What to Look for in an Internship?
The idea of apprenticeship and internship isn’t a new one. Apprenticeships have existed since the middle ages, and internships at least for the last century or so. Both of these are great ways of getting inducted into a chosen field by getting hands-on experience. But they have advantages that go beyond just exposure to the work and tasks.
The world of work has gotten extremely complex in the 21st century. We hence need to approach our careers with a well-thought-out approach that is more hands-on.
The purpose of this article is to provide the various parameters you need to consider if you’re seeking an internship or are already engaged in one so that you can make the most of it.
How to approach an internship?
It’s helpful to look at internships as pathways to whatever career goals we have.
Everyone wants different things from life and from their jobs. So the first step is to figure out our personal goals.
A useful analogy is that of a growing plant. Not all plants have the same requirements. Some need a lot of sunlight, while others need limited sun. And there are still others that thrive in low light. Some need a lot of water, while others die if they're over-watered. Some thrive in harsh environments, while others can't withstand extremes.
Individual needs and dispositions: Know yourself
It's the same for people in relation to our work as well. Some people need money for financial obligations. Others are undecided, so they want to explore and narrow their options. Some are inclined to network, while others are not.
It is critical to introspect and know one’s life-situation, needs, and personality when making any career decisions, including choosing an internship.
Hence, a crucial aspect to take into consideration is one’s personality and disposition. Different people thrive in different kinds of environments. For instance, not everyone is built for startups. Just like not everyone is built for a corporate environment.
To use the plant analogy again, some plants thrive in the desert (limited resources like a startup), and some thrive in the lush rain forest (with abundant resources, structure, and stability).
Truth is, you will need some time to figure out what kind of plant you are and what sort of environment you thrive in, and an internship is a great opportunity to explore that.
Don’t blindly follow others
What is a dangerous thing is to rule out possibilities based on other people’s experiences or what’s trending. For example, don't blindly rule out larger companies because they are ‘not cool’. Similarly, working with startups is really popular currently, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily is something that everyone will enjoy uniformly.
It’s not about working on exciting projects either. Some people are lucky to get unique and exciting projects in their internships. However, most people have to bear a few years of grunt work before they earn their stripes and get to a place before they move on to more exciting work.
What is important is to be mindful and patient with yourself. It’s crucial to value whatever learning and exposure that you are able to get access to during your internship and to build on that base for the future.
Environmental factors in an internship
Each plant has its own genetic make-up and requirements. However, it’s also the environmental conditions that decide whether the plant thrives or withers.
The way to leverage your internship is to use the environmental factors to the optimum.
- Your boss: Who will you be reporting to? Are they someone you see as a mentor that you can learn from? Even if they don't spend hours a week with you, watching a good mentor do their thing is very powerful exposure that can align your future in the right way.
- Your team: Colleagues with high caliber, passion, and energy also serve as great role models and energizers. These are also people who can become a part of your network for the future.
- Width and breadth of exposure: Besides people in your direct team, you need to see what all departments and initiatives you can get involved in. Smaller companies will be flexible and unstructured on this front. Also, you may not have time beyond your daily work. Larger companies typically have tons of projects and side initiatives happening across departments that you can put in a word for and contribute some time to learn new things. This will help you gain visibility with the right people in the right places.
- Culture: It’s important to identify a place that is keen to allow you to grow. This isn't always easy to figure out in the beginning, but takes some experience to learn how to gauge. However, it’s important to pay attention to the work culture during your internship to know what aspects you like or don’t. This perspective is helpful for future choices.
- Industry or domain: Is this a growing industry that you’re interested in and keen on? Do you like the problem(s) the company is solving? Where do you see yourself fitting in in the industry?
An internship helps you get your foot in the door. You can take this opportunity forward by making connections with the people in your team and other departments. And then utilize those connections to learn about the business and the different paths from them.
Having a casual coffee few times a week with different people, can benefit you immensely as you will gain multiple perspectives and hear different stories.
Experimenting during an internship
An internship is also the best time to experiment and move around. Experimentation at this stage is low stakes and extremely powerful; something that takes a lot more effort at a later stage of one’s career.
So very often people who aren’t very sure about which direction they want to move in, start in one department and end up in another. For example, from tech to marketing then to HR, and all kinds of places. This experimentation and exposure can be extremely valuable and can give you an insight into what it is that you truly resonate with and enjoy.
Of course this happens more easily when companies allow that kind of flexibility and if you are able to convince them. It also depends on the kind of company and the stage at which it is at.
A few people moving departments won't shift the balance too much for large companies.
For startups you would need you to do your job very well, because most likely they would be tight on resources. But then again, there is a lot less structure in startups as well., which is a plus point in that regard. If you can manage the exploration beyond your schedule, they would be happy to give you access because of the lack of rigidity and the fact that they are growing quickly. New spots in the pyramid open up quickly as they grow. So it really depends on how you play your cards once you get in.
Whether it is a startup or a large company, if as an intern you’re able to prove your worth and value, the organization may be keen on retaining you as well.
It’s a good idea to inquire after possible openings and positions that may be of interest to you.
Logistical aspects to consider
Besides making decisions based on self-awareness and environmental factors related to the company, there are also certain logistical and practical considerations such as:
- commute time/distance from the work place
- schedule flexibility: full-time/part-time (so that you can do other things on the side such as freelance, a second internship, personal activities, and so on)
- hiring/placement potential of the organization
These considerations will ensure that your decision is a well-thought-out one so that you don’t end up being unrealistic in your expectations of the internship experience.
The bottom line
To summarize, it's not just about the seed growing into a plant into a tree. It's also about the environment that allows it to grow in a certain direction.
Remember: besides the actual job and tasks you're working on, look out for the culture, the people you get access to, and the resources they have and are willing to give you.
Also, look for the people that you can build relationships with, ranging from juniors to seniors to veterans. Startups are smaller and you can make connections sooner and more easily. However, larger corporations are like huge oceans where there's wider pool of potentially interesting people that you can learn from and build relations with.
At the end of the day you can find learning opportunities anywhere.
Even if they’re not positive experiences, you will learn how to recognize what roadblocks, politics, and poor organization culture look like. These are very critical too and will help you know what you do NOT want in the future.
You have to take ownership and draw your roots out intentionally. Unlike college, where professors/teachers come to you to teach you while you sit in your seats, learning at work isn't like that. One has to take a much more proactive role.
The more initiative and ownership you take, the more you will gain. Every experience is valuable learning. You either learn what to repeat, or what to avoid in the future. Both are equally essential.
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