One of the most difficult parts of launching or changing a career is feeling confident that you’ll enjoy the work you’ve chosen. These pre-launch jitters often evaporate within a few weeks of being hired, which is great. But wouldn’t it be even better to feel certain before you start working in the field?An internship could be just the thing you need to help lock in your commitment to your next career path. The good news is that you don’t need to be a college student or recent graduate to take advantage of this tool. More on that in a minute. First, some context for where internships fit in the big picture of career exploration.
I often explain to career-changers and others choosing their work that there are three primary levels to career-exploring research. If you picture an inverted triangle with three layers, you’ll have a good visual for this.
The top, fat layer of the triangle represents the easiest research to conduct, which is pretty much anything that you can read on the topic. This would include web sites, news articles, labor statistics, newsletters from related professional associations and anything else that would give a strong introduction to various aspects of the work.The next layer of the triangle is skinnier, representing fewer sources. This is where you go person-to-person to talk with people who currently do the work or who manage those who do. Instructors who train in the field and other experts can also be tapped for these conversations, which are often called informational interviews.
The final stage is experiential, or hands-on research and it’s visualized as the smallest part of the upside-down triangle – the very tip – because it’s a less common and more complex step to arrange.
In the world of careers, hands-on experiences range from simple job shadows to volunteer stints to paid or unpaid internships. In all cases, the individual gains information helpful for making a career choice, but only the internship is likely to deliver a level of training or competency as well.
Internships are also unmatched as a way of building contacts in the field. Not only is it common for workers to be hired permanently into the companies where they intern, some organizations intentionally create internships as a sort of recruiting pipeline.
Now, back to the question of who can participate in internships. While we’re somewhat conditioned to think of internships in connection to college enrollment, that’s hardly a universal criteria. That said, you’ll probably discover that the internships that are easiest to find are targeted to college students, usually through the campus career center.
If you’re not currently affiliated with a college, you’ll need to do your own legwork to find employers open to interns. In some cases you’ll be sussing out established internships and in other situations you may be proposing the concept.
In all cases, you’ll need to articulate what you can offer, as well as what you’d like to learn – because employers need to get something out of the arrangement too, or you won’t be able to seal the deal.
Start by identifying what you’d like to learn and where. For example, if you’re interested in building web sites for a living, you might approach web development firms or companies with social marketing departments where you could perform low-level, repetitive tasks while also learning higher-level skills.
Every situation will be a little different, but if you don’t see any evidence of an established internship program, I’d recommend emailing the department supervisor with a polite inquiry about the possibility of interning with them. When you find a receptive ear, all that’s left is to make an agreement about hours, duties and pay, if any.
As another option, look for professional associations that may play matchmaker between employers and potential interns. I’ll give an example from my own experience, as one of the groups I belong to, Minnesota Book Publishers’ Roundtable, hosts an Internship Fair to introduce employers and intern candidates through unstructured informational interviews.
If you’d like to see what that might look like, MBPR’s website (www.publishersroundtable.org) notes the nearly two dozen organizations (mine included) sponsoring internships or other services there. This year’s event is in the evening of March 28 at Open Book in Minneapolis, so if you’re interested in attending, event coordinator Katie Nickerson encourages online registration – although she says walk-ins will also be welcome.
(She notes that there’s room for a few more companies as well, particularly those related to the publishing industry.)
However you find your internship, and whatever the specifics of your arrangement, be sure to enjoy yourself. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn and contribute, while simultaneously clarifying or affirming your career direction.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.