Can’t Find Your Dream Internship? Don’t Be Discouraged

Dr. Kevin Lucas is an Assistant Professor at Capital University and his teaching and research interests include party politics, public opinion, and economic and political development, with a focus on contemporary Latin America. Before arriving at Capital University in 2017, Dr. Lucas taught at the University of Minnesota, the State University of New York at Geneseo, and Lycoming College (Pennsylvania).

He graciously answered questions via email about topics related to his research article, “Internships for Credit: Linking Work Experience to Political Science Learning Objectives” and his expertise in student professional development, teaching, and internships.

A number of students who are looking for internships are seeking Political Science-related internship programs, which as you note, “often take the form of long-established ‘summer in Washington’ or ‘semester in Washington’ programs that allow students the opportunity to reside and work in the nation’s capital, essentially taking a temporary leave of absence from their home institution.” In today’s competitive job market in a country that’s going through a long public health crisis, what advice do you have for applicants?

Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has probably made it more difficult than it usually is for college students to find internships. I believe that many employers – both in the public sector and in the private sector – have, at least temporarily, downsized or even eliminated internship programs because they are not certain how an intern working from home would benefit their organization. Similarly, I believe that many established internship programs that involve spending a summer or a semester in Washington, or in New York, or in some other center of state, national, and/or international political activity have curtailed their activities – especially those programs that provide dorm-like residences for their participants. I would guess that study abroad opportunities that include an internship component are unlikely to be an option for students any sooner than Spring 2022.

So, my first piece of advice for students who hope to complete an internship in 2021 would be to recognize that they do face something of an uphill battle compared to students who were seeking internships in the pre-Covid era. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find your dream internship. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find any suitable opportunities at all. Especially in our current environment, “failure” to find an internship should not be interpreted as a sign that the student is unqualified or unprepared.

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find your dream internship.

One thing students can do to improve their chances and improve their marketability amidst the pandemic-related uncertainty is to highlight for potential employers how they would be able to contribute to that organization’s objectives while working remotely. Especially when it comes to trying to find an internship with a smaller organization, students sometimes find success by simply contacting a staff member, describing their background and their interests, and proposing a potential internship. Some of my students have been able to essentially create their own internship this way.

A second bit of advice I would give would be to take advantage of any and all resources your university might provide for students who are seeking an internship. At the university where I work (Capital University in Columbus, Ohio), there is a Career Development office staffed by people who are trained to help students find and prepare for professional opportunities. If your school has something similar, take advantage of their services. But don’t stop there.

Take advantage of any and all resources your university might provide for students who are seeking an internship.

Talk to faculty members within your department. I sometimes receive email messages from employers looking for student interns, and I always forward those messages to students who have expressed an interest in finding an internship opportunity. This semester, in fact, one of my advisees ended up completing a remote internship working for a political campaign in New York after I had forwarded her a message that I had received. Also, ask professors you have worked with about the possibility of working for them as a research assistant. This can be a particularly valuable experience for students who are interested in continuing their education after they have completed their Bachelor’s degree – not only will you have some relevant research experience to put on your graduate school applications, but you will also (assuming you actually do a good job as a research assistant) develop a stronger relationship with a faculty member who you might want to have write recommendation letters on your behalf.

Talk to other students in your program. A couple of years ago, one of my advisees completed an internship with a local law firm that was facilitated by another student who had interned at that same law firm the previous year. 

Inquire about internship opportunities at your school. I once had a student who was an International Studies major who was able to establish an internship for herself working for the Admission’s Office on matters related to the recruitment of and institutional support for international students.

Also, don’t be shy about using any insider connections you might have. If you know someone who knows someone who might be able to help you find an internship, don’t be afraid to express your interest in working with that organization. While some of us sometimes like to believe that the world should be a pure meritocracy, in reality, connections matter a lot. Use your network of friends and acquaintances to your advantage. I have worked with students who were able to land internships working with government agencies and with organizations in the private sector because they had some sort of insider advantage.

While some of us sometimes like to believe that the world should be a pure meritocracy, in reality, connections matter a lot.

Do you have any advice for students who just successfully completed an internship and are looking towards the next step?

Students who have landed their dream internship should not be shy about asking their work supervisors about any opportunities to convert their internship experience into a full-time paid position. If that’s not possible, ask the people you worked with during your internship if they are aware of other organizations that might be interested in hiring someone with your experience and interests. Ask your internship supervisor if he/she would be willing to write a recommendation letter on your behalf.

