Throughout my university career, I have completed a number of internships, and whilst none so far have actively hindered me, I have definitely learned some lessons that I can share about how to choose a worthwhile internship.
Internships, at their best, can launch you into the right career, connect you to the right people, and equip you with invaluable skills that will help distinguish you from you peers. But at their worst? They'll waste your time, drain your energy, and even exploit you.
What is the 'right' internship?
The 'right' internship sounds vague but I would say that a useful internship is one where the staff are willing to invest in you. If the staff invest in you, you are able to meaningfully contribute to the team, develop as a professional, and ultimately be more likely to score a job at the end.
I worked in a company with a constant roster of interns that changed every couple months. I think the short term nature of the role made us seem disposable to the staff, as any skills they shared with us would not really benefit the team. This made it impossible to work autonomously, resulting in us only being able to take on menial tasks. This is very demotivating and meant that the internship wasn’t a good use of time for the interns or the company.
How do you spot the 'right' internship?
A good way to spot what kind of internship you are headed for is to pay attention to some tell-tale signs:
Is the internship paid?
No company is willing to throw away money. If it’s paid, it means they are expecting real, measurable output from you. This means it is in their interest to train and make sure you have everything you need to be productive.
How was it advertised?
How an internship is advertised can tell you a lot about how much they are willing to invest in finding the right person. Does the company invite open applications throughout the year? This might be a bad sign as it suggests a high intern turnover, meaning they are looking for quantity rather than quality.
Is the position posted on a job site? If they are willing to post the position on job sites and put a budget behind advertising the position, it could mean that they are looking for a collaborator, not an assistant, to join their team. This is a sign that they have planned ahead, seen that there is a need to increase their workforce and view you as a solution.
How is the role structured?
Not everything is about the money: some companies will take interns seriously but not have the finance to support them. A good way of distinguishing these companies is looking at how the role is structured. This often only becomes clear at the interview stage. It’s a good idea to ask if your role would be “account-based” or “task-based.”
By making this distinction, you are asking whether you will be given autonomy and be trusted to work independently, or whether you will be acting as someone’s assistant. The merits of these will depend on your industry of work. However, in my experience, when I have been asked to intern as a general assistant, the workload has been crushingly mundane: busy seniors are often unwilling to spend time teaching you how to complete more complex tasks.
My current internship
I have found internships through my personal network, cold-calling companies and through online platforms, but the best result I have found is with my current internship.
It was advertised through an online job platform, it’s a fully paid position within a reputable organisation, and it was advertised that they would likely want their intern to stay on.
A few days after sending my application I was contacted by the University of London recruitment services, who gave me a short phone interview to make sure I was qualified for the job. I was then invited to an interview a week later and offered the job the following day.
Three weeks in and it’s going really well: I have attended 5 or 6 onboarding meetings to make sure I know the appropriate people from each team, I have met the board of directors, taken part in two training courses, and I am being given autonomy to work on and manage my own caseload.
As far as internships go, this one is panning out very well. With any luck, it’ll be my last!