University career services centers and corporate publications have long touted the importance of the internship to both employers and students. It's hard to overstate that importance, too. Very few things allow a company to improve its access to talent, and a student to promote his or her long-term career success, with more all-around impact than a positive internship experience.
In spite of this knowledge, neither companies nor students regularly get the most out of internships--not because companies are uncaring or want interns to do only grunt work or because students downplay the importance of internships. GEM's experience over the last 25 years shows that both students and companies see internships as vital to their development.
The challenge, instead, is that because internships are short and because many interns go on to other companies, both the intern and employer focus almost exclusively on what's practical. Interns think in terms of skills they want to develop that will make them marketable, and they seek experiences with that priority in mind. Employers, knowing that interns will not have the time to really become a part of their companies' cultures, or even the work teams to which they're assigned, focus on the task at hand: This is what we need you to know to complete this project. Of course, companies also attempt to provide interns with specific skill sets that they want entry-level employees to have.
This approach makes sense, since typical internships can be as short as 6 weeks and rarely last longer than a semester. But by focusing only on what's practical, right now, both intern and employer cheat themselves. In our work with graduate students in the sciences and engineering, and with the companies that sponsor them, we encourage a different approach to the internship. While we know that the internship experience still has to be practical for the intern and the employer, we push them to think about the experience as "transition mentoring." This approach recognizes the need for practicality, but it challenges both the sponsoring company and the student to view the relationship differently: Treat the internship as if the intern has to become a part of that company quickly--but for the long term.
For employers, this means working just as diligently to build up the individual as it does her or his technical skills. The goal is to integrate the intern into the organization as fully as possible, through:
Affirmation of potential
Access to information
Connection to resources
And in addition to building up the intern, the employer should do as much as possible to make the unspoken spoken and cut through the barriers that can mystify or alienate interns. That is, it should help make clear the unwritten codes, conventions, protocols, and policies that make up the company's culture. By demonstrating a commitment to the intern's overall success and satisfaction, the company builds loyalty and helps the intern "hit the ground running" and perform at and beyond his or her highest potential.
For students, the job is not just to go and do what they are told well, but to participate as fully as possible in the work and life of the company while on the internship. The experience isn't just about being professional or showing their skills, but about developing as strong a network as possible and stretching the limits of what they know and can apply. A few tips for students preparing for internships:
Always do more than what is expected, even when the work seems mundane. This isn't just about getting good evaluations or earning respect. If you don't invest, they don't have a reason to, either.
Instead of taking the internship to merely work on a project, accept the position to learn what makes a company successful--such as a research process, resourceful and productive employees, and global marketing initiatives. If you can identify those qualities and learn from them, then you can focus on becoming the professional you want to be. Instead of wondering what you need to know to get a specific job, you'll find that success on individual tasks and projects will then become almost automatic.
Focusing on building relationships rather than completing tasks requires much more effort, but the benefits for both intern and employer are real: a more meaningful experience for the intern, mutual confidence and loyalty in both intern and staff, and higher levels of commitment to the employer's needs by the intern.
*Saundra D. Johnson is Executive Director of GEM, which provides much more detailed advice to interns and employers in two handbooks: Your Internship Is as Good as You Make It: A Practical Guide to Student Internships and Transitioning New Hires Into the Workplace. Both are available from the GEM Web site. For additional information about these resources or the GEM fellowships, contact Ms. Johnson at Saundra.D.Johnson.firstname.lastname@example.org.