Do an internship

22 February 2021

My internship helped me a lot, and I think more people should consider them

Should you find yourself in further education, or are otherwise looking to get started in an industry, I'd strongly recommend taking part in an internship. I personally found mine incredibly helpful as an undergraduate student. It boosted my confidence, gave me a better idea of what direction I wanted to take my career in the future, and made it easier to get started once I left university.

My experience was working as a software developer in a private corporation. Even if you're not looking at the same field or the private sector, I'd still recommend an internship. While I might mention a few things that are specific to my field, I hope this article helps anyone who's entering a new field or heading into their first real job.

A break from academia

If you're young, chances are you've spent most of your last decade in full-time education, continuously working from exam to exam. At several points throughout my student life I've found it difficult to find the motivation to study and felt drained from stressing about my performance. Taking a break from the education system helped me find the motivation to finish my studies, gained me some perspective on just how different life is in the professional world, and how much I preferred it. I felt much more motivated and engaged during my placement than I had been for years as a student.

An important part of professional life is setting strong boundaries between working and non-working hours. Having set hours means no guilt over not working on those assignments or revising or doing some last minute adjustments to coursework. Outside of those set hours, work isn't on my mind. In any respectable organisation, you'll be able to determine what hours you work and, unless you give consent to the contrary, you won't be expected to concern yourself with work outside those hours.

Another motivator is receiving compensation. Knowing that you're being paid for your work makes it much easier to concentrate and get your work day done. Additionally, having your own source of income after relying on others gives you additional independence and agency over your life. Earning some savings during your internship can provide an additional cushion to get you started once you move into a permanent position.

Developing yourself

While you've likely learned a lot during your studies, it takes an additional set of skills to apply them effectively when working in a team. If you're lucky you'll have worked on a group project and have some firsthand experience. It takes time to learn how to effectively communicate, plan & organise (team) work, document information for others, and use other tools of your trade. In software engineering specifically, that means learning to use version control software, issue tracking systems, writing technical documentation for your fellow engineers, and non-technical documentation for others. In each of these there are additional considerations that arise when working in a large team, and when joining an existing project.

Learning is a big part of any internship (or any job, for that matter), but getting to apply your existing knowledge and skills is very satisfying. While you'll likely experience some imposter syndrome at the start, you'll soon accept that your fears over your own competence were unfounded, and that you deserve the internship position that was offered to you. That'll also help you realise that, yes, you actually are ready for the "real world". At the end of the experience there's a good chance you'll be offered a permanent position, which will give you more options when leaving academia and ease that transition.

Getting used to full-time work

The first issue I struggled with was imposter syndrome: feelings of inadequacy and concerns over how I was performing. My first project was initially a solo one, which I kicked off. While I had a coworker beside me to ask any questions to, my lack of experience made it difficult to gauge my rate of progress and what was expected. After a couple of weeks my manager let me know that he was happy with how things were going. This alleviated my concerns for a while, but the occasional doubts crept in during the first few months.

Continued positive feedback on my performance eventually convinced me there was no need to worry, and that I was doing well. I realised that feedback typically comes infrequently, and lack of it usually means things are fine; any manager will let you know when they have concerns (and if any managers are reading this: remember that your interns need more feedback than experienced professionals!). I also could have simply asked for feedback, especially when I was unsure of how I was doing. It's also always a good idea to ask for feedback during your reviews so you know how you can improve.

Burning out was also a concern. On quite a few days in my first weeks, I finished work later than I needed to due to being too engrossed in my work, or trying to wrap things up before I left for the day. Over time I realised this was causing me to feel a lot more tired after work than I would be otherwise. It takes some time to find the proper balance while working in a full-time job. Work can be both physically and mentally draining, and overworking yourself will simply result in both diminishing returns and unhappiness.

It's okay to give yourself breaks and take your mind off your work for a little while, especially when you feel like you're not getting anywhere. In creative jobs, breaks give you a chance to reset, figure out different ways of approaching your work, and notice mistakes and missed avenues. It's not sustainable to apply your full effort at all times. When you have some down-time or feel like you need a break from your main task, swap to a less draining one like writing documentation or doing some related reading.

Keep in mind

Make sure that you're being appropriately compensated for your work. Put some time into researching the average salaries for the position you're looking at, both internship and permanent. Make sure that the compensation fully covers your living expenses and leaves a comfortable amount to spare. I'd strongly recommend against taking an unpaid position, especially a long-term one.

Sadly, private companies tend to offer salaries that are much lower than what they'd offer a permanent candidate. I'd personally suggest being wary of internships that offer low salaries, especially if you're hoping for an offer for a permanent position after it is completed. A company that starts you off with a low salary is likely to keep offering you low salaries if you continue with them.

If you're looking for a year-long student placement while you're at university, I'd suggest researching if you can suspend your studies during it. I did my placement as part of my degree, during which I was charged 20% of my normal tuition fee despite receiving almost no university work or contact hours.

An internship should give you experience that you can directly apply in the field you're looking to work in after the internship. Be sure to check and ask about the responsibilities of the positions you're looking at, ensuring that they would be useful to your career - try to find things you could to mention to prospective employers in the future. If find yourself regularly being tasked with menial work unrelated to your field, I'd suggest talking to your manager about it, and potentially leaving your internship if things don't improve.

Finally, make sure to hydrate yourself throughout the day, and in desk jobs, get up every now and then to exercise your legs!

After your internship

Getting some first-hand experience in a job tells you another thing: what your preferences are. A good internship will expose you to a variety of aspects of your field, e.g. frontend/backend website/application development, different technologies, different roles within a team. You'll also have found out how you like to work. Do you dislike wearing a suit to work? How do you feel about open offices? Would you prefer flexitime or remote working over a traditional 9-5 in-office work week? This helps inform your choices after your internship, i.e., what kind of roles you look for, and in which kinds of organisations. Make sure to ask about the things that are important to you in future interviews.

In the end, a good internship offers some invaluable benefits: work experience, a positive reference, and a foot in the door. Even if you're not offered a full time position or choose not to accept it, having your internship on your résumé will show employers that you've proven your abilities in the past.