In a recent webinar, we provided an introduction to the virtues of internships, why they should be pursued and how to find, land and leverage them, especially for career success later in life.
Here, I want to take the opportunity to go into some detail concerning the benefits that internships provide to both the interns and the host companies, and answer a question that was asked during the webinar.
Many science majors (both at the undergraduate and graduate levels) have heard of internships, but have not pursued them for one reason or another. Perhaps the students are absolutely certain that they are going to go on for an academic career and don’t think that an internship is relevant or valuable in that career path. They might even believe that an internship could be a grand distracter and time-waster and that the skills they would gain in such an experience would not serve them in their chosen field of scientific research.
These short-sighted beliefs are erroneous and can cause you to stumble as you climb the career ladder and even significantly delay the success and bliss for which you strive and deserve. The logic behind this is fairly simple to grasp: a victorious scientist, one who has crafted a career that brings them joy and challenges and allows them to utilize high levels of skill, must always keep an open mind about opportunities that may not seem the norm for their path. They must recognize that “unusual” opportunities for those on the tenure-track track, such as internships, can be extremely useful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they offer a window into new ecosystems that can ultimately help the scientist in their own ecosystem. Indeed, whatever profession you ultimately choose, an “internship” is an incredibly valuable (even invaluable!) experience that can help you in myriad ways and should absolutely and thoughtfully be considered.
But what exactly is an internship? Random House Dictionary defines an internship as “any official or formal program to provide practical experience for beginners in an occupation or profession.” I personally think this definition is a little too restrictive, because internships don’t necessarily come in a formal package- some can be arranged informally, especially with start-up organizations and companies.
Internships can take many forms or have different names, but still come under the heading of an “internship”. A co-op, where you spend a semester or longer at a company or other job site is a form of an internship, as are some experiences labeled “fellowships” A great example of a fellowship that is very much like an internship is the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship Program (which is supported by AGU), where Fellows work for a year in a US federal agency, Congress, or the Judicial branch of government. This opportunity is not referred to as an internship program, and yet it gives practical, necessary experience in how science policy works in the US (and in some cases abroad too), essentially serving as an “internship” for those interested in policy careers.
The time span of internships can also differ, depending upon the organization, your arrangement with it, its arrangement with your school (if it has an institutional tie) and what its needs are. Many internships are offered during the summer and last approximately 2-3 months. Others are offered during the year and can span a semester. But I have known students whose internships lasted an entire year.
No matter their structure, internships can be invaluable because of the many benefits you get from them. Especially for those of you who are certain you will only stay in academic science, take a look at the following reasons to consider incorporating an internship in your career plan:
- It will diversify your expertise. As an intern, you’ll learn new skills, both in the technical and business spheres. You will gain crucial experience working on teams, leading projects, and communicating your outputs to different audiences. You will also develop a greater understanding of the industrial landscape, economic climate of your sector and beyond, and many, many other tidbits of knowledge and skills, some of which are not as easy to hone in an environment that is only occupied by academics.
- It can give you new ideas and inspiration about your own research. Remember, you always want to be on the lookout for novel ways to solve your scientific problems, and working in a different environment can aid you in this endeavor, even if it is for a short period of time.
- It can give you a refreshed view of science. This is an especially rewarding aspect of an internship. Working in your lab or research group within the university, you only get a tiny taste of how science and research play roles in our society. But as an intern, you will have the opportunity to meet other STEM professionals utilizing their scientific and engineering know-how to solve problems for customers and to conduct research that ultimately helps the organization and its clientele. You will immediately get a sense of how much bigger “science” is than what you have experienced so far in your life, and it can enable you to approach your work with a greater appreciation for its beauty and usefulness. Furthermore, you will notice how non-STEM professionals contribute to the advancement of science and engineering, which is yet another important element of being a successful scientist.
- It will expand your networks in many, many ways. Networking, as I have written and spoken about many times, is the key to finding jobs and unlocking hidden opportunities (including other internships!). As an intern within an organization, you will have access to a whole other world of people with whom you can network and build win-win alliances. These are professionals who can help you greatly in your career, give you advice and point you in the right direction for opportunities, and similarly, you’ll be able to do the same for them. And since you are both working for the same company, reaching out to them for a coffee appointment at the company cafeteria (for example) can be significantly less intimidating, especially for those of you who are new to networking. After all this is not a “cold call” and you have a reason to speak with them – to discuss the company itself. You wouldn’t necessarily have access to these professionals in such an easy-to-connect environment if you weren’t onsite completing an internship at their organization.
- It can provide you with potential new collaborators. You’ll always need new partners to advance your research agenda and your colleagues at your internship can certainly serve that purpose now and in the future, for you and your research group. Similarly, you can potentially serve as a collaborator for them on a company-sponsored project in the future.
- It can give you access to potential new funding sources. Companies, government labs, government agencies, non-profits and other types of organizations that sponsor internships are often looking for projects that they can financially support, whether it is via a grant or in-kind gift. In pursuing an internship, you will get to know what that organization’s funding priorities are, which, in combination with the networking you will be doing, can help you build alliances that can lead to financial support of your projects now and in the future.
- It can give you a competitive edge in the job marketplace, even for tenure track. When there are 200 postdocs applying for one faculty line, you have to have something on your CV that differentiates you from the crowd. An internship provides you distinctive ways to enhance your brand (your promise of value) and demonstrate new depth and breadth of knowledge and skills that academic jobs demand (but don’t necessarily specify in job ads). Your internship experience immediately sets you apart from the other applicants, ultimately providing you a much needed competitive advantage in the job bazaar.
