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Career

Should You Intern for a Big or Small Company?

Here you are: a smart, incredible collegiette surfing the web for the perfect summer internship or applying for one. Internships are a tricky business; experiences range from “OMG it was the best job EVER!” to “I literally just sat at a desk for eight hours every day and played Tetris.”

Sometimes this drastic difference in experience stems from the size of the company. There’s a big question: is it better to work for a larger company or a smaller company? What are the pros and cons of each, and which one is best for you? We’ve talked to experts and students to find out!

BIG COMPANY

Pros

Name Recognition

One of the biggest advantages of working at a large company is that other companies in the same field recognize the “brand name” of that corporation.

“If a student is interested in working for a big company, market-cap familiarity can often help,” says Kevin Curtin, a senior Peer Career Advisor at Wesleyan University. “For example, taking a less important role at a big company with strong brand recognition may enhance one's attractiveness to a large peer company.”

“If you end up working in a big company, you will probably need to work harder at making an impression,” says Eirene Wang, a senior Peer Career Advisor at Amherst College specializing in internship help. “Of course you can still climb the ranks, which many people do, but it may take longer to get there. The plus is that if you work at a recognizable company, the name will definitely help with your future endeavors.”

Kevin explains that this name recognition aspect can be especially important in certain fields over others. “In traditional business and even law, working for large companies generally helps when it comes to HR departments that quickly scan resumes,” he says.

Vicki Salemi, a career/HR expert and founder of Career Boot Camp for College Grads, agrees that name recognition is important for a potential career. “If you're studying marketing for instance,” she says, “interning at Disney will have more cache and strength on your resume than a boutique firm.”

Stability

Ben Doernberg, another senior Peer Career Advisor at Wesleyan, worked for NASA, an organization with over 18,000 employees.

“Bigger organizations may be more likely to have experienced mentors, better defined internship programs, and more connections to other organizations and people in the field/industry,” he said.

Interns working for smaller or newer companies might have trouble finding big name connections or mentors who have been through the industry grind.

Cons

Bureaucracy

Although Ben loved his job at NASA and found his experience wonderful and deeply helpful, he says it was his first exposure to company bureaucracy.

“I had to write a letter congratulating a 5th grade class in the UK on some of their science projects,” Ben says. “That letter had to go through five layers of revisions and authorizations before it could go out! At a small company they probably would have recognized that perhaps this particular communication didn't need quite so many signoffs.”

The lack of autonomy can be frustrating to some, especially when seemingly mundane tasks are required to go through multiple hands before making their way to their intended destination.

Because of the amount of bureaucracy at some organizations, it may not feel like you are doing as much work as you are capable of. “While you may accomplish name recognition on your resume [by interning at a large company], you may not be able to grow as much professionally,” Eirene explains, “especially if you are not given -- or do not acquire -- as many responsibilities.”

No Personalization

Working at a large company can seem more like a “Look at me!” contest than a job.

“In a large company, you may lose the ‘personal’ feel of working in a smaller organization,” says Eirene.  

The way and rate you try to meet people may change depending on company size, too. “[At a small company], you should be determined to meet people on your will,” Eirene says. “Typically, in a large company, employees and interns are pretty replaceable, [and they are replaced] before they acquire experience, since everyone wants the job.”

So interning at a larger company could potentially be more of a race to shake the boss’s hand than effort to learn important professional skills or shaping your own personal experience.

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SMALL COMPANY

Pros

Personalization

Eirene, who has interned for small non-profits before, finds that “because of the size of the organization, you will probably not only get more experience, [but] you'll get to know your colleagues better, and be more connected to the company mission.”

Since she was more connected in her company, she was treated more as an employee than an intern and was given greater responsibility. No more coffee runs or hours of playing Tetris at an empty desk!

Ben echoes Eirene’s sentiments. Having interned for several small companies, Ben finds that “you tend to get more responsibility, more visibility, and get to work with the people who are actually making the decisions. There [are] fewer policies and less bureaucracy [at a smaller organization], so there's a smaller chance that you'll be doing things that just don't make sense for you in your role.”

Salemi points out that at a large firm, your department may only be in charge of one very specific part of the company, like marketing. But interning at a smaller organization “may give you the opportunity to get involved with PR, marketing, social media, and events” at the same time.

