In(ternship) Retrospect: what I wish I would’ve known prior to my first internship.
Lessons learned — two years and three internships later.
Flashback to March 2019.
I’m a computer science newbie, just a year into my degree after switching over from music. After attending a conference for women in STEM hosted at Harvard, I was left with an overhwelming sense of excitement and dread. While the experience was incredibly inspiring, it brought me to the realization that I was utterly behind — wrapping up my sophomore year, totally missed the tech recruiting season (how did no one tell me it was in the fall?!?), few programming projects on my Github profile, no internship or summer plans in sight.
However, I was determined to find an internship for the summer. It took 2 months and more applications (and rejections) than I care to admit, but I finally received an offer!
Fast forward to present day.
I’ve worked three different internships — business operations in product management, software development for an enterprise product, and data science at NASA. While my path into and through these opportunities has been somewhat unorthodox, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that I’m hoping will be helpful to other students!
Internships are unparalleled experiences.
Take it from this recently graduated student: internships are your pathway to full time jobs. With the competitive professional landscape and rapidly evolving fields of today, it’s not enough to just be working on or possess a college degree. Most entry-level jobs nowadays require 1+ years of relevant professional experience, which for students are found through internships.
The reason internship experience is so distinct is because it offers exposure to a professional environment, allows you to build industry-relevant skills, collaborate with different individuals and teams in a real-world capacity, and more. These are things that cannot be acquired in a classroom, through personal projects or research papers, or other academic experiences.
There is no right way.
First and foremost, there is no right way, place or time to get an internship.
In tech, it feels like there’s a template for success. Do your leetcode, take your classes, do your projects, interview round after round, get an internship, and get a job offer a semester later. I can’t speak for other fields, but I imagine there are similar cases.
However, everyone’s path is different. Mine was a lot different than most of my peers — it’s not a bad thing, just a fact. I got a very late start in the recruiting cycle and started off with a non-tech internship, transitioning into roles closer to my career goals. Not typical, but it worked.
It’s important to keep this in mind throughout the internship search process because sometimes “the right way” isn’t your right way.
Prepare if possible.
When I became aware that I missed the tech recruiting season, I simply did not have time to build the portfolio needed to obtain the roles I wanted (more on how I got past this in the next section).
However, for the following internships, I had plenty of time to prepare. In addition to gaining experience from my first internship, I made sure to work on individual and group side projects, write research papers through courses, and create independent study opportunities for myself. By putting in that extra energy and preparing a relevant portfolio, I managed to secure internships that aligned with my career goals.
Trying to get a software development internship with minimal software development projects in my arsenal was a complete dead end. So what next?
I pivoted and changed my approach. Instead of trying to get an internship that I wanted with no relevant experience, I started trying to get an internship with my relevant experience even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I kept an open mind and focused on what I could bring to the table.
There will be a ton of students with comparable experiences competing for the same internships. You can make yourself stand out by having an exceptional resume, website, and LinkedIn. I’ve said all that I would about these things in other articles that you should check out for in-depth tips.
Tips for Creating a Stellar ePortfolio
Make your ePortfolio stand out with these 6 tips.
Make the most of your opportunities.
After you have an internship, it’s simply not enough to coast by — especially if you’re trying to gain valuable, transferrable skills or hoping for a job offer. Here are a few suggestions I have for making the most of an internship — which can be applied to most other opportunities — once you have your foot in the door.
Seek out opportunities to build your desired skillset.
The reason that internships are unparalleled experiences is because they provide relevant professional experience for entry-level roles. This is assuming that your internship actually provides relevant experience. That being said, you can make the most of your internship by being proactive in making opportunities for yourself that will help advance your own professional development interests.
For example: in my business operations internship, I had the opportunity to work on data visualizations for a product management dashboard. Because I was interested in advancing my data analytics and science skillset, I said yes to every related opportunity and even suggested projects that would both help the team and contribute to my growing skillset with data.
Be your own best advocate.
Actions speak louder than words, right? By working hard, being professional, and saying yes to challenges, you can demonstrate that you’re a valuable asset to the team — potentially biding yourself another semester or even promoting yourself into a full time role.
Furthermore, if you’re able to track your input and output, going so far as to quantify the difference you made (e.g. “providing additional data access methods that increased visibility by 80%”), you can present that information to managers during performance reviews or add it to a resume for job applications.
Connect with others.
This may seem like an obvious one, but the importance cannot be underscored enough. Not only will getting to know other interns, your teammates, and managers make the whole experience more enjoyable, but you’ll also be building your professional network. Most times there will be chat groups or after-work socials (even virtually) that will provide opportunities to get to know people past work!
Please share in the comments if these lessons learned were valuable for you, or if you have any additional insights!