Another thing students should do while completing their internship is to keep something of an internship diary – a listing of the tasks you have performed and the skills you have developed during your internship. Without this sort of documentation, it is easy to forget what you actually did while performing your internship, and if you don’t know what skills you have you cannot use those skills to your advantage when pursuing professional opportunities.

Is there something students can take away from the menial tasks, in addition to appropriate tasks and responsibilities? If not, why is it important that internships serve to benefit a student’s outlook and resume?

There are two examples that immediately come to my mind. In one case, a student who was completing an internship with a state government agency was discouraged by the attitudes of many of his co-workers; he felt as though the people he was working with showed little concern with completing their tasks efficiently or effectively and he also felt as though they did not provide him with sufficient guidance. In the other case, a student who was completing an internship with a law firm expressed frustration with the tasks he was assigned; essentially, his role as an intern was limited to preparing document portfolios for one specific type of legal case, so his job was very repetitive. Obviously, these situations are not ideal, but that does not mean that the student cannot benefit from these sorts of experiences. I believe that the first student learned some important skills about surviving in a somewhat hostile work environment. The second student definitely learned that this one specific area of the law was not something that would interest him as a future career path. Also, because he did a good job performing the relatively menial tasks he was provided without any complaints, he received a very positive review from the person who oversaw his work.

What does the ‘ideal’ internship experience look like in terms of professional and personal development?

That’s a very difficult question to answer because students who are majoring in Political Science have such a wide variety of professional goals. At my university, and at many schools, there is always a significant number of students who view a B.A. in Political Science as a stepping stone to law school, but that is certainly not the only path. Some students go into Political Science as an academic discipline as a way to prepare themselves for a career in politics, which itself is a goal that can take many different forms – working on political campaigns, running for elected office, working for governmental agencies, working for think tanks and other politics-oriented non-government organizations, etc. Other people use their B.A. in Political Science as a stepping stone towards working in primary or secondary education as social science teachers. Others pursue employment in the non-profit sector. Others take their skills to the private sector and work in a wide range of fields.

That said, I think the “ideal” internship experience is the one that is most closely related to the individual student’s dream job. Do you want to go to law school after you finish your B.A.? If so, try to find an internship with a private law firm, or with the prosecutor’s office, or with the court system, or with the legal office of some government agency. Do you dream of running for elected office some day? If so, try to find an internship with a political campaign, or with the office of your preferred political party, or with an elected official.

As for the personal development side of things, I think the ideal internship experience is one that provides students with opportunities to demonstrate the skills they already have and to develop new skills. Towards that end, I recommend that students ask about the tasks they will be expected to complete before they accept an internship. If it’s possible to get this in writing, in some sort of internship contract, that would be ideal since it would give the student the ability to have a conversation with their supervisor if or when reality does not meet expectations. “You told me that I would be doing x, y, and z, but so far, I’ve only done a, b, and c. When will I have the opportunity to do x, or y, or z?”

Students benefit from research, analytical, and communication skills as these credentials help to bolster their general marketability. Can you speak more to how students can cultivate these skills — whether or not they landed their desired internship — and how they can enhance skills throughout their first years in the workplace?

Again, I think this is an area where students should be encouraged to try to create their own opportunities. Reach out to organizations, volunteer your time, and explain to them how you think they could benefit from the skills and experience you possess. Currently, I am working with a student who contacted me via email last summer expressing an interest in my research and a desire to contribute to and learn more about the research process. Although the tasks he has completed for me have to some degree been menial in nature – they have mostly involved taking data from multiple different Excel spreadsheets and consolidating those data into a single file – we have also had conversations about how and why I use these data that, I believe, have given this student greater insight into the research process than the vast majority of his peers might have. Plus, because this student has done an excellent job of completing the tasks I assign him accurately and in a timely fashion, I will one day be able to write a glowing recommendation letter on his behalf. 

Reach out to organizations, volunteer your time, and explain to them how you think they could benefit from the skills and experience you possess.

One of your stated goals is to transmit into students a general passion for learning. Why is it important for you as a Professor to encourage and motivate students to learn?

