Internships have come under fire recently, especially the unpaid positions companies have used to avoid hiring people to do the very jobs that interns will do for free. That’s a relatively new ground for criticism, but the internship experience has never been free of complaints. For as long as there have been interns, there have been mutterings that the experience was supposed to be something more than getting coffee and organizing files.
While there’s certainly truth to those criticisms, it’s equally certain that there’s value to be found in almost any internship, especially if you’re willing to look for it. Once you find it, you have to take advantage of your opportunity, and you have to learn to use it for all it’s worth.
It’s not just about adding a line to your résumé
Every internship can be an opportunity to learn about an industry from the inside. No matter what you’ve learned in school, the gulf between the academy and the real world is often vast. And every internship, regardless of what you’re doing, is an opportunity to perform well in the workplace setting. The impression you make is something that can matter now and in the future.
Even “menial” tasks have their place
Everyone has to start somewhere, and there’s profound truth to the notion that any task worth doing is worth doing well. If you’re relegated to routine drudgery, that’s hardly ideal. It’s natural to want to do more, but “grumbling and resentful intern” is not a good look for anyone.
Volunteer, but be smart about it
Be aware of opportunities to participate in projects when you have the chance. Don’t expect employers to lay out a lavish selection of opportunities for you. You may have to look for those opportunities, and you may have to ask, especially if you’re at a company that doesn’t have a robust internship program.
At the same time, don’t overload yourself with so many tasks that you’re scrambling to do any of them well, and be very careful about showing so much initiative that you’re doing things no one has asked you to do. You may think you have the perfect solution for a desperate need, but there may be unintended consequences you can’t even imagine. Your good intentions won’t save the day.
When it comes to business relationships, aim high
That doesn’t mean you have to become best buddies with the CEO, although that probably wouldn’t hurt. It does mean that you should keep an eye out for a potential mentor, someone who seems interested in you and who can offer a seasoned perspective on what’s happening around you. Not everyone wants to be a mentor, and not everyone can fill the role effectively, but making a real connection with the right person can do wonders. It’s not something you can force, but it’s a possibility you should always bear in mind.
Learn one of the most powerful professional lessons
Beyond mentoring, take advantage of the networking opportunities all around you. Regardless of what you’re doing in the office, in the lab, on the factory floor, or in the field, you’re meeting people in your industry. That alone has value. In any business, it’s all about relationships. This is the time when you can start making connections and building a professional network. If your internship gets that process under way, it’s been worth it.
According to a recent study, there’s a big difference between paid and unpaid internships when it comes to hiring. Only 39.5% of unpaid interns received post-internship job offers, a rate less than a percentage point above the rate for students who had never interned at all. Paid internships, on the other hand, resulted in a hiring rate of 65.4%.
Does that mean you should shun unpaid internships? No, because it all comes down to this in the end: what you get out of an internship, paid or not, will depend on what you’re willing to put into it, and even an unpaid internship can pay lasting dividends. It all depends on your approach, so make the most of it, and remember that a paycheck isn't all there is to gain.