By taking on more responsibilities, Kevin adds, “with [fewer] staff [members] to cover more responsibilities, each intern and junior employee usually needs to wear many hats.” By taking on a more diverse workload, you could potentially be sharpening many professional skills at once and also gain valuable experience in other fields. This experience could also lead to greater opportunity later!

Meaningful Work

Though many interns have, like Ben, had meaningful internships at large companies, campus career centers often recommend smaller companies as a means of gaining more skills and doing more work for both resume-building and self-growth purposes.

“From [my] perspective as a Peer Career Advisor, [working for small organizations] can make for stronger entries on a resume,” Kevin says. “We at the [Wesleyan Career Center] tend to advocate for experiences that really build skills and demonstrate expertise in the area in which a student is interested.”

During his time at NASA, Ben found himself working with an extremely small group of people within a gigantic company, meaning that he still got the small organization experience.

“NASA has 18,000 employees,” he says, “but I worked in [an international relations] department of about 15 [people], and the other 17,985 [employees] didn't have a huge impact on my day-to-day experience.”

Trisha Arora, a Wesleyan University sophomore, interned at a bank in Oklahoma during her winter break. One of the highlights of her time at the bank was the personal attention so many of the employees gave to her. “I always felt like I had many go-to people to talk to,” she gushes. “People were extremely interested and excited to help me.”

Cons

Blurred Lines and Lives

One of the other issues that could arise when interning for a smaller company is the blurring of job lines and the invasion of your career into your personal life.

Trisha had issues with the former at her job. As a person who likes structure and a promotion-conscious system, she found the “everyone does a little bit of everything” approach at her company to be puzzling and frustrating at times.

“In a small company, sometimes you can only ‘climb’ so far,” Trisha says. “It’s confusing not to know your exact job title and where your duty boundaries begin and end.”

As far as the issue of which “life” (career or personal) to fit your internship into, “The cost of [working at a smaller company], of course, is that you may become too entangled in the organization's affairs,” Eirene cautions. “You may find it more difficult to separate work life and other life.” Make sure to define your own limits between work and everything else at the beginning of your internship!

The TMI Principle

Building on that grey area an internship at a small company can have, Trisha acknowledges a problem she calls the “TMI Principle” that she found at her workplace.

“People know everyone and everything,” she says. “Sometimes it could get really annoying for people to know everyone’s business both in a professional and personal capacity.”

Although it can be wonderful to have so much connectedness and solidarity between coworkers, Trisha found it overwhelming at times. Such uncertainty amongst the boundaries between coworkers can create awkward situations, problematic disputes, or (again) too much of a mixture between the professional and the personal lives.

Before going into an internship, make sure you determine what information you would like your fellow interns and coworkers to know about you, especially when it comes to issues that fall outside the work/career category. Then maybe avoid adding them on Facebook or accepting their follow requests on Twitter if you’d rather not get too personal.

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THE CHOICE IS YOURS

So, which company size is right for your internship? Salemi recommends trying out internships at both big and small companies during your college years if possible. “This will help you determine when you graduate if you prefer to work at a small or large company,” she says.

Ben suggests doing more research, especially hands-on investigating. “I think it's also important to do some research to find out how each company handles interns,” he says. “Do they have defined expectations or duties?”

Ben also notes that it is important to know if companies understand how to utilize interns. “Especially for smaller companies, [it’s important to know if] they have ever had interns before,” he says. “Try to talk to former interns, if you can track them down. There are interns making coffee and there are interns making huge impacts at both big and small companies.”

Kevin applies his own experiences to finding the perfect company size for an internship. “I myself am working at a Wall Street investment bank, and I chose a smaller role at another large firm for the brand recognition and commitment to the field,” he says.

However, Kevin notes, “This certainly does not apply in all fields. In advertising, for example, working at a smaller shop that would allow one to develop his own portfolio would be a lot better than grabbing coffee at Ogilvy.”

“Some fields entail larger companies, others smaller,” Eirene concludes. “If you like getting your hands dirty and taking on a lot of work, then small companies may be for you. Yes, you'll have more responsibilities, but you may also become more valued. Your company may or may not be top in its field, but at least you are an important member of your company, something which a lot of people seek.”

Lily is a member of Wesleyan University's class of 2016, where she double majored in government and sociology. She's a writer, editor, and social media manager, as well as co-founder of The Prospect (www.theprospect.net), the world’s largest student-run college access organization. In addition to her work with Her Campus, she also serves in editorial roles at HelloFlo and The Muse.
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