Internships and Co-ops Q&A

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Internships and co-ops are really more than jobs; they're learning experiences. One of the great things about them is that you win no matter what you do, because virtually any experience is good experience.

When you first arrive on campus, you have plenty to worry about: finding your classes, meeting new people, scavenging for snacks at 2:00 a.m. But if you aren't thinking about internships and co-ops yet, you should be.

In four years or so when hiring managers look at your postgraduate résumé, they may glance at your GPA and maybe even the classes you listed. But what they’re really looking for is experience. So how can you, as an undergrad, get the experience you need? Internships and cooperative education.

Internships and co-ops are really more than jobs; they’re learning experiences. You can use them to sample multiple companies, or even industries, to see what you want in a career. And one of the great things about them is that you win no matter what you do, because virtually any experience is good experience.

Why get an internship?

Many students add internships to their schedules on top of other part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, classes, and homework—even as freshmen. Why do they give up their free time to do more work? Because, in general, internships are worth it.

“Students who supplement their classroom work with an internship have the opportunity to gain career-related work experience, clarify career options, earn money to offset college expenses, obtain exposure to the ‘real world’ of work (its expectations and variety of opportunities), realize increased job opportunities upon graduation, and acquire networking opportunities with professionals in their chosen field,” says Sharon St. Germain, Director of the Springer Center for Excellence in Internships at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.

Q & A: Internships and Co-ops

Matt Tiano recently graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, with a degree in sports journalism, and even professional sports writers would envy his internships. Tiano sat on press row, conducted interviews of NBA players, and found himself in ESPN studios when he worked as a Web writer and content manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves during their 2007–2008 season. He also spent a summer as a communications intern for the New York Red Bulls Major League Soccer team.

“Just ask questions. Find different types of mentors,” Tiano says. His passion for sports led him to those jobs, but he doesn’t actually want to continue working in journalism. And that’s perfectly okay. Many students go on to careers outside their internship experience, and Tiano says the skills he developed will guide him in any career he chooses.

Did you know that you could also earn college credit for your internship? The academic advising center or registrar typically needs to approve of the job first, but those extra credits can lead to more freedom in your class selection or, better yet, to saving tuition dollars.

What do interns do?

The role of intern varies so much from company to company that it’s basically impossible to define a set of common responsibilities. Yes, interns sometimes do menial tasks like making copies, but that often leads to more advanced work. And, as they say, you need to pay your dues.

“Students need a very positive, willing-to-do-and-learn-anything attitude,” says Alice Martin, Director of the Career Development Center at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. “The student needs to show the employer he made a wise hiring decision.”

Interns at large, high-profile companies may do a lot of filing and trips to the post office—but they also get to learn from industry leaders. On the other hand, interns at small startup companies may be assigned many important (sometimes stressful) tasks because of staff shortages—but they also leave with an unmatched variety of skills.

And how would you like to graduate with a job offer in hand? “Many employers use their internship programs as a pipeline for future hires,” says St. Germain, so it’s important to make a good impression.

How do you find an internship?

“Students need to approach the internship search with focus and knowledge of what arena they prefer,” says Martin. Basically, it helps to know what you’re looking for. If you have specific jobs in mind, sign up for internship e-mail alerts from job sites. Better yet, research companies in the industry and reach out to them personally, whether they post internships or not.

“Networking is by far the most effective thing,” says Annalee Letchinger, an undergraduate career counselor for the University of Chicago. She recommends visiting your school’s alumni or career services office to ask about job shadowing programs or the possibility of meeting with alumni in your field. Even an informational interview can lead to an internship.

Q & A: Internships and Co-ops

Or you could use your existing connections to network your way to an internship like Jenny Rapp, a senior at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. An accounting and German major, she wanted to use both of her skill sets. Working for the central auditing team at KPMG in Munich, Germany, definitely helped her do that!

Rapp was fortunate to have an uncle working at KPMG, which led her to such an ideal job. “This internship has been my biggest learning opportunity thus far and hopefully just the beginning of my career path,” she says.

Some of her responsibilities included preparing a training manual, creating PowerPoint presentations, and translating documents. “I was able to get a ‘test run’ of my possible future career,” Rapp says. “This just proved to me that what you learn in college applies to the real world.”

What kinds of internships are there?

Internships can be full or part time, paid or unpaid. Paid internships are great for your résumé and your bank account, and students often earn enough to pay for textbooks and fees. However, many companies have been forced to downsize their paid internship programs, if not discontinue them indefinitely, because of the economy.

As for which industries are hiring, Letchinger says there has been a definite decline in the financial sector. “We’re seeing an upsurge in marketing, the nonprofits,” she says. “We’re being more creative.”

Luckily, there are many incredible opportunities for students willing to work for free! For example, museums, art galleries, and concert halls are nonprofits that generally cannot afford to pay their interns. But for students looking for a career in the fine arts, there is hardly a better place to start. “Stay positive and be flexible,” says St. Germain. “There still are employers who are hiring!”

What about co-ops?

Think of cooperative education as a more intense version of internships. Students still get the same valuable experience, but there are a few key differences. While most internships are part time, co-ops are full time. Internships typically last one semester, while most co-ops last six months. (Usually, students alternate classes with co-op, and because they split their time between school and work, it may take five years or longer to graduate.) Finally, co-op students are almost always paid employees—and they’re usually paid well. Engineering co-ops can earn as much as $25 per hour!

But at the end of the day, “many employers truly don’t distinguish between co-op and internships,” says Nancy Hutchison, Director of Cooperative Education & Career Services at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania.

Just like interns, co-ops’ responsibilities run the gamut, and they need to embrace their job as a learning experience. “Students are dead in the water if they feel that they are above some tasks,” Hutchison says. Some students spend each semester of co-op in the same place, and some jump around, so they may encounter hugely different work environments and responsibilities.

That’s exactly what happened to Ian Smith. He graduated from Boston’s Northeastern University in 2009 with three co-ops under his belt: Raytheon Company, Foster-Miller, and Apple. The jobs couldn’t have been more different. He started with data entry, then worked with robots, and finally got to play with the one and only iPod.

“Co-op is important for a number of reasons,” Smith says. “It breaks up the academic work and gives you a little variety to your education. It allows you to see real, practical applications of the theory you learn in the classroom. And, most importantly, it teaches you exactly what you don’t want to do for the rest of your life.”

When it comes to extracurricular activities in college, you will have more options than you know what to do with. Fitting an internship in with sports practices, rehearsals, homework, or meetings might be tricky, but it might also be the perfect beginning to your ideal career.

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