Internships are marketed to college students as the golden ticket to a successful career. In many career fields, this seems to hold true. In my experience, internship don’t always live up to your expectations. In my third year at university, I applied for a federal internship.
I was skeptical I would be selected and applied mostly to confirm my insecurities about life after college.
When I received the first call to schedule an interview, I was elated. Before even pressing the wrinkles out of my favorite blazer (or being officially selected), I developed a detailed image of walking the streets of Washington D.C., striking up an intelligent conversation with someone who worked on The Hill, and the imaged flashed forward to a life with the power to end poverty with my words.
At this point, it was decided. I needed this internship in order to be successful, and of course, end poverty.
I researched everything I could find online about phone interviews, scoured forums discussing common questioned asked for this particular internship, and developed interesting talking points based on current events of the department. I was ready, terrified, and experiencing high blood pressure.
During the interview, it became painfully clear the person on the other end of the line was reading from a prompt. Usually, interviews are your chance to stand out and make an impression, but a person reading from a script will miss anything that isn’t on the here-is-exactly-what-we-are-looking-for checklist.
So, I provided cookie-cutter answers and hung up the phone. returning to my non-Washington D.C. life with my expectations at a reasonable, realistic level. I felt a wash of dread when I realized it would be expensive to stay in D.C. for three months.
A few weeks later, I receive an extensively detailed email describing the process to complete my internship “hiring” paperwork. Imagine my surprise! It was a long, invasive list of questions, and yet filled my heart with hope.
Ultimately, my internship with the federal agency didn’t live up to my expectations.
I did live in Washington D.C. for three months. I met many people who worked on the hill (mostly overworked interns and entry level college grads). I learned a lot about how government offices operate and how to progress in that career field. Mostly, my internship was a recruiting tool for a very specific soul sucking federal job. Oddly enough, many interns were interested in that career field.
My boss, and more specifically the department to which I was assigned, was not prepared to have an intern that spring. This is a department that usually takes on an intern three semesters a year and still did not have a plan in place to take full advantage of an intern.
Eventually, I befriended an employee from the IT department who was previously an intern in the department I was interning. Before you start to believe the title of this post has mislead you, know he is the exception, not the rule.
His advice was to volunteer for anything, help anyone in the office, and always look busy.
What I’ve learned to be true in any work environment is “looking busy” means your time is perceived as more valuable. Think about this economically. If you have tons of time on your hands, it means demand for your time is low and ultimately worth very little. If your time seems to be in high demand, you will often be perceived as more valuable and competent. There is, of course, a balance at play here but the advice did help my intern experience become more valuable.
As an intern for an office processing document changes (aka paper pusher), I ended up assisting IT with multiple data system updates and testing of software changes. Despite the repetition involved in such work, it was an amazing opportunity, an experience that has fueled many projects I’ve worked on since.
After working with multiple people in the office on their unwanted tasks, I was tasked by the boss to develop and manage intern professional development opportunities. A big responsibility giving me excellent experience to discuss during future interviews.
All of this sounds great on paper, but I want to drive home the fact that I didn’t score a full-time job from the experience.
I don’t have companies or organizations pounding on my door with job offers. I still interview, and get rejected, a lot.Sometimes when I interview, I receive excellent feed back on my experience and qualifications. Sometimes I even am called “impressive.”
Still, the job hunt typically boils down to two major factors.
In my case, both factors directly correlate to my current employment status. My family obligations currently prevent me from moving to where the jobs are located. Also, it seems my persuasive argument to hire me for telecommute work isn’t effective (as of yet). And with the fierce competition, who wouldn’t hire the person who can offer an in-person commitment.
Still, internships are not worthless.
If you look at the experience as an investment wherein you may have some unexpected expenses (metaphorically and physically), you are more likely to reap the most from the experience.
However, organizations should also view their internship programs like a valuable resource that must continually evolve.
Human Resource departments and department heads continue to point to a lack of qualified talent in their applicant pools citing college grads are not ready for new workforce needs. And yet, many internship programs are still designed for an outdated workforce they will not hire. Instead, interns are being utilized as a temp agency with little intention to hire.
While not always the golden ticket, internships vary in value. Consider your time valuable not matter how in demand (or unemployed) your time is.
Your time is monumentally valuable. Spend it wisely.
And spend two minutes of your valuable time watching my tongue-in-check video below on the life of an intern.