Pros & Cons: Internships

I am a huge fan of Jimmy Fallon’s late night show. Mostly because I’m a huge fan of Jimmy Fallon, and specifically, his impression of Barry Gibb:

Once a week, he does a segment called “Pros and Cons” where he lists the – can you guess? – pros and cons of a random recent occurrence in pop culture (for example, when the President was his guest). It’s always quite entertaining and I thought it might make a fun blog post theme.

So, following up on this weekend’s post on internships, here is my list of the pros and cons of taking an internship. Agree, disagree, add to the list. Happy Wednesday!

PRO: It’s one of the best ways to figure out what you want to be when you grow up.

For reals. Read all the books, articles, and websites you want. Take every single career quiz you can find. Talk with people in the field. But I promise you that NONE of those will be as helpful as actually going in and seeing a career or industry first-hand. I’ll give you a good example: when I decided I wanted to go to culinary school, I knew exactly what I would be getting myself into. Chefs with egos the size of Viking stoves, early mornings spent trying not to burn myself while taking fifty loaves of bread out of an oven at a time, painfully monotonous work days. All this I could handle. But it wasn’t until I took internships in the food prep field that I saw why I couldn’t do it: food, to me, is way more than just something to slice, dice, bake and fry. I love the prep aspect, but not near as much as I love talking about it, writing about it, and exploring it from all sides. I needed more intellectual stimulation from my career. But I wouldn’t have figured that out if I hadn’t done the work myself.

CON: You will be asked “oh…so when are you going to grad school?” 522 times.

Well, I can’t promise that number is accurate. I can, however, tell you that choosing internships as an alternate form of education freaks people out. It’s normal – everyone has a different threshold for dealing with derivations from the norm. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get sick of explaining it.

And of course, there are thousands of students who intern while they’re in school, after receiving a higher degree, or still plan on getting one. The real thing to consider with grad school is the usefulness of the degree in your career field. If I were to go and get a master’s in food studies, it would be more for personal reasons; the field is so new right now that most employers would probably prefer to see the experience an internship provides than a fancy expensive degree.

(And for the record, I’m a huge fan of continuing education…I’m just saying it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t seem like the right choice for you.)

PRO: You meet lots and lots of people.

When you intern anywhere, you’re going to meet people. You’re going to attend conferences, make phone calls, write emails, interview a bunch of different people who do a bunch of different things. Networking is a beautiful thing. Even if an internship doesn’t result in a job with that organization, you still get awesome references and connections you would have never even known about before that will come in handy some day when you’re sending out resumes everywhere.

CON: It doesn’t exactly pay the bills.

If you’re lucky enough to find a cool internship that is also paid, it will most likely not be much more than a small stipend – and 85% of the internships I see nowadays are simply unpaid. This can be tough for a reallllly long list of reasons. Beyond the obvious “and I’m supposed to support myself HOW?” issue, there are psychological/emotional issues that can come up as well. I personally have really struggled with feeling valued versus feeling downright exploited, and that can turn a decent internship into a nightmare quickly if you let it. What I have found is that this starts happening after about three to six months, depending on how much you’re enjoying the experience. My advice: talk with your employer/supervisor people. The experience they are providing you with is very important – but not as important as your own comfort and self-worth. I wouldn’t recommend taking an internship that lasts longer than six months, unless there is clear discussion of job opportunities at the end or you love it that much.

I will say this though – internships are hella cheaper than any tuition around.

PRO: It’s fun.

Of my seven internships, I absolutely adore (still do!) 3 of them – and those 3 made the others beyond worth it. All of them have had major life-changing effects on me, and I like how interesting my resume looks. It’s given me tons of confidence and adaptability, to the point where I’m quite sure you could plunk me down in any professional position and I’d have it figured out within months. And it’s also the perfect answer for a recent graduate who can.not.sit. in one more damn classroom. I won’t lie – I graduated completely and totally burnt out on academia. It is liberating to feel like I am doing work that makes a positive impact on something other than a GPA.

CON: It ain’t easy.

Internships present completely different, even opposing, challenges than academia. You have to deal with bitchy customers/members and adapt to dramatically different office vibes. You have to prepare for interviews via phone, Skype, and in person. You have to write cover letter after cover letter, spending hours on a piece of paper some HR person will spend 5 minutes reading. You’ll be ignored. You’ll get frustrated. And you’re doing all of it for free. It’s enough to have you wondering why you ever left college.

BUT in my experience – and quite a few others of which I know personally – it will pay off. I have had a crazy year, but there so many wonderful things have happened. I uncovered a ridiculous and rather nerdy passion for sustainable food thanks to my time with these guys. I moved across the country on my own. I ate some really good food.

There are lots of reasons to choose grad school or internships or both or neither. I don’t think one is better than the other, at least not in general; I think everyone has to choose what’s best for them according to what they want. Of my friends, I’m the only one not in grad school right now – except for one who joined the Peace Corps and is pretty much the coolest person I know. And all of their decisions were the right ones – one wants to go into research, and two want to be professors. Higher degrees are THE way to get what they want. I’m still trying to figure out what I want, so jumping around and trying different things made the most sense for me.

And that was Pros & Cons. Got any to add?

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