Internships are like steroids for any resume, and like all steroids, they come with different strengths. So working for the NIH (National Institute of Health) on groundbreaking cancer research as a pre-med student from Johns Hopkins is more badass than interning at the Humane Society in your hometown (the only place that would accept your unqualified ass if you’re studying creative writing)
Unfortunately, internships – especially good internships – can be hellishly difficult to get as an undergraduate. So here are my strategies and tips for getting some kind of internship for the summer/spring/whenever/however long you want (and simultaneously making your mother stop nagging you).
Check the Department Website for Your Major
Interns are the lifeblood for any department with serious huevos. They do the grunt work, clean lab equipment, code data, edit working papers, and other office bitchery. Through the department website, you have two options: find the professor in the department that you’ve had (or whose research interests seem, well, interesting) and essentially beg them for a chance to work for them. Make sure all your begging is done when your hair and clothes are looking classy, you have researched what they’re working on, and you sound like a hard-working, articulate student. Ph.D students are particularly susceptible to this kind of strategy because any work you do is stuff that they don’t have to.
If schmoozing professors or grad students isn’t really your thing, you can always see if the department has an independent study program or any kind of structured internship program. English and other writing departments are particularly keen on helping students, and any self-respecting chemistry or biology department would love for you to work in a lab scrubbing beakers and emptying Petri dishes. Psychology is always looking for research assistants to screen participants for their brain voodoo-science to the point where professors will put up flyers with those tear-off phone number thingies. This is not a joke. I have seen this in the psychology building at U of M.
Work for Your Professors
This strategy tends to work best in any kind of class where you are highly visible to the professor. Your organic chemistry lecture with several hundred people and kids sitting on the stairs is not a good place to seek out your professor unless you are a know-it-all and answer all the questions perfectly and ace the exams and other shenanigans like that. If you are one of those people, you probably don’t need to be reading this advice and can go find your own internship. But professors, yeah. Some of them are awesome and will be friendly and cool and want to help you succeed (preferably in the area(s) that they work/teach in). So if you say to your linguistics professor that you really want to work with her/him studying code-switching in Australian Aboriginal languages, they’ll probably jump at the chance to give you an independent study (for credit) or, God willing, a stipend. Either way, you can get a sweet letter of recommendation out of them, which is good for graduate school, jobs, and of course, other internships.
Sometimes the professors will tagteam with the department website and advertise less well known internship opportunities from the department. I had a professor last term who started every class for three weeks with a slide about two internship opportunities through his department. There was funding and all kinds of good stuff for internship-seeking yuppies, and if the kids in that class didn’t apply for both of those and then want to bitch and moan about how they’re not doing anything this summer, nuts to them.
To the Internetz!
The Internet is really, really great. And you can find lots of excellent stuff via Google or Bing or whatever. But a rookie mistake for all internship-seekers is going onto Google and typing “internships in ____” or “____ internships”. Do NOT do this. You’ll get all kinds of websites and companies advertising to find internships for a nice, fat fee. Ignore them. They’re phony internship vampires. Something that you can do online to find your perfect little internship is to look up nonprofits and NGOs in your state/province/prefecture that are doing something cool and unusual and groovy. For anyone in Southeast Michigan, I recommend the Judson Centre. Find something that they do that looks interesting, see if you can dig up the email address of someone relatively important and shoot them a (professional and totally courteous) letter of interest. Go with your gut on whether or not to attach a resume. I recommend it, but it can seem a little forward to some people. On the other hand, if you want to make a good impression, sending a resume (and showing off your genius mind) can be a smart move. Again, go with the gut.
Internships at Your School (But Not in Your Department)
This strategy works best with big/rich universities. Most colleges and universities don’t just have academics. They have museums and community outreach and hospitals and marketing departments, and all of those people could hire you. My internship for the summer is through the Minority Health and International Research Training Program (MHIRT. Look it up.) and it’s totally awesome. It took a lot of poking around the university website and looking through the search bar, but it ultimately paid off and now I’m set for the summer. Talk to your advisor or a senior and just make that shit happen.
Now that I’ve gone through the tips I have for specific types of internships, allow me offer up something else:
Here are My Universal Tips for Your Hunt
- Tip 1: Don’t put everything you’ve got on one horse. If you find an amazing summer gig working for a law firm, don’t assume you’ll get it. If you found it, chances are thirty other people did too, and they have resumes just as fancy and impressive as yours. Spread out, play the field and finish a few other applications so you aren’t up a creek with no paddle if your dream internship doesn’t work out.
- Tip 2: Prepare for your interviews. Don’t just show up with a stellar track records and assume you’re in the clear. You need to know what you’re interviewing for. Does the professor study family or child psychology? Is this a nonprofit for animals or single mothers? What are they doing, what have they done, and what do they want to do? Most importantly, how can you make it happen?
- Tip 3: You are simultaneously a unique and beautiful snowflake and a waste of space, and don’t you forget it. Interviewing is half selling yourself up and selling yourself short. Mention your accomplishments but don’t look like a boastful tool. You are the diamond in the rough, just waiting to be picked up and polished by this lucky employer, but you don’t know about your own diamondyness yet. Furthermore, it’s not enough to just have a great resume and let it speak for itself. The people that hire you aren’t just looking at your skills and experience (although those are important), they’re looking at the person, at you. Will you be helpful and come in early, or will you drink up all the coffee and stink up the company washroom? Are you a kind-hearted humanitarian or a belligerent racist?
- Tip 4: Find an internship that will actually help you. There are so many amazing opportunities out there, but not all of them will apply to your area of interest. That oceanography research project in the Arctic might be really cool and the professor likes you and wants to give you money, but you’re a Turkish history student and it makes no freaking sense that you should be on a boat for three months instead of reading about Ziya Golkap. Be selective about what you look for because it will ultimately save you a lot of time writing cover letters and statements of purpose.