Each year thousands of college students set out to gain experience at an internship. They all start out eager and optimistic, but that reality quickly changes for most. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll find an internship that provides you with the necessary skills and knowledge you’ll need in your future career. If you aren’t, then you’ll most likely find yourself a part of the masses who sit in cubicles for 40 hours a week, staring at a blank computer screen. I’ve often heard people say, “It all depends where you work! Internships aren’t all bad.” As someone who has worked both paid and unpaid internships in different areas of professionalism, I can say my experience has remained the same. But, I want to delve a little deeper and answer the question of just how useful internships really are before settling with my personal opinion.
Before basing my answer on my own stories, I decided to ask some of my peers about their internship experiences. A 22-year-old recent college graduate, who wished to remain anonymous, talked with me about her three internships she had during her college career. When I asked her if she had found any of them to be useful towards her career, she replied, “I did find my second one to be very hands-on, and it benefited me and my career goals quite a bit. I felt like I had a direct role in the success of the event I was marketing for and that my opinions, ideas and ability made a difference and were valued.”
This type of internship experience is coveted and envied by many, so this also raised the question of what type of companies provide this sort of working environment. “This was a smaller company, so that may have had an impact on why I had such a positive experience.” My friend’s reply made me wonder, could it be that smaller companies truly do have a stronger, more team oriented approach? Or is there more room for heavier work-loads due to the lack of a large employee base? I decided to look a little further into this question and contacted another friend.
The first friend I reached out to was another 22-year-old college graduate, but this time she was an engineer. She explained to me that her internship was a co-op, or cooperative education. “Basically, it’s an internship that counts for credit through the school, so I had one co-op of three, 15 week rotations. I also have an internship now that I got on my own.”
I asked her if she felt that her co-op was a useful application of her schooling, and if was helpful to her future career. My friend replied enthusiastically, “Yes, definitely. It was the best experience I could’ve gotten out of college. Especially for engineering, there’s a lot of science and math to learn, but it’s how you apply it that is more important.”
I wondered how her experience could be so much more engaging and practical to her skill set. When I asked her if she felt her positive interactions with the work force were due to her field of work, she was a little unsure of how to answer. “I think it could be, at least for engineering, that it makes all the grueling classes so worth it. Like, actually getting to design and build a fluid system is way more rewarding than pumping out theoretical fluid mechanic problems.”
My other friend is a rising sophomore who worked with a marketing company out of Philadelphia last summer. When I asked about her experience, it was not as positive as some of my other peers. “I was promised experience and engagement with the staff, but it turned out to be myself and 10 other interns that they didn’t need to hire just sitting in a room waiting for work.”
I asked her if she thought this role had helped at all, even if only a little, for her future career goals. She replied, “No, there was no actual work given besides taking out the trash and filling out the same spreadsheet for three months straight.” It seemed that regardless of company size, some internships just did not provide any useful knowledge. Unfortunately, my friend’s lack of exposure to a helpful summer experience was similar to my own.
Maybe it’s because I chose to work for a larger company my first summer that I found myself facing the same situation, but as I enter my third summer as intern, I have come face to face with this sort of work again. I have yet to receive a single project besides busywork, like creating a spreadsheet or reading a news article, and I have yet to see my boss as well. As I approach the mid-way mark to my summer job, I find myself with the same disappointment. I work at a smaller company, yet I have the same frustration I’ve had in the past and can relate to some of my friends.
When I expressed this sort of anger to my 22-year-old friend, she revealed her first internship was similar. “While I was lucky with my second internship, my boss at my first internship never communicated with me and I never saw her the last month I worked with her.” Hearing this eased my mind a little, as it appeared to me these type of internships are more common than we as students are lead to believe.
Considering my own disappointment, as well as others who have even experienced great internship opportunities, it has lead me to believe that internships aren’t that great after all. We sacrifice pay, time, and our summers to try and learn useful skills for our career paths, only to find ourselves sitting at desks and counting down the hours until we can go home and cherish the few hours of freedom we do get. To those who have received what they wished for out of an internship, I’m eternally envious. Until then, I’ll be at my desk, listening to podcasts and updating spreadsheets, dreaming of a day where I get to experience the satisfaction that some of my peers have gotten out of their jobs.
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