Internships: What Should You Know Before You Search for One?

An ideal internship creates a win-win situation. Students can benefit by enriching their educational experience and become more competitive in the job market when they graduate. Employers benefit from the enthusiasm, energy and knowledge of student interns and have a chance to screen and groom potential employees.

How Internships Have Changed

Traditionally, only “college-age” students were recruited for full-time internships during the summer after their junior year. Interns were expected to be pursuing a related degree at their college, were mentored at the workplace, and were paid a stipend that covered little more than room and board. Most were offered a career position when they graduated in June, and many colleges had an internship “office” that functioned to “place” interns, often in local businesses or Congressional offices.

But most of those “givens” are now extremely variable. Students of all ages (and even non-students) now pursue internships – which can be full-time, part-time, paid or volunteer positions. The minimum definition seems to be that an internship is short-term work that is based on experiential learning in one’s area of interest, thus being generally related to what that person wants to do in the future.

“Short-term” can mean weeks or months, and can be either full-time or part-time. An internship can occur during a student’s junior summer, as well as before or during college -- or at nearly any other time in one’s life! An internship can be volunteer work; it can come with a (fixed-amount) stipend; it can be minimum wage or more, paid hourly or on a project basis; or, it can be a salary, paid at the “going-rate.”

Non-students are also using the term “internship” to initiate or describe short-term work experiences, to prepare for career transitions, to add work experience in a related field, to get a start in a very competitive field and to get an inside perspective on a new field before deciding on a career transition.

Real Value in Internships

As internships have become more common, more companies now expect to find internship experience on a candidate’s resume, and to see a more sophisticated knowledge of their work because of that experience. Competitively, a candidate with internship experience almost always ranks higher than a candidate without such experience. Also, companies find internships very valuable as a way to “try out” potential permanent employees, to look at interns’ “fit,” and their ability to adapt and learn quickly.

Hundreds of businesses in the Puget Sound region have sponsored interns from local educational institutions, making no secret of their goal to purposefully “groom” these individuals for permanent positions later. Many large companies (for example, Weyerhaeuser and Microsoft), have well-developed internship programs that are advertised nationally and are seen as “training” programs for potential employees.

Most colleges encourage students to take credits along with such a work experience and to reflect on and understand how the learning experience fits into their career, so they can better articulate their work-related skills and strengths to potential employers. This is one of the most valuable exercises that interns can engage in, and the one most frequently neglected by non-students. Even more important than the experience itself is the recognition and articulation of how that experience and the skills gained fit into one’s career work - as well as recognition of what one still needs to learn to be successful in the field.

During all internships, it is useful to keep a record of the experience for later reflection and evaluation. And, examples of accomplishments from the internship can be very useful for constructing career portfolios, and can help convince employers that those making career transitions can be effective employees in the new field.

Internships and Jobs: Exploration, Networking and Investment

Remember that a search for an internship is really the equivalent of a job search (although it may be a little easier for students, because most people are simply more open to helping “students”). You should be researching internships as thoroughly as you check out jobs, and you should have a complete understanding of the “job description” for an internship, and the expectations for both sponsor and intern roles.

Be sure that the work is not going to be just mindless labor. Especially if you are a student taking academic credit during the internship, be sure that you understand the anticipated learning outcomes, and that sufficient training, supervision and /or mentoring will be available to help you achieve your goals.

Internships give you a chance to work in the environment where you think you want to be, to see if it really is a good “fit” for your individual strengths. For example, Janice always “knew” that she wanted to be an elementary school teacher, but she wasn’t able to work in a classroom until her student teaching practicum course, starting her senior year.

Fortunately, she discovered then that she didn’t like the environment as much as she had anticipated, and, during her student-teaching “internship,” she had noticed that elementary schools also had many non-teaching positions. She volunteered for another brief internship in the school library, and when she decided that this environment was right for her, she was able to modify her plans and become qualified as an elementary school librarian.

Even work that under normal circumstances would be called “a summer job,” can be referred to as an internship if it is related to the kind of work that you eventually want to do. For example, Jon spent a summer working as a wrangler at a “dude” ranch to get hands-on experience and an inside perspective on the business before he decided on a career of managing a similar ranch.

Another major benefit of internships is an entrée into “the network.” If you discover that this work is the right fit for you, and you want to continue working in the field, an internship is the best time and place to start developing mentoring and professional relationships with others more experienced than you. This can be a great opportunity to learn who is doing what in the field and, even more important, for them to learn about your skills and strengths (and where to find you when you are needed).

You may also have the chance to develop long-lasting peer relationships with fellow interns and employees. An internship may sound like a short-term commitment, but it can be a long-term investment, too.

The question of internships as investments always comes up when discussing compensation, which can vary significantly. Some sectors are more likely to expect volunteer interns, such as non-profit organizations (because they themselves tend to lack resources) and the entertainment industry (because it is so competitive). It remains an individual decision, but it is instructive to research salaries in that career field before simply accepting whatever is offered.

Finding (or Initiating) an Internship

Finding internships is easiest when starting with pre-existing internship programs: search under the term “internships” in career centers, on organization websites, in libraries and bookstores. ( currently lists 131 books under “internships”!) Check with your alumni or college career office, as well as all related professional associations, and don’t neglect newspapers, teachers, friends and relatives.

Formal internship programs tend to be limited to students, but not all are. If you are not currently a student (and especially if you have just graduated), ask if there are exceptions, and be prepared to explain that internships are now commonly being stretched to fit beyond students-only.

More than ever before, you’ll find it useful to be pro-active, to extend your search beyond existing internship programs. Start by researching the organizations related to your field of interest. Find out what organizations do the kind of work you want and approach them directly, with cover letter and resume. Be able to explain how you could add value to that organization.

Find and join related professional associations and organizations, an astonishing number of which have chapters in Seattle. The city is large enough to support local chapters of many professional associations, yet small enough that you’ll have the opportunity to meet a high percentage of the people working nearby in that field. Don’t forget to look for an alumni group from your own alma mater. Ask all these contacts for their perspective on the field and for suggestions and referrals to organizations that may need interns.

“Doing your research” means that you learn about the organizations where you would like to intern. If you learn enough to anticipate the needs of that organization and propose your services as the solution, you may be able to help them initiate an internship for you. In fact, many internships are project-based because organizations almost invariably have wish-lists of projects they would like to complete, but that they haven’t had time to accomplish during normal hours. By solving their problem, you could solve your own -- and isn’t that just what a "win-win" solution is supposed to do?

[Revised 2002, KD]

Internships Workshop Handout at UW, 2002

What are internships? Are they different from volunteer, part-time or summer jobs?

What are the benefits? Can an internship help me develop a career path?

Where can I find out about internships?

How to choose what to do:

How to make the most of your choice:

Additional Resources: Books and Directories

Additional Resources: Websites

University of Washington Center for Career Services

University of Washington Carlson Leadership Center

[Revised 2002, SJT]

UW Internship Websites

The followiing departments have some form of internships listed on their site!


Local organizations that have had interns in the past

Note that you'll have to explore within most of these sites to find the information on internship programs that may still be offered. Look under listings for "jobs" and "employment" as well as "internships."

Organizations that have offered internships within Washington state in the past

Note that you'll have to explore within most of these sites to find the information on internship programs that may still be offered. Look under listings for "jobs" and "employment" as well as "internships."

(List updated 2002, WF-C)