Part of the internship center collection of articles.
Because internships can take on so many guises-from the formal to the informal, the paid to the unpaid-finding the one that is right for you might seem like a Herculean task. The possibilities seem, and nearly are, endless. Many potential interns begin the process feeling overwhelmed as they try to prioritize their search in terms of interest, function, location, prestige, amenities, hours, and pay. The article below will guide you through the thought process and steps characteristic of a successful internship search.
Your First Step: Reflection
My first recommendation is to forgo centering your search on the eye-catching but superficial qualities of prestige, amenities, hours, and pay. Instead, concentrate on the opportunity to perform substantive work in a field of choice. Undergraduates in particular, often don’t give enough consideration to what field really interests them. They prefer instead to apply to a range of internships, usually those listed in popular internship “bibles,” because they believe that practically any internship with a large company in a metropolitan area will provide them with “direction” and a valuable, marketable experience.
While internship bibles and guides can play an important role in locating an internship that fits your unique ambitions and character, you can make the most of your internship search by first thinking carefully about your ambitions and goals. This kind of reflection will often narrow your search considerably. For example, instead of applying for every paid internship with every company you can find, you might apply only to advertising firms. Likewise, if you are interested in the public sector, instead of applying to every prominent foundation and organization, you might apply only to those focusing on election reform. Thinking about your goals BEFORE you begin your internship search will give you the confidence not to waste time and energy seeking internships in which you have no genuine interest.
Starting the Search: Survey the Scene
Once you have narrowed your search to a particular field (health care policy) or function (accounting), survey the scene. Visit a local bookstore or library and dedicate an afternoon to looking through internship directories, or “bibles.” Publications like The Internship Bible, America’s Top Internships, The National Directory of Internships, and Peterson’s Internships, are valuable because they offer you an opportunity to scan internships by field and-or location. You might also pull books off the shelves that refer to careers in your area of interest. Sometimes, internship information is included in these books. Even if it isn’t, you might, for example, walk away with a list of companies doing advertising work for record labels. Take notes on possibilities that pique your interest, but use this exercise to give your search a foundation, not a conclusion.
You might also survey the scene online by visiting prominent internship sites like WetFeet.com and MonsterTrak.com (formerly JobTrak). These sites will offer you up-to-date information about internship opportunities and will be more comprehensive than printed guides, which often focus on prominent and established programs rather than on start-ups, non-profits, and small businesses.
Going the Distance: Networking
Once you have an idea of what opportunities are available, your work begins in earnest. Unless you are interested in a very narrow field, you probably have a variety of programs and opportunities to choose from. Networking can help you uncover hidden gems and narrow the programs to which you will apply.
Networking, while the word sounds formal, can be nothing more than asking professors and peers about their experiences and recommendations. Asking for advice from a career counselor at your school or attending a job fair is an obvious place to start, but few internship seekers branch out to network with the people who are most familiar to them: parents, older siblings, fellow alumni, roommates, and friends of friends. If you are currently enrolled at an academic institution, consult professors, section leaders, and researchers affiliated with programs close to your field. You might be surprised how eager people are to talk with you and offer you advice.
You should also mention your internship search when striking up conversations. Informal dialogues have the distinction of being the most overlooked (and the most fertile) avenue for internship seekers. For example, you might find out that a friend’s parent works at a prominent think-tank and is looking for a summer research assistant. Your friend will not only be able to put you in direct contact with his parent, but provide the “personal touch” that often makes all the difference. Likewise, the gentleman in the suit seated next to you on your flight home for Spring Break with the WSJ logo on his carry-on might be able to hook you up with the internship of your dreams! Share the fact you are searching with everyone you meet.
Networking offers you the opportunity not only to get the inside scoop on prominent internships, but to discover internships that you didn’t even know existed.
