Rate this article and enter to win
Millions of higher education degrees are awarded every year in the U.S. alone. So how do you set yourself apart from other students and graduates when looking for a job?
“If a new graduate wishes to attain a job, he or she really needs to display relevant work experience,” says Carolyn Yencharis Corcoran, assistant director of the Insalaco Center for Career Development at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania. As she warns, “Students who have not landed a job, or sometimes even an interview, six months to a year after graduation are usually those who did not do an internship or work at a job that was relevant to their major during college.”
Andrea St. James, a career counselor at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts, agrees. She explains that an internship “gives you the opportunity to take what you’re learning in the classroom and tie it together with the real world.” Working outside the classroom complements your academic program, expanding your scope of knowledge and introducing pertinent skills.
Find the Right Place
Many different types of internships can be useful. These days, it’s common to get rejected from some potential opportunities, so keeping a few on the back burner is a good idea.
Consult other students and instructors for recommendations. Your peers may have worked at a company or with a professor, and can guide you to useful positions.
Professors and academic advisors have likely had internships during their careers, and can provide suggestions about where and when to look, as well as how to make a lasting impression. St. James works with forensic students who sometimes nab highly coveted intern positions but then find themselves doing administrative tasks because they don’t have the experience to use the lab tools. (But even doing this type of thing can lead to more meaningful work later.) When considering whether an internship is right for you, make sure to ask questions about what you’ll actually be doing.
Here are some sample questions to ask when considering an internship
- What are the company’s goals in having an intern?
- Does the organization have specific projects for you in mind?
- To whom will you report?
- Are there other interns?
- Will you focus in one area or will you have a chance to experience the work of a few departments?
- Will you work on any group projects?
- Are there opportunities to work directly with the public?
- What have interns in the past gained while working there?
- How many hours a week are they looking for?
Internships are actually quite plentiful in most communities. Companies are looking for fresh energy at low (or no) cost and recognize that training students provides professional development for employees as well. Start by contacting your campus Career Center to explore listings. Most schools have established relationships with organizations that regularly take students under their wings.
You can also speak with friends, family members, and mentors—or attend conferences and talks for networking. While some may worry about nepotism, the truth is that in the work world, winning a position often comes down to who you know. Connections won’t make you qualified, but they do get your foot in the door.
Oftentimes, the most rewarding internship experience can be gained just by walking across campus. “Students tend to forget that a college operates very much like a business, and they can gain a lot of the same experience on campus as they can off campus,” says St. James.
On-campus internships can be a boon for students who don’t have the means or extra time to travel based on their academic and extracurricular commitments. Areas such as facilities management, dining services, libraries, and health centers offer a detail-focused atmosphere. If a research and teaching career is more your speed, working with a professor on research, grant writing, or conference preparation can offer a window into the life of an academic.
Think Outside Your Box
Steven G., a recent graduate of South Dakota State University, interned with the Walt Disney Company. The position had a prestigious name behind it, but a job description that was not quite in line with his future aspirations. Steven was smart; many skills can be gained through various types of work, and sometimes the connections you make—and the company you will list on your résumé—are just as important. Steven says he focused on honing and developing the skills the internship required, such as organization and time management, that “could be used later down the line.”
Matt E., a student at the University of Denver, was pursuing biotechnology, but made connections and networked in the information technology field, too. This paved the way for his hobby to become his career. As he says, “You never know where opportunities will present themselves.”
Focus on Developing Skills
Start by identifying what you’d like to gain by having an internship. Do you want to experience the work environment in a particular field? Are you hoping to make professional connections? Are you aiming to learn about behind-the-scenes operations, enhance your writing skills, practice your customer service, or work with children?
Corcoran suggests the following: “When you are planning out your semester, make a couple of lists regarding where you are going to apply.” She encourages students to have a few potential plans in mind. One position might be filled; another might not be what you expected.
Make the Most Of It
No matter what you find, any internship or other learning experience is only as good as what you put into it. Some students think that they just need to show up at an internship—any internship—to fulfill a degree requirement or have it on their résumé. But Corcoran warns, “These are not good reasons to participate in an internship. First and foremost, seek the most relevant, interesting, and challenging internship possible, not something that is simply convenient.”
Remember the forensic students St. James advises? “They’re shredding documents,” she says, “and filing and organizing. I tell them that the trick is to ask: Why does this need to be shredded? What is the purpose of organizing these files?” which provides meaning to an otherwise unremarkable task. Just make sure to inquire using a positive tone, one that demonstrates curiosity and willingness to learn, rather than frustration.
Often, it’s the intention behind what you’re asked to do, or the overall goal to which it contributes, that will interest you. Ask to shadow different people or follow a project from start to finish. It never hurts to ask, and in fact, showing your interest, curiosity, and flexibility will make you a desirable future employee—whether you want a position with the company or just a glowing recommendation.
Internships are an essential part of your overall learning experience. They provide an insiders’ view of your field of interest, help you make professional connections, and build your toolbox of talents and skills. Consider a wide range of opportunities, and you could wind up finding a direction you hadn’t even thought of before.
Learn Corocoran's ABC's of finding an internship that matches your goal
“A” List: Companies and organizations where you would absolutely love to have an internship. Corcoran notes, “These could be [those] that pay well (or pay at all), are with a prestigious company, or are very targeted towards the field you would like to go into after graduation.”
“B” list: Internships that are less appealing to you for whatever reason. “They may not offer [pay] or they may not be as prestigious, but you could still gain the specific experience you are seeking,” she says.
“C” list: Positions, internships, or volunteer experiences that are relevant but imperfect, “like being the accounting intern at your Uncle Stanley’s pig farm and hotdog emporium, for no pay,” Corcoran laughs, “You get the picture.”
- Consider both on- and off-campus opportunities.
- Be open-minded when considering options. You can learn many of the same skills through different organizations and companies.
- Ask questions to find out what you’ll be doing in a position.
- Network. Use connections to learn about opportunities in your area of interest.
- Make a good impression: take on requests willingly. Ask questions to learn how tasks and projects fit together.
- Show curiosity, flexibility, and creativity for the best experience.
Get help or find out more
From Campus to Career
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning