The right internship can change your career forever, but finding it won't be easy. Bad internship programs abound, and among the many that do provide useful job training, finding one that fits your career goals and provides the necessary experience and connections to propel your career forward can be challenging. Here's how to find an internship that will truly boost your resume.
Research job requirements
Students can find programs that span an array of industries at large and small companies, nonprofits, government agencies, academic institutions and international organizations. Internships.com alone lists more than 75,000 active internship opportunities from over 50,000 companies domestically.
But not all internships will offer the professional experience, mentoring connections and networking opportunities that can sweeten your resume. Students looking for a strong career boost rather than an exploratory internship should be clear about what their career goals are and what experience is necessary to reach those goals before filling out applications, says Allison Cheston, a New York City-based career adviser to executives and young adults.
"Anything in (fields like) investment banking, consulting, private equity hedge funds" are jobs with a particular track where you would obviously need to have an internship at a bank, Cheston says. "(But) there are not that many fields where an internship is an exact requirement," she says.
In other fields, an internship may be one of several paths students can take to break in, she says. In fields that don't have a formal internship requirement, students can also investigate targeted volunteer gigs, cooperative learning programs, freelance opportunities or design their own work experiences to boost their resumes.
The Internet is practically overflowing with internship postings, but you won't get the real scoop on one until you connect with an insider. Students can start researching and vetting good internships from bad ones by reaching out to their school's career services office and speaking with academic advisers, faculty members in their department and professional associations in that industry, says Kimberly DelGizzo, director of the Boston University Center for Career Development.
"We encourage students to be both proactive and reactive," she says. "By that, I mean that they should pursue career opportunities they see posted that are of interest, but they should also work with the career counselor to identify potential areas of interest so that they can then go to organizations' websites to see if there are internship possibilities."
Another way to get the skinny on internships is to tap into your personal network, says Yair Riemer, chief marketing officer for Internships.com. The red "Who?" button found on the site's postings allows students to see if their Facebook contacts have any experience or affiliation with the hiring company.
"This Facebook product integration allows the intern to get an inside glimpse about what a company may be like and what current or former employees have to say about the opportunity," he says.
Staying closely connected with your personal network is also a great way to find out about career opportunities that aren't advertised, says Ellen Gordon Reeves, author of "Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview? A Crash Course in Finding, Landing, and Keeping Your First Real Job."
"Eighty percent (of career opportunities including internships) aren't advertised and oftentimes are filled through personal referrals," she says.
Mind the pay
If you find a quality internship, payment could be the difference between taking or leaving it. The National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE, estimates that the average pay for interns is $16.35 per hour, with fields like engineering raking in more.
At a handful of companies, intern pay rivals that of an average entry-level worker. The Palo Alto, California-based software firm Palantir Technologies forks over $7,012 per month on average to interns, according to Glassdoor's "25 Highest Paying Companies for Interns 2014" study. VMWare software and Twitter follow closely behind with $6,966 and $6,791 average monthly intern salaries, respectively.
But the real payoff of a paid internship may not come until the program is over. A separate NACE survey of more than 38,000 college students revealed that paid interns were nearly twice as likely to receive a post-internship job offer as their unpaid counterparts, and they commanded average starting salaries that were more than $16,000 higher.
If money is a crucial factor in whether you accept a career-boosting internship, try negotiating by offering to establish work benchmarks with the employer -- these could be anything from completing a specific project to generating a certain number of new clients -- then deferring monetary payment for a certain time period until those benchmarks are met, says Reeves.
Additionally, "you may be able to trade perks instead of cash if you can afford to do that," she says. "For example, let's say you're working in a car-rental agency. It might be very easy for them to loan you a car for the summer instead of compensating you, and that's worth cash."
If an organization is truly worth working for but they can't afford a salary, perks like free lunch, a transportation stipend or payment in trade can help.
It's also worth noting that payment doesn't necessarily have to come from the employer. Many colleges -- including Duke University in North Carolina, Carlton College in Minnesota and the University of Rochester in New York -- offer funding to help students complete low or unpaid internships. Professional associations, organizations within your industry and community groups may also have similar programs.
Once the funding aspect is figured out, students can ensure their internship really will live up to its hype by sitting down with their supervisor and outlining a clear set of expectations, understanding how their work will be evaluated and what happens if the internship is not working out. Students should also use the internship as a way to connect with higher-ups in that field for opportunities that can maximize their experience.
"Once you have an internship, what you do with it is really important," says Reeves. "You don't just show up, do your work and go home."
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