Internship: a personal voyage

Internship: a personal voyage

By: David Lindskoog
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I write here today on the last day of my internship at SFU Career Services, thinking back over the past six months in fond remembrance. Six months ago I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, let’s face it – I was about to commit 150+ hours out of my already full schedule to an organization for no monetary compensation. In fact, since it was actually a small practicum as part of my graduate studies (and therefore worth credit), I was actually paying money to come to work, never mind working for free.

Why would anyone do such a thing?

For starters, it helps to be a ‘half glass full’ kind of person. I have quite a few colleagues who were quite pessimistic about their experiences and didn’t hesitate to give voice to their displeasure. But I found that my experience didn’t go along with that at all. Yes, I was paying money to come to work. But I found myself enjoying it. Everyone treated me with respect and value and was really friendly to me. Coworkers I shared a project with constantly thanked me for my input and made me feel like I was accomplishing something worthwhile. And I’ve had plenty of paid jobs where the message I got was just the opposite.

When you’re an intern, practicum student, co-op student, or whatever, you have to realize that it’s a different set of rules than when you’re on regular payroll. The first difference is that you are being engaged in an experience whose primary purpose is educational: you are there to learn. And my experience has been that people are a lot happier to help you learn – to walk with you as you inevitably make mistakes and give you valuable direction and feedback – when you’re not being paid regularly to be there.

The second difference is that there is usually a clearly defined beginning and end to your internship, with varying degrees of structure. Of course, many jobs offered on a contract basis can say the same thing, but the core of it is different. In my experience, things started out slowly, with supervisors giving me lots of structure to help me adjust to the environment. As things progressed, I was given as much freedom as I was comfortable with in terms of making my schedule, how I use my time, what projects I worked on and where, etc. And I recognize that this may not be true of others’ experiences, but I like to think that my time at Career Services represents one of the ‘best’ internships out there.

The last difference that comes to mind for me lies in what I’ll call goodness of fit. At a paid job, it’s certainly essential that you have the necessary skills, credentials, experience, and sometimes even personality that the employer is looking for. But true goodness of fit at an internship has a different flavour. At any internship you will be under supervision, and this is a good thing. Your supervisor is ultimately there to help you make the most of your experience, reflecting the objective of maximizing your learning as opposed to their profits (unless you are learning how to maximize their profits… which complicates my whole theory a little bit). But a supervisor-supervisee relationship is quite a bit different than your standard employer-employee pairing. If you and your supervisor really don’t fit well together, neither of you are going to get much out of the relationship and you won’t be getting much out of all that unpaid work aside from the slot on your resume you put it in. It’s advisable to ensure that you can at least get through a supervision meeting without wanting to pull your hair out.

Alas, my internship has sailed. And it does have a cushy spot on my resume. But that’s the last thing that I’ll remember it for. I would encourage any of you thinking about this sort of thing to think of it in the same way.

David Lindskoog is a career advisor with SFU Career Services, and Dave’s Diary is an ongoing series of journal entries touching on various aspects related to careers and well-being. 

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Posted on July 31, 2009