Now that you see that internships are a potentially priceless endeavor for those who are pursuing both academic and non-academic vocations, I want to share with you why the companies offer internships. What do they get out of this arrangement? Here’s a hint – it’s not philanthropy that is driving the decision to offer internships. Rather, the organization is motivated by its bottom-line. In fact, internships are part of an organization’s long-term strategies in human resources, talent capture, public relations, and even sales and marketing, and are designed specifically to advance the organization’s mission.
Here’s an analysis of the many benefits that organizations gain from offering internships:
- First and foremost, it is an inexpensive way of auditioning talent. When a company provides internships, it essentially is trying out the professional in a low-cost, no-risk environment. It uses the internship to see if the student could make a great addition to the team as a permanent employee, and whether they would fit into the corporate culture. Since there is a finite period of time for the internship, if the organization doesn’t like the student or the student doesn’t do a good job, it can easily get rid of him or her. This is a fantastic value for the organization, given that the cost to hire someone for a full time or even part time position can be upwards of 3 times the salary. Furthermore, since many permanent positions are on contract, the internship allows the company to make certain it wants to hire the employee without locking itself into a deal that would require facing multiple legal and financial hurdles to break. So with an internship, the company gets to reduce its risk considerably before making a final decision. The bottom line? The internship is a fantastic hiring strategy that protects and even bolsters an organization’s bottom line.
- Another benefit the internship provides the organization is as a talent capture protocol. Here’s a secret in the human resources field: really, really good talent is hard to find. And when I say good talent, I mean workers who are excellent, dependable, skilled, manage equally well in leadership and team-based positions, are collaborative and creative, exceptional problem-solvers and truly understand the needs of the organization and seek to exceed expectations always, in all ways. When you’re on the job market, it may feel like there are googols of professionals out there competing against you. But the reality is that of the candidates that end up being interviewed for permanent positions, decision-makers may only find just a handful of people who fit all of the above. When they do identify exceptional talent, they recognize that others will also see that person’s value and that the competition to attract and retain them is feverish. So they want to act quickly. Therefore, if you are doing an internship and demonstrate the above attributes, you will catch the eye of managers and decision makers who will want to grab and keep you in their organization before the competition finds out about you.
- The internship program provides the company with talent to contribute to projects that are short term and/or require entry level skill sets. This doesn’t mean the intern will be getting coffee. Rather, the company may have just won a contract for a project that will only last 3 months and they need people to do basic computer programming and/or data mining. Rather than hire a full time employee, which is expensive, they can employ an intern, who will gain the valuable work experience and contribute to a real project, but is a very economical option for the company at large.
- The internship program also allows the company to craft and strengthen alliances with universities. The company views the internship as one piece of its university relations strategy, with end goals that could include greater collaboration between company professionals and university researchers, opportunities for representatives from the company and the university to serve on each other’s boards, and co-sponsored proposals for grants and other types of contracts. By offering an internship, the company is demonstrating to the university its desire to work with the university in the near and long term. Smart representatives of both organizations don’t take this partnership lightly, as it can open the doors for collaborations that will greatly serve both parties.
In conclusion, internships provide fantastic and solid return on investment (ROI) for both the intern and the host organization. As an early career professional, please consider an internship because it can lead you to new career avenues that you didn’t realize existed and will give you a window into what skills and expertise are needed to fulfill your professional aspirations.
But what if you are no longer a student? Perhaps you already graduated and are taking a year off to decide what you want to do next? Are you still eligible for internships? And what do you do if you are not eligible for formal internship programs? These are some of the questions that one professional asked me following the webinar. She wrote:
I listened in on your AGU webinar today and I had a question about the internship search that I was hoping you might address. I am finishing a Masters this June and I am looking for a position for the fall. I am finding that I am ineligible for many internships because I will no longer be enrolled in a university after this summer. This is an issue in particular for USAjobs postings, NASA internships, and for many large companies. For programs beginning in the fall, I’m finding that many geoscience and engineering internships are listed only as co-ops that are restricted to current students, especially undergrads.
I’ve asked this question of other hiring and career center experts, but I have yet to receive any useful advice. Mostly I hear that I should look for jobs for recent graduates, but I am planning on continuing in a PhD program within the next year, so taking a full time job when I am hoping to only spend 3-6 months in an internship is not a possibility. Any chance you might have some advice about this sort of situation?
I am so glad this person asked this question because there are several options for her and anyone who facing this scenario:
- You can look for internships with small or start-up companies and non-profits, which usually have more flexibility and may not be tied to a university.
- You can look for short term contract work with these same companies. The companies may not call the jobs “internships”, but the name doesn’t matter. What is most important is that you get the experience and are able to provide the organization with some value while you are there.
- You can use your networking skills to locate and approach professionals who work for the companies you are interested in interning for. Ask for informational interviews and let them know you are early in your career exploration process but would be interested in learning more about their firm. In the course of the conversation you can mention your skills, interests and expertise and discuss the possibility of doing a short term project with them. Again it doesn’t have to be classified as an “internship”.
The umbrella answer to this question is to “think entrepreneurially”. What is it that you can do that’s different and better than others? What is your value proposition? How can you potentially help this organization better its bottom line? As you network and have conversations with people, hidden opportunities will reveal themselves in the form of projects on which you could work. And if they are not automatically offered to you, don’t be afraid to stand up and ask for them. In doing so you may just create your own internship which could lead to your next job.
Portions of this article appear in the American Institute of Physics Internship Guide.
Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. She can be reached through her website or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine. Copyright, 2015, Alaina G. Levine