Internships may seem pointless and grueling at times, especially while being a full-time student. However, they are worth the trouble and commitment, even those that don’t offer any form of compensation. Despite the long hours and tedious, grunt work, internships teach valuable lessons. They can be especially important to student veterans trying to break into the professional world with little work experience outside the military.
I enlisted at 17 and my career outside the Army consisted of six or seven classes per semester as an undergraduate, followed by graduate-level study. The hope was that rigorous academic study would translate into a career. Unfortunately, a lot of times liberal arts diplomas alone are not enough to get a job right away. My skills were primarily military and academic related. I had no real-world professional experience. While my military background certainly gave me a viewpoint that few of my peers had, that uniqueness didn’t easily translate into abilities I could bring to a civilian nonprofit or private business. I had done little outside the military in ways of professional development.
A career coach once asked me, “Do you even know how to use a copier?” It was meant as a joke, but the point was: I didn’t know the professional world. I realized in order to make myself more experienced, competitive, and knowledgeable in my own field, an internship was the best way to get entry-level and practical exposure.
While in graduate school, I interned at two different nonprofits and the U.S. Department of State. I did everything from database entry, taking notes, and attending seminars to managing portfolios, researching, and writing in-depth reports. Those three experiences showed me the worth of doing the work of an unpaid intern. While I questioned the point of such grunt work at times, I came away with four major lessons.
1. Very little beats hands-on, practical experience.
First, even if the work is unpaid and you are the lowest on the totem pole, the basic skills you develop by working in an organization are essential to not only building your resume, but building your own personal skill set. That sounds cliché, but if you never worked in a professional setting, understanding the culture, working with new software, and learning an organization’s protocols are all essential to understanding that profession. Often companies will hire interns for this very reason: They already understand the nature of the beast and it will cost them much less in time and money to hire an intern than to train a brand new recruit.
2. Rebranding yourself for the civilian world is harder than you think.
Once you put on one type of uniform and become proficient in a particular skill — whether it's accounting or police work — it can be difficult to transition to something new. Internships can help you rebrand yourself in a new career track. So if the goal is to cross into the nonprofit world from the private sector, interning at an actual nonprofit will not only teach you about how nonprofits operate, but demonstrate to a future employer that you have some practical experience in that specific field. Sometimes this requires going back to school, but coinciding with that is the need to get your hands dirty in the actual occupation, demonstrating that you know what you’re getting into.
3. Internships open doors to lifelong networking opportunities.
Interning and “working in the trenches” is essential to building relationships and demonstrating your work ethic for future recommendations. For a student or recent graduate who is still not accustomed to the notion of “networking,” this can be a difficult thing to learn. Networking can seem artificial, but when interning and working with people everyday who are interested in the same ideals and goals you are, you build friendships and connections. These networks will not only help navigate the organization itself but also your career path. Especially for those coming straight out of school, it is important to “pay your dues” by being an intern. This is more the case in public and nonprofit work. Most supervisors in the professional sphere came through the same pipeline. They were likely an intern at some point in their careers and they know the importance of learning an organization from the ground up.
This might translate into making copies or taking endless notes in endless meetings, but those tedious efforts are appreciated and noticed. Your supervisors become valuable references when you start to apply to other jobs down the road. Employers remember those team players. A good employee is harder to find than you think. If you demonstrate ambition and a strong work ethic as an intern, supervisors will remember you when they have a position to fill or move on to another organization and want to take people with them.
4. Don’t just take any job, take the one right for you.
Lastly, and probably the most important thing I learned from my time interning was figuring out whether or not a job is actually for me. For someone who went from being a sergeant to a student, I had no real way of knowing how the jobs I thought I wanted would look like off paper. Discovering what you don’t want to do can be just as helpful as learning what you enjoy.
The nature of unpaid internships for a student who is already incurring debt and trying to find full-time employment can be daunting, but there are bonuses to starting from the bottom. It may translate into a job after the internship or an important recommendation. But even if neither are the case, it will give you skills and experiences you won’t get in the classroom.