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“When I am not here... Andrea, you are chained to that desk!” Actress Emily Blunt in "The Devil Wears Prada."
While internships these days are rarely misery-filled hours of coffee-schlepping, phone-answering and data-entry for power-hungry bosses, there’s still a huge disparity in the types of positions and tasks depending on the size of the company and the industry. For example, the environment of a tech startup, where you may have the opportunity to take on a small development project that you can add to your portfolio, will vary greatly from that of a multi-national law firm where you may be carefully sorting documents all day.
Even with the discrepancies, internships are still the best way to gain valuable work experience and ease into the professional settings that await you after graduation. With an eye towards a specific career path, show up to the interview ready to answer questions about coursework, career goals, and specifics about why the position you are applying for is a good fit. Then ask your own questions to ensure it’s a mutual fit for you and the organization.
Does it pay?
The law governing paid versus unpaid internships shifted in 2018, “making it easier for companies that want to hire interns but don't want to pay them,” notes the LA Times. It’s important to understand the specifics about compensation. Will you receive a flat stipend? Are you being paid hourly? Do overtime rules apply? If it’s an hourly wage in an industry that regularly can’t find enough candidates (think computer programmers, not editorial interns) and the internship isn’t part of a formal university class, there might even be the opportunity to negotiate salary.
What will I be doing?
It’s important to understand how the hiring company and the hiring managers view interns and what kind of work they’ll task you with. Startups are more likely to have you jump into a project but, but there might not be enough staff or time to have someone take you under their wing and mentor you in a meaningful way. A large corporation might have a formal internship program set up where you follow a very directed path without much room for diversion.
A good rule of thumb when deciding on which internship to take is to plan ahead and scan entry-level job listings for your desired position post-internship or post-college. Do the skills listed overlap with the activities you’ll be doing at the internship? If not, consider a position that will train you for your first job, unless, of course, there are mitigating factors such as highly coveted programs or the chance to work alongside an industry leader who will be able to help you better network in the future.
Who will I report to?
Like the considerations above, understanding who you report to, and who you will be working with day-to-day, should help you best understand if the internship is a fit. Does your manager spend most of his or her days in meetings with little time to provide guidance? Or will you have the chance to work alongside a member of the team that dedicates a portion of each day to helping you learn the ropes?
Will I be part of a team?
This is important to know, especially when interviewing for a position at an agency. There are often dozens of new interns each semester at ad or digital marketing firms where you might spend your day in a room full of other interns. A nice nugget for perfecting your social life, but it might not provide the kind of serious guidance you had in mind. Alternatively, ask if you will be able to join weekly meetings with other members of the extended team so you can get deeper insights into what really goes in those closed-door sessions.
Is there a path to a full-time job?
If graduation is less than a year away, press to understand if there’s the opportunity to turn the gig into a full-time job. While the ultimate decision will depend on how you perform and the needs of the company, there are questions you can ask to understand if that’s even an option down the road. First, come out and ask if they regularly hire interns for entry-level positions. In addition, ask questions to understand if the company is growing, if they are hiring for new positions regularly, and if they prefer to work with people they already know.
While it may seem overwhelming sorting through positions, applying and following up through the interview process, take it as seriously as you would a full-time job and be proactive in seeking out the most outstanding internship for your career path.
Kristin Amico is a career and business writer who spent more than a decade managing creative teams at digital agencies. She has written for The Muse, The Independent and USA Today.