Internships 101: How to turn a degree into a career
Internships are an essential step for students who wish to apply their hard-earned academic knowledge to explore career opportunities and launch their futures.According to WWU's survey of 2011-12 graduates, those with internship experience found jobs faster, were more likely within six months of graduation to be in a job related to their major, and reported higher starting salaries.
Given the importance of internships, students should begin thinking early about how they’ll enter a competitive job market after graduation, says Steven VanderStaay, Western’s vice provost for Undergraduate Education.
In years past, he says, Western recommended students begin internships during their junior year. Now, the recommendation is that students start to build their resumes as early as freshman year.
Each summer, VanderStaay says, students should volunteer, intern or have a job where they can put their academic skills to use in a workplace setting. This is particularly true for students majoring in the liberal arts, he says.
That doesn’t mean liberal arts majors are at a disadvantage in the job market, Vanderstaay says. Quite the opposite: Employers say they want workers with skills taught in liberal arts programs, from critical thinking and communication to scientific literacy and analytical skills.
“People are still getting good jobs with liberal arts degrees,” VanderStaay says. “But they’re doing more than just earning that degree.”
“If they bring their dreams in, we can put some reality together."
Internships are key to translating that degree into the beginning of a career.
Families can do a lot to help their students find internships, says Susan Anderson, a career counselor at WWU’s Career Services Center.
How can families help their students?
Anderson knows families have a huge influence on motivating their students; her appointment book tends to fill up after school breaks with students seeking advice about getting an internship.
One of the best things families can do is to share their own professional contacts as resources for informational interviews or even tips on jobs and internships.
Families can also boost their students’ confidence by pointing out the workplace skills their students already have and why they’d be attractive to potential employers, Anderson said.
“As cocky as students may seem to parents sometimes, it’s tough going out and looking for an internship, especially in this economic climate,” she says.
Finally, families can help financially, if possible.
Students who rely on paid jobs to earn enough to stay in school might be understandably reluctant accept an internship that doesn’t offer money or credit.
But internship experience can boost students’ first-job salaries, Anderson says, and starting higher on the salary ladder can have life-time financial benefits.
So don’t think of it as an “unpaid internship,” she says. Think of it as “deferred compensation.”
When should students begin looking for an internship?
Students often complete internships during their junior year as a requirement for their majors. But as the job market becomes more competitive, students should consider internships even earlier.
“People are still getting good jobs with liberal arts degrees. But they’re doing more than just earning that degree.”
Volunteering with a nonprofit or professional organization can pave the way for an internship the following summer. And one internship can be a launching pad for an even better internship or paid position later.
How do students find internships?
Chatting with Anderson or another career counselor can also help students match their goals to their plans, too.
“When students come to me, I can almost guarantee they will get an internship,” Anderson says. “It’s not going to come to them, though. They’ll have to go out and look for it.”
Academic departments can also provide valuable information on where students have interned in the past. Working with departments is important for students who want to get academic credit for their internships.
What should students look for in an internship?
Students should start by looking at themselves, Anderson says. Do they have academic or professional strengths they want to build upon? Areas where they could use more experience? And, importantly, what would their dream internship look like?
“If they bring their dreams in, we can put some reality together,” Anderson says. That reality may include creating their own internship, she adds. Even companies that aren’t actively searching for interns might be willing to take on a bright student with some ideas for a project, she says.
Another tip from Anderson: Look at the lists of companies who attend WWU career fairs – those are people who love Western students, she says, and might be willing to take on interns even if they’re not actively recruiting candidates.
“Conversations sometimes lead to internships when people aren’t looking for them,” says Anderson.
How can students get the most out of an internship?
Students will get as much out of their internships as they put in, Anderson says. They should work hard at building a good relationship with supervisors and co-workers by contributing and soliciting feedback as much as possible in the workplace.
Students may also check with faculty in their department for tips on skills that recent graduates have found useful, then look for ways to develop those skills during the internship.
And the most important thing students might get out of an internship is knowing which career they don’t want to pursue, Anderson says. That’s valuable, too, she says, particularly when students can still change their direction before graduation.
How can I get a WWU intern at my own workplace?
Also, check out the center’s webpage just for employers, which includes tips on boosting your visibility on campus.