What you learn from an internship

I had a lengthy conversation recently with a student who is currently doing her second internship and who will be graduating in less than two months. In the conversation we talked a lot about her internships—which have been very rewarding and useful, as well as her job search process—which she’s finding a bit scary and overwhelming.

One of the things that came up in our conversation was her realization that she would not want to be a full-time employee at the organization where she is interning. She has become friends with one of her co-workers—to the extent that they occasionally get together socially—and she recognizes that her status as an (unpaid) intern has shielded her from some of the realities of what it’s like to work there as a full-time employee. The co-worker/friend is looking for another job, and has shared some of her negative experiences with the intern.

The reason I’m bringing this up is to emphasize that internships have value beyond what we normally assume. Everyone knows that an internship is a great way to get some experience in a particular field, build your resume, learn about organizational culture, and develop your network. But what people don’t always realize is that an internship can reveal what you like and don’t like about a particular workplace or field. There’s so much more to a job than just the tasks you’ve been assigned: Are managers’ expectations reasonable? Are co-workers friendly and supportive? Do managers provide feedback? Do workers have sufficient resources? Does everyone contribute to the goals? Do you like the size of the organization—or do you feel lost? Or claustrophobic? Is everyone treated with respect? Are employees asked to work long hours without sufficient compensation?

You can’t answer all of those questions from an internship experience, but you can start to get a good sense of what is important to you, what makes you uncomfortable, what strikes you as surprising or problematic.

More than 30 years ago, scholar Meryl Reis Louis wrote an article based on research about how newcomers enter the workplace, and she titled it “Surprise and Sense-Making.” In that article she explained that when you start a new job, you see things that surprise you, and you have to be able to make sense of those surprises if you’re going to continue to work there. Doing an internship introduces you to some of those surprises and can help you start to figure out what makes sense to you. Once you have some of that figured out, you’re on the road to formulating some really good questions to ask when you go on job interviews!