To Internship or Not To Internship

by Danielle Currier, Associate Professor and Author

Internships can offer a whole host of opportunities for students. One of the big reasons it’s tough for students to gain employment, even in entry-level positions, is that they lack “experience”. Internships can help provide that experience – a tremendous advantage upon graduation. If you’re successful at an internship you’ll gain new skills, new understandings, a solid reference, a new professional network to tap into and perhaps even some work for your portfolio.

Internships provide students with first hand opportunities to learn about the creative and business strategies vital to our industry – through simple osmosis and by learning from other, more seasoned professionals. Working as part of a larger team and learning to understand and appreciate the varied professional roles involved with a project can be invaluable. And there’s simply no substitute for working with a real client – learning to deal with creative briefs, client presentations, schedules, budgets, deadlines, and of course client feedback. It’s an opportunity to bolster your portfolio with real professional work – something if done well can be quite impressive. Internship opportunities can also bolster your confidence – it allows you the opportunity to try out your skills, flex your muscles and see what it’s really like out there. This helps prepare you for what to expect upon graduation and makes the prospect of entering the “real” world a lot less scary. Internships also provide you with a great way to network, something that you’ll find really useful when looking for a job. Many students even gain full-time employment at their internship site after graduation.

Be Selective
With any internship you want to try to get the most out of the experience. This means that where you intern and with who is crucial. You’ll need to do your homework and really investigate potential sites. Check out each site’s website. Ask around – you want to find a company with a positive reputation – reputable and good at what they do. Really take a look at the type and quality of work being done. Read their philosophy statement if they have one. If you don’t know the agency that well make sure you check out the job site in person. People are always very busy so if your “interview” occurs over the phone ask if you can stop by briefly to say hello. There’s always the occasional internship that looks really good on paper, but when you arrive at the office it’s in some guy’s basement.

Don’t Be the Errand Boy
You also want to make sure that you’ll have an opportunity to do real work that’s relevant to your field. It’s pretty much a waste of your time if you’re fetching coffee and donuts. Don’t be shy about letting them know what kind of experience you’re hoping for. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be handed a dream project and told to design or photograph your heart out. But, it should mean that you are involved in meaningful learning experiences. I recommend that you and your potential immediate supervisor discuss 3 goals for your internship experience – what you might like to learn and be involved with. Let them know where your interest lie, but also ask for suggestions. After all, you’re pretty green and probably don’t know what all the various roles, responsibilities and opportunities even are. Ask how you can benefit the company and yourself at the same time.

You Need A Mentor
A truly successful internship experience requires that there’ll be at least some investment made on the part of the company. Be aware that while you’re doing the company a service by providing essentially free work, there should be a give and take on their part as well. Someone needs to mentor you, show you the ropes and spend at least some time including you in a project or two. While you’ve hopefully got great skills and abilities, there’s still a lot you won’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask (at an appropriate time). The best experiences I’ve seen students have are when they are mentored, involved and made to feel like a part of the team. Ask to work with someone who does what you want to do. It doesn’t work well if your immediate supervisor is the HR director and what you want to do is design. You need to communicate with the right people.

Paid or Not Paid
On a similar note, while it’s great to land a paid internship there are some downsides. If a company is paying you they’ll most likely want you to be doing billable work (likely production work) that justifies the money. It sort of defeats the purpose if you spend the internship doing Photoshop color corrections. It means that you may not get invaluable opportunities to learn from situations that are less tangible – like sitting in on a client presentation or shadowing someone for a day to learn what they do or brainstorm with the team.

Where to Look
Ask around – faculty, staff, your Dad’s friend who works in advertising
Network – Get involved with industry organizations – you’ll meet people who know people
Email and Cold Call – Look through job opportunity sites, award sites, industry mags, etc to find out who’s doing what in your neighborhood. If you find an exciting place – don’t be shy about calling them up and asking. You’d be surprised how many students get great internship opportunity just because they happened to ask at the right time. And most big agencies have internship programs.

Be Prepared
Have your portfolio in tip-top shape and ready to go. Be sure to have at least a pdf with samples of your work that you can email right way. Make sure your resume is perfect. If you get a response – act eager and excited about the opportunity!

What are your internship stories?