Inventing an internship

"Internships are a good idea" is pretty standard-issue career advice for college students, and for recent college graduates. We're told that all the time: find an internship. But finding one can be difficult and exhausting and can lead you chasing around endless applications and not getting anywhere. But here's the good news: not all internships are pre-packaged and advertised on some website like (although that’s not a bad place to start looking). While there are planned and organized volunteering and internship opportunities out there, many students find that their particular passions or skills might fall between the cracks of traditional student internship roles.

You don’t have to find an internship. You can invent one.

Life isn't about finding yourself, it's about creating yourself--truth in graffiti from Prague.

I know this is possible because I have done it. Four different times, I approached someone with an idea and came away with a custom-built volunteer position. Of those four internships, I would classify three as legitimately life-changing. All four have contributed to my academic and work success. I built them from the ground up, and worked with the exact people and organizations I was most inspired by.

Maybe there were existing positions seeking applicants that I had simply overlooked. But somehow I don’t think so.

If you are searching for an internship, it’s time to expand your horizons. Keep searching in the conventional paths: check out the volunteer/internship resources out there, and be sure to check out “employment” sections of companies or organizations you would like to work for. But there is so much more you can do to create opportunity for yourself.

Here's how to make it happen:

  1. Decide what you’re looking for
  2. Establish what you’re able to commit to
  3. Prep your CV/resume
  4. List the organizations/types of experience you are most interested in
  5. Call on your community
  6. Take bold action

Part of the challenge with this plan, as with the pursuit of all work searches, is that you often need experience to get experience. It’s hard to break into a field until you can prove that you have the skills, but you can’t get the skills until you have the chance to do the work. How you overcome this will depend partly on what you are interested in and what you bring to the table. But one way to get started is to take bold, creative steps to craft your own position based on your passions and the skills you have already. Then you build more. Here’s how.


“Internship” is a very broad concept. You need to figure out ahead of time what kind of position would work for you. Are you looking for something low-commitment to gain skills? Something that will be fun? Something extremely specific and tailored to your major?

You need to decide if the goal is to work with a specific company, or if the goal is to gain certain skills. For example: if you know without a shadow of a doubt that you one day want to work for the National Olympic Committee, then you have a relatively clear path of sports-related companies and organizations to build a resume and network to get you there someday. However, if the goals is “to learn web design skills because I like kind of like computers and think it would be useful,” then you have another kind of clarity and set of opportunities. The goal of an internship is to do good work while gaining skills. It’s to add value both to the organization and to yourself.

To that end, you need to decide what you are looking for. Is there a job that you would love to do? Is there an organization you admire? A leader you find inspiring? A skill you have (or want) and want to see put in practice?

Examples of “good” goals

  • To work in an art museum
  • To meet and work with visiting scholars on campus
  • To influence local politics
  • To learn how to write grants
  • To gain a network in the business world
  • To work in radio news

Each of these suggests a path, either to a specific organization or to a specific kind of internship within just a broad range of organizations. For example, if the goal is to learn grant writing, just about any NGO will probably welcome your help. If the goal is local politics, then you can contact political organization, specific ongoing campaigns, lobbying groups, or local advocacy groups.

And, for all of these goals, there are probably opportunities available both on campus and in the community. Keep both in mind moving forward.


Do you have one extra day per week? Do you have a full summer to commit? Would you be willing to commit credit hours to the position? Would you give up your spring break to make it happen?

You need to make a decision about your commitment before you pursue an internship. This is not a value judgment: this is about deciding what will work well for you at the moment. If what you have is three hours a week, then you might be able to find a low-commitment volunteer/support position or a “shadowing” arrangement with someone doing a job you are interested in. You can build up experience and skills in a low-impact way. If, on the other hand, you have a full summer to fill, you will be looking for something quite different.

Similarly, you need to decide on all kinds of other commitments. Would you move temporarily for an internship? Would you be willing to commute long distances? Would you/can you invest in new equipment? On preparatory coursework?

Depending on what you are looking for, some or all of these considerations will probably come into play. Decide what will work for you right now. Maybe in six months your schedule will change, and so will your availability. If you are clear about what you can commit to at the moment, you can make informed and clear progress toward a position.


This deserves its own blog post in the future. The short version is: have a CV prepped and ready, tailored to the kind of work you hope to find. Create a “master” document with all your experience, and then a version more specific to your field. Have several people read and comment, including your campus advising center. Update, expand, and proofread.

When opportunity arises, be ready to say 'yes.'


Do the research. You’ve already done some in the first step as you’ve decided on your goals and the kind of internship you would like to do. Now go a bit more in depth. Think through who is doing the work you are interested in on your campus and in your community. Think creatively: if you want to work with animals you might list not only the local animal shelter and veterinary hospital, but also a service dog training program, an organization that brings animals to visit the elderly, and an acquaintance from your book club (or wherever) who owns horses. Think broadly. Where is the work being done? Where is the inspirational work being done? And (here’s one of my favorites) where did the leaders in the field get their start?

Throw some creativity at this section. Because you are not limited to organizations who are advertising for interns, you can make a list of everyone and everything peripherally related to your goals. You are building something for yourself. Dream big, and dream different.

And look up resumes, biographies, or career paths of the people you admire. See how they got there. Could you take a similar path?


Who do you know? Look at your list above and think through who can help you get what you are looking for. At this point you have a plan, so you just need the right “in.” Use your resources. Ask your career services folks at the university. Ask professors for input. Use LinkedIn. Ask your parents’ friends and folks in your hiking club. Develop a three-sentence description of what you’re looking for, and then ask widely.

You are putting out a clear and organized request to the world around you. You have a list of your skills, and a set of goals and interests. Ask, and you’ll be surprised what your community sends back.


Now it’s up to you.

Take that list of organizations and start making phone calls. If you can get an introduction from your community you’ve got a head start. But regardless, the actual work of getting the internship is now up to you. Make a specific offer to work on a project or to collaborate at an event. Ask if you can have an informational interview with the program director about their work, and after send a follow-up email asking about internship opportunities. Ask a lot of questions. Tell people

“I’m interested in _____ kind of internship, but you should tell me how I might fit.” Explain why you’ve chosen to contact them. Give positive feedback.

People like passion. They also usually like to help college students. People remember what it’s like to be trying to find direction and experience in the world. If you present yourself as capable, confident, and arriving with clarity about your goals, then people are likely to want to work with you.

And be relentlessly positive. Relentless positivity goes a long way.


Do you have experience with internships? What have your experiences been? If you could create a perfect internship opportunity, what would it be? Leave your comments, suggestions, feedback, and ideas here! 

If you liked this post, please check out "Saying 'Yes,'" "Alternative Spring Breaks," "Landing a STEM Job with Non-STEM Credentials," and "Unconventional Twentysomethings."