal either, and once I had proved myself worthy (literally), there was no turning back. They had me write four sidebars. I was responsible for image gathering, fact-checking, and editing. I live-tweeted from events, and did many other things. Even though it was a small office with little chance of employment thereafter, the experience was invaluable.
Talk to them about the experience you want to have, and fight to show you’re capable of it.
3. Gladly accept any task you’re given.
No one is above office tasks—especially in a small office. I only worked with three people. Yes, I got to participate in some amazing activities while there, but I was also responsible for helping out with the mail. One time our computers were down, and I helped my boss go through her paper files. Your attitude is as important as your skill set when on the job and when applying. Give them a reason to trust you and give you more responsibility. Start practicing a professional demeanor when you are given less than luxurious responsibilities.