Getting a non-traditional internship may be a matter of an insistent email (or three) to someone you don’t know.
As the summer at the end of my first year approached, I faced the chicken-and-egg dynamic familiar to every person seeking out a first internship. Garnering a select spot seemed impossible without previous experience on my resume, but if no one would hire me, there was no way to get any experience.
What could I do? I knew I was interested in a few different fields — biology, writing and photography — and had no idea how to locate the right opportunity within the larger internship system. After a quick chat with a wise professor, I started sending out email after email to individuals I was interested in.
Key word: individuals.
One of those emails happened to be to an author I really liked. I hunted down her email address in the back archives of the Internet, and composed a message to her, outlining my experience and my interest. Could I be her intern? To my surprise, she wrote back. She also, very kindly, said no. After a bit of back-and-forth, I reiterated I would be happy to help in any capacity, and she agreed to a couple of months’ work. I spent the summer poring over research at a table in her office three days a week.
Another person also wrote back — a scientist in an HIV lab. So I spent the other two days of the week wearing layered pairs of latex gloves in a sterile lab, sitting on a stool and occasionally centrifuging blood.
In both cases, I was the first intern they had ever had. That meant I got a level of support and personal guidance that was, in retrospect, amazing. I had little to no experience in either field, and though I worked very hard, there was a lot of explaining to do. How did a centrifuge even work?
By the end of the summer, I had a better idea of what I wanted to do more of — science writing — and what I was not so interested in: precise lab work.
Some of my subsequent internships have been fast-paced and fully programmed, and while there is an important balance to strike between big names and individual experiences, that initial summer made me incredibly grateful for one-on-one advice whenever I could get it.
This goes beyond building a resume.
Like many of my generation, I am a commitment-phobe. I don’t want to make a serious commitment to a field I know nothing about, and a two-month stint with a professional can give you first-hand experience in the field, even if the experience is a little less structured. The benefits also extend beyond one summer; employers who have spent a lot of time with you one-on-one are a great source of advice, letters of recommendation and future internships.
And it’s only two months. If you love the job, the experience will likely guide your career onward. If you hate it, you will have learned a lesson in endurance and narrowed down your list of options.
Since that first summer, I have reported on political protests in Mexico City, worked for editors at magazines, set up urchin cages underwater, archived photographic negatives and spent many, many hours on the phone. I have learned a lot about my own interests and the potential careers that await me when I graduate.
My advice to you: Seek out individuals you admire, be persistent and wangle your way into their offices, be it for a cup of coffee or a couple of months. One of the best things about individual internships is that you can tailor them to your interests, as well as your financial and geographical constraints. Find opportunities where no one else can see them.
It may be a matter of an insistent email (or three) to someone you don’t know; it could mean adding creative zest to your application by writing a cover letter on a medium people wouldn’t expect. Get creative. Stand out. And once you’ve got the job, work hard. Make them glad they created a position for you.
Above all, treat those two-month stints like gold, and try something new whenever possible. Internships are low-risk, high-reward while you’re still in school, and at the risk of exploiting a third cliché, you get out what you put in.
So get away from those massive programs, and get learning on your own terms.
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