Helping with the Internship Search

Supriya Bhatnagar | October 1999

From the October 1999 issue of AWP Job List. © 2004 The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. May only be reprinted with the permission of AWP.

From ancient times to the Industrial Revolution, the term apprenticeship" was used to describe what we call an internship.

According to the dictionary, it was a "system of learning a craft or trade from one who is engaged in it and of paying for the instruction by a given number of years of work." This practice was known in ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, as well as in modern Europe and the United States. In medieval Europe, a master craftsman agreed to instruct a young pupil, to give him shelter, food, clothing, and to care for him during illness. The apprentice would bind himself to work for the master for a given time. After that time he would become a journeyman, working for a master for wages, until he set up as a master himself.

Today, internships are bridges from the classroom to the workplace. They provide temporary work where students acquire business experience in their area of interest, and they provide crucial references and recommendations for building your career. A fascination for computers might place an intern at a technology company, while a student who loves to write might seek an internship with a newspaper. In either case, finding the right internship takes takes planning, preparation, research, &, most importantly, some soul-searching. If you're advising a student searching for an internship, or seeking an internship for yourself, the following questions should be addressed:

  • What is your purpose for seeking this internship? What do you want to learn on the job? What do you hope to gain from this experience?
  • Would you like something close to home, or are you willing to travel for the position—or live in another city or state? Should your internship be in the government? The university? In the private sector, or for a nonprofit?
  • Should it be for a large company, or a small organization?
  • Do you want to work for money, or will a volunteer or for-credit position suffice?
  • Are you seeking an internship to bolster your work skills, or something you can use to pad your resume?

Once all these questions are sorted out, the next step in obtaining an internship is preparing a good resume. According to Pamela Crivelli of The World Bank, good organization is key to an impressive resume. Every employer knows that a recent graduate's resume contains little work experience. Ms. Crivelli always notes how professional a resume looks, and then what it contains—which influences how it impresses the employer overall. Internship recruiters at the American Psychological Association (APA) note that GPA can help any internship seeker—naturally—but broad and varied experience noted on the resume is invaluable. At APA, online publications interns are hired if they have 2-3 years of undergraduate experience and knowledge of HTML, as well as an interest in the field. Marty Langley at the Violence Policy Center (VPC) recruits interns who are government or sociology majors and knowledgable about gun control issues.

Along with the resume, cover letters are vital. When putting together a resume and a cover letter, job seekers should make sure that they address the needs of the company and what they want to learn on the job. If the employer notes specific job skills in the internship advertisement, mention your experience and refer him or her to your resume. Be sure to note your computer skills on your resume. The employer has to visualize each c&idate's specific abilities before they can call you in for an interview.

Armed with a great resume and an even greater cover letter, don't forget the importance of the job interview. Employers find the interview more important than a great resume. According to Mia DeMezza at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, an enthusiastic personality overshadows everything else. She does take an applicant's resume and GPA into account, but is drawn to the enthusiasm and interest shown by the prospective internee, which tells her how each c&idate will perform on the job—especially when the interns are still developing necessary skills. Also, be sure to include references on your resume. Most employers will call your references in order to confirm their impressions from the interview.

The best internships always address the specific needs and talents of each intern, further developing their underst&ing of a field. When seeking an internship, be sure that it will be a good match to your interests; otherwise, you may not enjoy the work. Your local college or university should have a career center whose resources are free. The county library is another great place to start. The Internet also contains a great deal of information on internships. Often you can go to a particular company's website and search their employment opportunities online. This process of thinking, researching, and applying takes time, so be patient and be sure to start early—at least six months in advance, if not sooner.

Good internships should benefit both internees and employers. The benefits to the internees are great, but employers that have internship programs have much to gain. The student develops interests in a field, and the intern's supervisor gains management experience and extra help on the job. The hiring of interns is also a good advertising and recruitment tool for the company. Ethel Rackin of American Poetry Review (APR) says that an organization which hires interns projects the image of being more accessible. In organizations that are seeking to add staff, internships often result in an improved selection process. Ms. Rackin began as an intern at APR, and now she is Associate Editor. As a supervisor, she learns more about interns in the course of their internship than by looking at their resumes.

But there is a darker side. Money, or rather the lack of it, plays an important role in internships. For-credit positions require students to pay for the experience, credit by credit, which makes it difficult for a student to make ends meet. A stipend for each intern or tuition reimbursement is reasonable, unless it is a nonprofit organization working on a tight budget. Employers often satisfy their short-term staffing needs by hiring interns; many of these interns harbor hopes of l&ing a permanent job when no such job exists.

In addition to the acquisition of new skills and a keener overview of a particular field, the hard-working intern gains an extremely important asset that his or her fellow classmates may not possess: good recommendations from employers. Recommendations from professors are great if you're applying to graduate school or teaching jobs. But if you are seeking employment as an editor, grant writer, technical writer, etc., a good recommendation from a business supervisor has more weight than academic references alone.

When you begin your internship, keep in mind that you will be asking your supervisor for a recommendation. Don't assume a relaxed attitude—that you can be late for work since you are not being paid, or paid so little, in your internship. David Fenza, Executive Director of AWP, has served as a reference for many former interns. "What the employers sometimes ask is rather basic: Was so-&-so reliable? Did she show up for work on time? Does she collaborate well with others? Does she work well with little supervision? It's pathologically ironic, but it seems most supervisors are seeking employees who need no supervision. Sometimes, though, the employer does look for confirmation of certain working skills: experience in desktop publishing, customer service, development, or whatever. But it's true—mostly they're looking for energy, affability, reliability—a good attitude from young hires."

While researching this article as a publications intern at AWP, I searched for information on writing internships. I found over and over again that GPA does not matter as much as attitude. "An intern who is a self-starter, quick to learn, and with the right skills, would automatically have been a good student," said Ms. Crivelli of The World Bank. Good typing skills, knowledge of basic word processing and Internet software, and a driver's license are an intern's best friends. Writing courses are necessary; studying a broad spectrum of subjects is important too, since it demonstrates a student's wide range of experience. Samples of writing are also of the utmost importance. A clip from a school newspaper, freelance writing assignment, or previous internship is invaluable.

A previous internship? Isn't an internship supposed to find you a stable, permanent job? As with any system, the idea of an internship is continually abused. &y Dehnart, in Salon, puts it bluntly: "To get an internship at a daily newspaper, I had to have already been an intern at another daily newspaper. How the hell was I supposed to get a summer internship at a paper if I hadn't already had one? However ridiculous and silly it might be, it's a common requirement." All the rejection letters Dehnart received from prospective employers had one sentence in common: "The successful c&idates had at least two previous summer internships." This Catch-22 situation is happening more and more often, but it is contrary to the idea of an internship.

Despite the challenges, low pay, or no pay, an internship is a good step in securing nonacademic employment.


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