Improvisation: Internships Out-of-the-Box
While “bibles”tell you what internships are the most popular and networking will alert you to unpublicized internship opportunities, these avenues still overlook a source of incredibly rewarding internships: those that are intern-initiated. For those willing to think outside of the box, the rewards can be staggering.
By “intern-initiated,” I mean that you should not limit your search simply to programs that exist. Although intern-initiated internships are often unpaid, they often reap greater dividends in terms of experience and “fit” because you, yourself, shaped the parameters of your experience.
If, in the course of your research, you come across organizations or companies that capture your interest, approach them and offer your skills and time in exchange for your ability to learn more about their work. You might offer the firm evidence that you have particular experiences or values that the firm can use. Consider proposing a specific project or area of interest that you would like to pursue. Be transparent about what you hope to gain from your internship and talk about what you hope to learn from your time with the firm. The fact that you are there to learn, as well as to work, distinguishes you (particularly in the public sector) from someone who is merely volunteering their time.
If you aren’t sure how you would arrive at ideas for intern-initiated internships, you might just start reading trade journals in your area of interest and keep your eyes open as you go through your daily routine. Reading about your industry, for example, will not only give you a sense of where your ambitions might be headed, but it will offer you the names of companies that are doing cutting-edge work, or that are active in your area. If the company has exciting entry-level positions, you might approach them with an internship proposal that might train you for those positions. Similarly, if you live and work in Los Angeles and happen to read an article in the Los Angeles Times about how the mayor is starting a civil rights commission, you might approach the mayor’s office and ask for the staff member in charge of the commission. You might explain how you have a special interest in civil rights, are bilingual, and are writing your senior thesis on police brutality. Could you observe the commission at work and do outreach into the Hispanic community? They answer might just be, “Yes.”
Once you open your mind to the possibilities of an intern-initiated experience, chances are you will be pursuing at least one or two opportunities that you have come up with entirely on your own.
Narrowing the Field: Before You Apply
If you have done your homework well, you will have a number of opportunities before you. Most likely you will have several “piles” of information: the formal internship programs that are widely published and have firm deadlines and requirements; internships you located online some of which you have detailed information and others for which you need to place calls; information on companies or organizations with whom you are interested in working but have to formal internship program; and a stack of business cards, cocktail napkins, and email that are a result of your “networking.”
Narrow your search by combing through this material and making decisions about which opportunities to pursue. Recenter your thought process on the opportunity to perform substantive work in a field of choice. Even if your interests have shifted since you began the process, try to stay focused on what internships offer you the best opportunity to do the kind of work you are most interested in doing.
This is also the time to begin factoring in components like location and pay, if you haven’t done so already. Be honest about where you want to be and whether you can afford to work for free. Remember to explore options like living at home, taking out a loan, or obtaining funding from an outside source. If the work you are interested in doesn’t pay or isn’t in New York City, but you are committed to that work, then sacrifices might be in order. Maybe living at home in the suburbs but commuting into downtown is an acceptable compromise.
If you refuse to work in the Midwest, however, don’t apply for an internship in Milwaukee no matter how great the internship sounds. This comment might seem obvious, but so many internship seekers apply to internships they would never accept unless it was a “last resort.” Many applicants also harbor the mistaken impression that internships that they are less interested in (those that are in less desirable locations or that don’t pay), are somehow “easier” to get. The result is that seekers spread themselves too thin and don’t end up following through. Keep in mind that most internships are equally competitive. Just because you don’t really want to work in Des Moines doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of people who do (and who will show up for an in-person interview!)
Sort through your piles and create a single, manageable pile of internships that you would actually accept if they were offered to you. Begin to gather all the information you will need to apply to those internships. For companies that you are interested in, but which you are not sure offer internships, find a phone number or an email address for a recruiter and make contact. If you don’t get through or don’t get a response, keep trying. Make sure you have a list of deadlines, qualifications, and required materials. Complete your research early. Your foresight will ensure that when you sit down to actually apply that you have all the information you need.
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