I Love My Internship! Now What?

Several weeks ago, I wrote about what to do if you hate your internship. As summer winds down and students roll off internships and head back to school, I thought it appropriate to offer some advice for those who are having a good internship experience. Why is that needed? Because it's just as important to zero in on what you like about your internship -- and what that might mean for the future -- as it is to determine what you dislike.

I encourage interns to think analytically about their internship experience because this helps them articulate to future employers what they did and learned during the internship. If all you can do is say you had an "amazing" internship last summer, without providing any specifics about what was so amazing and why, it does little besides indicate an uninformed passion.

A former student of mine once gushed about his cool summer internship at an event promotion company, while being surprisingly light on the details of what he did. It was abundantly clear that he enjoyed his time there, but I pushed him to think harder about the experience. "Free concert tickets," is a nice benefit of working in music promotion, not a reason for someone to hire you in the first place. I urged him to tell future employers about what he specifically learned about event promotion and management, including any special projects (developing relationships with local businesses to promote music events), and particular leadership responsibilities he demonstrated (coordinating a team of interns to do street publicity). In this way, he was able to showcase his accomplishments and interest much more impressively.

So, how do you think critically about your experience? Asking yourself the following three questions about why you liked it can be a good start.

Was it the culture?

Perhaps it was a fast-paced, dynamic environment or everything was new and exciting. Did you genuinely enjoy the internship, or were you mainly pleased to have a break from classes? Was it hands-on or theoretical work? Did they have a training program? After asking yourself those questions, conduct research to determine if those things are endemic to the industry.

One way to gain some perspective is to consider whether you enjoyed that 10-week experience enough to seek out additional opportunities. In my work with students, many times the answer is yes, but occasionally former interns are prompted to realize that they are enamored by the novelty of the experience, rather than interested in pursuing it further.

Was it the people?

Consider those you worked with during your internship and the impact they had on your experience. Perhaps you were paired with a mentor who was knowledgeable and helped guide your work. Maybe there was an intern "culture," and you were around other people your own age. It could be that you liked the internship in part because you enjoy supporting a specific product or promoting a particular cause in a team environment. Think about other people at the organization besides your fellow interns. How did they seem to you? Did they appear to enjoy their work or the field in general?

While it's generally a good thing to like the people you work with, it's important to consider the broader set of colleagues you're likely to have. Again, do some networking with people in the organization to determine if the attitudes and behaviors you experienced are present in the rest of the organization or elsewhere in the field. While not everyone you encounter is going to be a clone of your 20-year-old self, you should look at the professional behavior of people who have been in the field for some time to see if that might be a fit for you going forward.

Was it the work?

Perhaps you discovered an interest in working with a particular population such as at-risk youth, ESL learners, or geriatrics. Or, you developed an ability to write for a particular audience, e.g. sports fans, political junkies, pop culture mavens. Maybe you gained a great deal of practical knowledge or experience in your academic field or area of interest by disseminating research information through social media, determining pricing and marketing techniques for organic produce, or documenting the maintenance protocols for alternative energy equipment use by a brewery. Whatever the case, it's important to identify the specific tasks (data collection, research, writing, helping others, communication with internal or external clients) that you did (and what percentage of the work they entailed). This will help you identify better prospects for your interests and skills in the next internship or job you pursue.

Next Steps

After your internship, stay in touch with people from your workplace. So many students fail to take their supervisors up on offers of recommendations, contacts or advice after they finish their internship. These same students become increasingly reluctant to reach out the closer graduation looms. It doesn't take much to develop a LinkedIn profile to stay connected with colleagues -- and that's how you should think of them -- at a previous internship.

And, if your former colleagues are not on LinkedIn, it's still possible to send an email once a semester mentioning what you're studying currently and asking to touch base about future opportunities in the industry as you approach the end of your college career. Both of these actions help you grow your network, indicate your communication skills and demonstrate your ongoing interest in the profession. Don't let a great internship be an isolated experience -- use it as a springboard to building your career.