Five steps to landing an internship

A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled “Inventing an Internship.” I recommend reading it if you haven’t gotten a chance yet—in it I lay the groundwork for breaking out of the idea that you need to fit your passions into someone else’s pre-advertised job description. If you are willing to do the work and to think creatively, then you can often create your own kind of position and move yourself toward your own projected path.

The basic steps for creating an internship are:

  • Decide what you’re looking for
  • Establish what you’re able to commit to
  • Prep your CV/resume
  • List the organizations/types of experience you are most interested in
  • Call on your community
  • Take bold action
Sometimes you're lucky in who you run into. Like this Congressman at a UO football game...the only football game I attended in my years as a Duck.

Sometimes you're lucky in who you run into. Like this Congressman at a UO football game...the only football game I attended in my years as a Duck.

Once you’ve decided what you’re looking for and what kind of position you’d like to try to create, the next step is reaching out and making this happen. Possibly the most critical piece in making this work is having a contact. I’ve also written about the non-evils of networking: that essentially you are looking to meet people who have similar interests. If you find someone who can teach you and mentor you, while you offer them your time and energy in exchange, then that’s a winning internship arrangement for you both.

Part of success is luck: happening to cross paths with the kinds of people you want to work with and learn from. But a considerable aspect of that “luck” is also doing the work and being prepared: taking initiative to follow up on the opportunities around you.

Here’s how you establish an initial positive interaction while working to create an internship

1. Be where the action is

Whatever you’ve dreamed up for your internship, start pursuing the companies and individuals that do the kind of work you’re searching for. If the desired internship is work with a specific organization, then get yourself hooked in with them—attend their events, interact on social networks, reach out to people who might be connected with them, and do your research. Be well acquainted with their recent work and their short-term future goals. If your goal is to fill some kind of role without specific company ties (web developer, graphic designer, event planner) then look for people already doing this job and/or internet and physical places where this work is showcased. Interact wherever you have the chance.

If you spend enough time in the middle of the action, people will associate you with the work taking place. You will be well-informed and well-connected. You’ll already have a foundation for the dream internship you hope to build.

2. Develop skills

As you learn more about what’s being done and who are they key players in your target role, pay attention to what skills you need before you can really get started. This does not mean that you should try to learn everything there is to know before you begin an internship (or job). You’ll have plenty to learn once you get there. But if you know that, to do this job well, you’ll have to use Twitter, then you’d better be able to use Twitter. If you know you’ll have to write press releases for that non-profit, then you’d better learn how to write press releases. Be ready.

Developing skills will give you a talking point that proves you are already working to become well-versed in your chosen area, and will make you feel more confident and productive in the meantime. Go after the skills you know you’ll need, and then find the internship that can put those skills on your resume.

3. Be knowledgeable

Do your research. When it comes time for an ask, you need to know about the company, the people, and the field. Specifically:

  • Follow relevant news items
  • Read up on leading companies/organizations in the field
  • Research “thought leaders” or those prominent in the field
  • Know why you would be interested in a specific company or opportunity. What sets them apart? Why are you a good fit?

It is up to you to explain who you are, what you’re looking for, and why. And you can only do this if you know about the field you’ve chosen. Do the work in advance to learn not just what skills are needed, but the broad context and specific details of what’s happening at the moment.

No one can select you for an internship unless you first explain why you are a good and informed choice.

4. Network

Meet people. Talk about your goals and interests. Explain your background and how it fits (or maybe how it doesn’t fit, but could compliment) your career goals. For now at least, these goals should match your internship. Figure out how to best describe yourself and goals in about four sentences.

When you meet someone who could be helpful for you and your internship search, engage with them. Ask them about their work. Express interest in what they do, and ask for their help. Some great questions are:

  • “What would you recommend someone just starting in this field do to prepare for a career?”
  • “What is the most exciting growth area at the moment?”
  • “What skills are you looking for? What is a common skill gap in my generation?”
  • “Who else should I meet and speak to, if I want to learn more or find an internship opportunity?”

That last question is my favorite. I love asking interesting and influential people to introduce me to new people. It’s a polite way of giving them an “out” so they can meet other people, while moving you in a productive direction toward another contact.

Networking isn’t about manipulating people. It’s about finding people with matching passions and who are doing interesting and exciting work. If you fit with their work, you find a way to collaborate. That’s it. It’s a win-win. Get out there and make it happen.

5. Ask

When an opportunity arises, ask. Tell people you are interested in an internship. Lay out specific skills and areas of interest. Be detailed, but also flexible. Know your limits of time and skills. Be honest. But put yourself forward. If you are essentially creating a position that hadn’t previously existed, as with my “invented internships” example, then lay out what you would like to do. If this is an organization that regularly takes on interns, then express your interest in their programs, and explain how you would be a good fit.

There is a powerful truth in the old saying “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Even better is the Thoreau “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”

Be prepared, and then be bold.

Good luck out there.

You might also enjoy related posts "Networking: An Introduction," "Inventing an Internship," and the more personal stories in "Inventing an Internship: My Journalism Case-Study" and "Networking: My Belfast Case-Study."

Please share any thoughts, questions, tips, and stories in the comments section below.