Just because your internship is paid, doesn’t make it a good program. And, just because your internship is unpaid doesn’t make it an illegal, brand-damaging blight on the company.
Instead, when evaluating an internship opportunity, take pay out of the equation (I’m serious!) and investigate the presence of these five factors:
Mentorship: If you are the “public relations intern,” for example, you’d better be supervised by someone who actually knows about public relations. In addition, this person should devote the time to being your sounding board — and be genuinely interested in your future enough to answer all of your questions, or put you in touch with someone who can.
Learning: You should be learning something new every day – and completing real projects. I always recommend interns keep an informal journal of their experiences – mostly so you don’t forget what you’ve accomplished to add to your résumé later. Set up a meeting with your supervisor once or twice a month to go over your journal to make sure you’re both still on the same page.
Another way to ensure learning throughout your internship is to set goals at the very beginning against which you can measure at the end. You might want to ask about this during the interview process.
Networking: Especially if the organization can’t offer you a job at the end of your internship, it’s important to provide you with access to people who might. Along similar lines, make sure you have at least one sit-down with senior leaders within the organization sometime before your internship ends.
Work Samples: This depends on the field and confidentiality rules of the company, but if you can swing it, make sure you walk away with not only accomplishment stories, but also physical proof of what you’ve done while interning for the organization.
Recognition: Throughout the internship, outstanding interns should be recognized for their hard work. If you came up with a great idea – particularly if the organization goes on to use the idea – other people in the company should know about it! And, at the end of the internship, ask your supervisor if s/he would be willing to serve as a reference. In fact, during the interview process, ask about the company’s overall reference policy — and your supervisor’s personal policy.
Although I laid out the specifics for a few the above, every single point can be asked about during the interview process — before you start your internship. It’s important you to enter every internship with your eyes wide open to what you’ll be experiencing, regardless of pay.
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