Internships are building blocks of a career. In many cases, they have become an implicit prerequisite for an entry-level job. Internships are the source of much practical training and office experience that employers seek. Employers want to be sure that potential hires understand the demands of the contemporary workplace and are not under the impression that the sometimes more relaxed deadlines of academic life apply in work situations.
Researching internships should be approached as seriously as searching for a relatively permanent position. You will be trading a precious commodity—your time—for valuable training in return for either no remuneration or, if you're lucky, a modest stipend. You want to make sure you choose to work in an environment where your supervisors truly care about your growth and professional development.
Exploitation? No, a Chance to Learn and Grow
Internships can provide skills training and other valuable learning that one cannot acquire in the classroom. Actual work situations in the fields of international education, exchange, and development may be quite different from what you imagine. The introduction an internship can provide to the daily tasks involved in a given job or organization is invaluable.
Some career websites and discussions warn students that certain internships might be "only for the benefit of the employer" and may not offer any useful or pertinent experiences. One such website goes so far as to say that unless an internship provides a valuable learning experience, such as skills training or exposure to a specific business culture, the experience might be "little more than exploitation." This seems to be overstating the case.
It's true that some internships in the field of international affairs pay little to no money—few internships are actually a source of significant income. It's also true that most organizations, especially small ones, greatly benefit from the presence of interns. We know from experience that the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV), the Institute of International Education, the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, and many other international education, exchange, and development organizations could not function as effectively as they do without the talent and contributions of their interns. But this certainly is not tantamount to exploitation.
Many organizations that recruit and utilize interns greatly appreciate the sacrifices interns make in order to work in their chosen fields for little or no salary and attempt to repay them with quality experiences that include genuinely substantive work and opportunities to participate in events outside of the office. For example, in addition to the stipend it provides for its interns, NCIV emphasizes that they are not cheap labor brought in to do the menial tasks that no one else wants to do. Rather, they are an integral part of the staff. Though NCIV intern supervisors make certain that each intern knows some grunt work will be required—indeed, in a small office, everyone is required to do grunt work—it also strives to ensure that 75 to 80 percent of their tasks are substantive projects and research aligned with their interests. It's true that organizations want to benefit from their interns, but they typically want to see their interns flourish as well. Wise managers know that satisfied, well-trained interns are a valuable pool of future employees. They treat their interns accordingly.
A Good Internship Depends on You
Surely there are a few organizations and supervisors who are uninterested in the development of their interns. They may pile on mindless tasks, and an intern might spend a semester in front of the copier or doing interminable data entry. The first way to avoid such an internship is to ask questions. An internship posting can tell you only so much about the duties you'd be performing. A website reveals only what the organization chooses to convey. Remember that an interview for an internship is just as much about you judging a potential employer as it is about them assessing you. Come prepared with a list of questions and try to glean from your interviewers the type of tasks you'd be assigned. Try to get a feel for the working environment. What can you expect to learn in your time as an intern? Talk to current interns, if possible. Don't be shy about making it clear that, while you are excited to help the organization in any way you can, you are also looking for an experience that is both substantive and meaningful.
We always advise anyone going to an office for an internship or job interview to arrive early. This builds in a margin for delays so that you're sure to arrive on time, thus demonstrating your dependability. However, if you arrive early, you'll also have time to observe while waiting. Do they have time to offer a newcomer a smile and friendly hello? Is the receptionist polite and helpful? If the answer is yes, chances are your supervisor will be as well. An organization's culture inevitably reflects the examples set by those in charge.
Once you've accepted an intern position, it is also up to you to get the maximum benefit possible in exchange for your effort. Communicate with your supervisor regularly. Express interest in projects that captivate your attention. A meaningful internship experience comes not only from the tasks you're doing but also the people you meet. Extend your network as much as possible. Push yourself to meet others working in your specific field of interest. Interns find that contacts gained in such situations are often the most beneficial.