I get the strong impression that, for many (though certainly not all) 18-year-olds in contemporary American society, enrolling in college is the default option. It’s just what you do after you finish high school, for a number of reasons. Many students come from families in which college education is clearly an expectation, in which discussions with their parent about college always center on the questions of “where do you want to go?” and “what do you want to study?” rather than the question of “do you want to go?” Similarly, many students come from social backgrounds where college enrollment is the expectation. Thinking back about my own experience growing up in rural Wisconsin, there were certainly plenty of students in my high school graduating class who never went on to attend college, but amongst the people in my social circle – the students who took honors classes and who were involved in athletics and in other extracurricular activities – almost everyone I can remember went off to college the fall after we graduated from high school. I think that many first-year college students would tell a similar story. 

Also, many 18-year-olds enroll in college because they believe the degree they will eventually receive is a virtual guarantee of better job prospects and increased earning potential.

While peer/family pressure and the long-term economic benefits of a college degree may get 18-year-olds to enroll in college, these factors do not necessarily promote a passion for learning. Some students who come to college just because that is what their parents and/or community expected of them end up spending more time partying than studying and they never make it to graduation. Others adopt the “C’s get degrees” philosophy and complete their degrees with only minimal effort, but they don’t really learn much along the way. Both of these groups of students tend to see learning as something that is almost incidental to the college experience. Indeed, I see many students who act as if their goal is to graduate from college while learning as little as possible.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that a college degree in and of itself is no guarantee of meaningful, well-paid employment. The degree might help open some doors, and it might help graduates land entry-level jobs, but you need to display some degree of competence in order to move beyond those entry-level jobs. People who spent their four years in college doing the bare minimum may not have developed the skills, the knowledge, and/or the work ethic necessary to succeed in their chosen field. So, this is one reason why I believe it is necessary to encourage students to learn.

Also, I like to point out to students that, after they graduate, most of them will never have the same sort of opportunities to study interesting subjects under the guidance of people with some level of expertise in their field. While it might be unrealistic to expect that a student will find every single class they have to take for their major or to fulfill general education requirements genuinely interesting, they should hopefully be interested in at least some of their classes. If that’s not the case, maybe they should reconsider their major, or even reconsider whether college is the right place for them at the present time. Even if studying for exams or rushing to complete assignments before the deadline may not be fun, in the bigger picture, learning should be fun. Many college students face a lot of stress, which is understandable, but I think they lose a lot when they approach their studies as a chore and not as a fun opportunity.

Many college students face a lot of stress, which is understandable, but I think they lose a lot when they approach their studies as a chore and not as a fun opportunity.

Higher education is a unique industry in-as-much as some of our customers seem to want to receive as little of the product that they are paying for as possible. Nobody would go to their favorite pizza place and tell the cashier that they would like to get a small pizza but pay the price of an extra-large pizza, but many students seem to do this with their college education. So, I occasionally remind students that they don’t get a tuition discount if they don’t learn anything. Students and/or their families pay tens of thousands of dollars for a college education. Shouldn’t they try to get your money’s worth? Yes, the credential itself has some value, but why not get the learning, too? You’re paying for it either way.

Fortunately, I believe that most students who survive their first year in college eventually see that learning has a value that is independent from the value of their diploma. All the same, I also think it’s important to occasionally remind students that they should try to get what they are paying for, an education.

Do you remember your first internship (if applicable) or entry-level job? What would you do differently now if you could go back to that earlier period of your career?

I can remember two internship-like experiences, one working as an undergraduate research assistant for one of my Political Science professors during the spring and summer of my junior year in college and one working as a research assistant for a private firm that worked to facilitate international partnerships in the biotech field. Both were valuable experiences in their own right. Working for my Political Science professor gave me important insight into what a career in academia actually entails. The other internship helped me develop my ability to use the internet (still a relatively new tool at the time) to search for information.

The one thing I would do differently if I could travel back in time would be to be more proactive about searching for internship opportunities while I was a college student. I don’t think I realized then just how many opportunities are out there, or how valuable they can be. I spent my first two summers in college working at a golf course. While the money I saved from that job certainly helped me pay my bills and therefore keep my student loan debt down, I might have been better off in the long run using that time to build up some sort of professional experience.

2 Comments

  1. […] skills, or other best practices can students become more nuanced in so they can excel at an internship or a […]

  2. […] Doing internships gives students a little peak inside of what life is like, so you can see what you actually want to do. Even virtually, you will say, “Is this what she does all day?” or “I thought this was a super low-key job and she is emailing us on the weekends!” Yes, you kind of never shut it off. To me, to work in the nonprofit space, you have to be very dedicated. Some people have this idea that they’re punching a clock and then they are done. But really, it’s not like that. It’s much more of you have to check out what other people are doing, you have to go to other people’s events, you have to support other nonprofits. […]

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