There's no such thing as the perfect internship. But you can figure out which one aligns best with your career goals, and then tap your own initiative to turn that internship into an experience that will grab the attention of future employers.
Take It or Leave It?
How do you judge the potential value of a particular internship, especially when you're still exploring your options? You can consider all kinds of criteria, of course, with pay (or lack thereof) one of them. But three other key questions top the list for college and university career services professionals:
1. What Specific Experiences Will You Have During the Internship?
This question is particularly important to ask yourself when you're trying to decide between a generalist internship at a large, well-known organization and a more content-specific internship at a smaller, unfamiliar company.
"Quite often, students get so excited about opportunities to intern at well-known organizations that they may overlook some of the main objectives of an internship, which are to gain experience, the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills, the opportunity for professional growth and the opportunity to interact with professionals in their field," says Virginia Tavera-Delgado, assistant director of career services at Washington State University.
"Eventually, students are going to have to elaborate about their internship experiences in a job interview," she adds. "At that point, the company's name may not be relevant."
2. Who Will Your Internship Supervisor Be?
"A supervisor has a huge impact on the student's internship experience," says Tavera-Delgado. "So it's important for students to find out as much as they can about their [prospective] internship supervisor."
Other students from your school may have interned for the organization you're targeting, under the same person you'd be working under. Or perhaps one of your professors or a campus career counselor knows this person. If so, says Tavera-Delgado, ask essential questions about:
1. How long the person has supervised interns.
2. How many interns the person supervises each semester.
3. What the person's working style is.
4. The types of projects the person assigns to interns.
5. How many past interns the supervisor has recommended for full-time, permanent jobs with the company.
"An experienced supervisor will provide interns with opportunities for learning and networking, assign projects that require independent responsibility and provide an honest and constructive critique of the intern's work," Tavera-Delgado says.
3. What Key Skills Will You Learn from the Internship?
This question is trickier than it sounds, for while it's up to the internship organization and your supervisor there to give you the formal opportunity to build the essential skills you'll need in your future career, it's also up to you to create chances to build those skills, says Jerry Houser, director of the Career Development Center at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California.
"Ask the boss if you can attend extra meetings," Houser says. "Ask if there's a project you can help out with. Ask the manager if there's an opportunity to do a presentation, help with a PowerPoint, sit in on a sales pitch or join the noon-hour Toastmasters club nearby. Almost any internship or job is a platform for students to practice and gain the experiences and skills they need to develop."
But how do you know ahead of time which experiences and skills matter most? You can research job descriptions you find interesting using tools like MonsterTRAK's entry-level job search. "Circle the skills and experiences each company wants," Houser says. "Then seek opportunities to develop those skills during your internship."
You won't be able to accomplish everything, and you'll almost certainly be saddled with some grunt work in any internship. But if you ask the right questions beforehand and uncover informed answers to them, you'll find the internship that's perfect for your future career.