The Perfect Internship Doesn’t Exist

September 2, 2015
Year On TeamFuture of Work

Original post by Jean Fan

After I’d done a few internships, I was often asked, “I’m looking for an internship, but don’t know what I want to do - how should I choose where I apply?”  

This is a tricky question, because at this stage in life people don’t even have a good sense of what’s out there, much less what they want to do. So what many people end up doing is a quick search for pre-existing internships, and applying to one of those. The benefit of taking this approach to finding an internship is that it’s straightforward. You know that they’re looking for interns; you know that you fit the profile of people they’ve hired in the past; you know that you have a shot.

But what if the best internships out there don’t yet exist? This is something I discovered when I was in high school, after interning for a fashion show, a hackerspace, and multiple education startups.

When a company has an existing “intern” position, there is already a frame of what you are and are not allowed to do. Either other interns have been there before you, and have set a precedent; or, the people at the organization have determined a role they want you to play. If you’re someone who really needs structure, this might a good option for you. If you’re someone who can create his or her own structure, or you want to be able to, a pre-existing internship will limit the amount of responsibility you are able to take on, and ergo the amount you are able to do and to learn.

So I’d like to offer a different (slightly harder, and way more rewarding) approach to finding an internship. Instead of asking, “What organizations are offering internships in fields that sound interesting to me?” ask: “What organization has a problem that I can fix right now?” (And then email them and offer to do it.)

Most people don’t ask this question, because at this stage, without previous job experience, most people don’t believe they have the ability to contribute. But you do! You can help do online research and put up flyers and write blogs posts and give suggestions for how a website can be improved… And so forth. These things aren’t hard to do -- with a little grit and diligence, anyone can do them. And as you’re in the organization, as you’re actually contributing (even in small amounts), you can then learn about the field that the organization is in, and what skills you’d need to develop if you wanted to advance in that field. And then, in return for your contributions, you could ask your colleagues whether they’d be willing to guide you as you learn a skill. Or, you could realize that in fact, you dislike the field that you’ve gotten yourself into. But since you’ve come into the organization and actually contributed, you now have a nice job reference that you can use as you look for an internship in another position.

It’s important to remember that at this stage, the field you’re in doesn’t really matter, at least if you buy into Cal Newport’s idea that passion is developed, rather than discovered. Until you’re on the inside, with access to information about what works in that field actually looks like, it will be very hard to tell whether this field actually interests you. Therefore, whether a field sounds interesting to you (without understanding what working in that field would actually be like) should not be a critical search criterion. There are so many niche fields out there that you’ve probably never heard of, that you might fall in love with accidentally.

So what are the consequences of taking the slightly harder approach to finding an internship? Although getting started might take a bit more creativity, because you have to find a problem that you’re able to help solve, the benefits of being an intern that actually tries to contribute are enormous. You’ll learn how to take responsibility for real problems. You’ll learn how to actually do things on your own. You’ll gain the respect of people in the organization and will have better references later on. And the best part? You’ll develop an entrepreneurial mindset that will allow you to take opportunities that others don’t even see. 

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