Internships 101: What To Look For

“Just got home from work,” I tell my parents who associate “work” with “money.” The concept of working without financial compensation is a bizarre concept to our parents, baby boomers who received multiple job offers right out of college. As a student in a public relations postgraduate program, part of my credit must be filled with an internship/co-op/field placement/volunteer position.

Working with no financial compensation is common practice today, but it’s difficult for already struggling students to afford and to convince friends and family that it is beneficial. There are so many reasons why internships shouldn’t be taboo, and why you should consider partaking in one. I’ve recently taken on two internships, and want to share some learning points that I’ve gathered in the past few months.

As a student, you will have little experience in the field you are studying, and once you graduate, employers want to hire someone who has had real-life experience. Just because you aren’t getting paid in monetary values, doesn’t mean you’re not getting marketable skills that will help you land your first job. Getting an opportunity to show someone what you’re good at and making good connections could be the difference between you and your classmate.

One of my current internships is at the YMCA, where I am a communications assistant. I was referred to this position through my program coordinator at Mohawk College. This service is often available for many programs. The reason I was interested in this opportunity was that the position posting was extraordinary. It aligned with their brand (looked like a page right off their website), was nicely outlined with headings, and explained in detail what the job entailed, and what they expected an applicant to be. If the job posting is vague, and the duties are mostly jargon like “set up and tear down”, “other duties as required,” stay away. You will get a general idea about the organization from this very first point of contact, and if you feel it looks unprofessional, it most likely is.

One thing that is forgotten during internships is that the student is there to learn. When you are an intern, you’ve been hired because you have a set of skills that you’ve learned and are good at, but you are also there to learn some new, real-world things. If your internship is unpaid, these learning experiences are your only reward and you should make sure your working environment is positive and enhances your professional development. One of my first days at the Y, my supervisor sat with me at lunch and then spent an hour after that explaining to me what the future held for me there. This meant a lot to me as it showed not only was she interested in what I could bring to the table, but she said, “We’re going to get your portfolio looking great.” This is a great example of a good internship or co-op.

Unfortunately, not all internships are like this. I have had opportunities where it was fishy from the beginning. The application process, the interview and the first day were all key indicators of the quality of the experience I would get. They said I would be doing PR, and I end up being the coffee runner, food server, and worked ridiculously long hours. You hear people say, “It’ll be good for my resume.” Things that are actually good for your resume are industry skills you can do. Talking about it is one thing, but being able to do it is another. Real experience counts, so don’t get caught in a situation where you’re wasting your valuable time sweeping floors for someone. That is not what you’re there for.

When you are looking for an internship, ask questions and pay attention to what you will get out of it.  A good internship will help boost your career, give you industry skills and will allow you to contribute what you’ve learned so far in a real environment.