Internships, placement, work experience, slave labour. Whatever you call it, there’s no doubt that having real-life, often unpaid, industry experience under your belt before landing a paid position is the modern norm in most fields of work.
I’ve undertaken two internships at two very different companies. I jumped into the first internship with a fairly small company out of sheer curiosity- I felt that my university courses were not only heavy on theory but also that the content was simply outdated. I needed to learn about current practices, not so much about Gutenberg’s Press (although this is a topic which holds a very special place in my heart). After realising I could make internships count for credit, I took up the opportunity to do another internship with a slightly larger organisation which gave me experience in many different departments.
Putting aside the legal and ethical concerns regarding unpaid internships in Australia, especially for those from regional and low SES contexts (see here and here), my own personal experience with internships is that they have been well worth the time and effort that I have been so lucky to have been able to invest.
The most valuable lessons I’ve learned apply across almost any industry from Media, to Finance to Engineering to Health. Here are my top 4:
- No One is Ever Really Done Learning
For those of us who are so over being The Student and can’t wait to finally graduate to being The Master, it may come as a little surprise that even the people who actually get paid to do what they do, don’t always have all the answers. While I was interning, I often felt like I was jumping into someone else’s learning journey. Sure, they’ve been in the game for years and years, but they too are constantly adapting and changing to suit the evolution of the industry.
In fact, it became clear over the course of my internships, that the individuals who invested more time and effort into learning and training, inside and outside of the scope of the workplace, were the ones that continually excelled and innovated. Understanding that gives me hope as a rookie in the workplace, because although skills and experience are super important, an open mind to learn new things is just as critical to professional success.
- (Most) People Want to Help You
Just like in almost any context, if you enter a workplace as an intern or a newbie, be warned that you may encounter some not-so-nice people. I’ve met people who had an inflated sense of ego and made me feel like I was wasting their precious time. People who used the fact that I was “just an intern” to get me to do their grunt work, or pay me less respect than they would anyone else. In my experience though, those people are few and far between, and their attitude was definitely more a reflection of them than it was of me.
Nasty people aside, I was truly amazed and humbled by how many people were so willing to take time out of their schedules to sit with me, explain to me what they do and how they do it, show me examples of past work and give me some truly valuable advice. That’s what interning is all about. What’s more, I felt like these industry experts became invested in my success, were generous with constructive criticism and feedback and super encouraging all-around. I think that many industry veterans could remember being in my shoes- a university student who has no idea about what they want to pursue after graduation and were happy for the opportunity to give something back.
- Students Do Have Something to Contribute
For the average “entry-level” role, job ads often have an impossibly long list of expectations outside of a tertiary qualification. Reading through the lists of skills and experience that I was expected to have before I even graduated made me feel like I was already so far behind. I thought I didn’t have anything useful to contribute to a business and I just simply wasn’t worth hiring. I used to shudder at sheer number of talented students in my cohort, not to mention all the other graduates from other universities, who surely had way more experience and achieved much better marks than I did.
Through interning, I slowly began to realise that, although they needed some work and development, I actually did already have useful and valuable skills to contribute. Just because I didn’t have the job title and the salary, that didn’t mean that my work was bad or that I was dumb. In fact, my unique “young, hip millennial” perspective and ability to use Google/YouTube to quickly learn new things served me in good stead over the course of my internships. Building that confidence in my abilities was a really invaluable lesson that interning taught me.
- Girls Really Do Run The (Corporate) World
I’ve had plenty of positive female role models growing up; my mum, my female relatives, teachers and family friends. Women who just roll up their sleeves and get things done. Women who put in the extra time needed to do things properly. Women who take the initiative and command respect in their own fields. The main difference was, my experience of women was usually in a personal context, not a professional one. Before interning, my work experience, from hospitality, to retail, to private tutoring, told me that leaders and bosses are generally men. Even though I knew that women were bosses too, I hadn’t really had too many chances to see it in practice.
During the course of both of my internships, I had the opportunity to meet, and work closely with, so many certified Boss Women. I’m talking Department Heads, Managing Directors, Senior Management and Chief Executives who brought to the table years of experience, insights, visions, strategies and skills. They could command respect and speak with authority. They had their own side hustles outside of work and were killing it. I learned that women in charge aren’t scary and they don’t have to be aggressive, competitive or masculine like what is so often perpetuated in political discourse. It might sound like a bit of a random lesson, but it’s one that was super important for me.
Now it’s your turn! Have you ever been an intern? Maybe you’ve taken one under your wing? Do you relate to any of the lessons I’ve shared above?