Why everyone should be an intern at some point

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune discussed the increase in high school students seeking internships rather than part-time jobs.  This trend has trickled down from developments that I’ve seen at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the last several years.  The economic downturn has led to an increased focus on career preparation, and an increased willingness to “settle” for less-glamorous positions or locations early in one’s career.
Anyone who has applied for a job in the last five years has come across the catch-22: “How do I get experience if no one will hire me if I don’t have experience?”  Enter the internship.
Internships are a way to break the “experience cycle.”  But more than that, they’re an experience that I would argue everyone should have at some point.  If you’re thinking about a certain career, an internship is a great way to determine whether that would be right for you before you invest the time and money necessary to enter that profession.  A summer internship at a law practice saved me two years and thousands of dollars on a JD by teaching me — along with many useful skills like how to work with angry customers and how to write a business letter — that I did not want to be a lawyer.  Years later, when I was completing my MLIS, my practicum at a local branch library taught me a lot of those on-the-job things that library school can’t really teach: how to politely excuse yourself when someone has spent the last ten minutes telling you her life story/medical history/criminal record and you have work you need to do; how to adjust a class or a storytime on the fly because your audience isn’t the one you’d prepared for; how to decide whether to call the police when a patron may pose a threat to himself or those around him.  Yes, my classes taught me how to conduct a reference interview and teach a class; but there’s no way to prepare for the intangibles we face on the job every day other than actually doing the job.
I think there’s also something to be said for spending some time at the bottom of the totem pole.  Anyone who has worked a cash register or answered the phones for a company is likely to be more sympathetic to the customer service representatives they interact with both personally and professionally.  Being an intern gives you greater appreciation for what your own future interns will do.
And if that doesn’t sell you on internships, consider the networking opportunities.  If a position opens up where you’re interning, you’ll have a leg up on other applicants who are strangers to that organization.  Your supervisor as an intern could know someone who’s looking to hire, or could provide the reference that lands you a full-time job.
So if your degree program or job search “forces” to take an internship, don’t think of it as settling.  And on the flip side, if you find yourself working with interns, don’t think them as “free labor”; think of them as developing professionals.  If you get to know them, you might be surprised by what you can learn from one another.
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