From the classroom to the conference room: guidelines for finding (and keeping) internships

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Author: Carmen Triola

Wedged between a daunting college admission process and the post-grad job search, current students find themselves faced with the task of hunting for internships. In a tougher job market, work experience can give applicants an edge over their peers for coveted positions. Over the past few decades, however, finding an internship seems to have become just as competitive as finding a permanent job. According to a 2010 New York Times piece, 50 percent of graduating students held internships in 2008, up 17 percent from 1992. The same article, entitled “The Coveted But Elusive Summer Internship,” reported that big-name companies such as ESPN have had 10,000 students apply for summer internship programs offering only 90 spots.

For students just beginning internship applications, the process might be tricky. Thankfully, with advice from Occidental students who have successfully landed internships and the trained staff at the Career Development Center (CDC), navigating the sea of endless cover letters and resume-polishing can become a bit easier.

Don’t cut any corners in research

Job searchers are advised to start the search as early as possible. Deadlines are always passing—candidates are often required to submit applications in April or May, though some are due as early as November. CDC Internships Coordinator Liselda Fabian advises students to apply to a variety of companies (not just the ones with big name recognition) and to apply to a lot of them. Most Occidental students interviewed for this piece who had landed multiple internships over their college careers had lost track of the number they had applied to prior. Fabian recommends applying to around 10 or 15 per year and keeping persistent throughout the process.

TigerLink is a popular resource for job listings, but some students also go outside regular job postings. For example, Griffin Taylor (senior) saw a TigerLink listing for an internship with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, but went straight to the her website to apply instead. Others simply cold-called the companies they wanted to work for and asked if they had any positions available.

The idea is for each student to find a position that suits them as an individual.

“If you’re a good fit for the internship, you’re a good fit for the organization, and you’re somebody who’s going to contribute to the team, they [employers] are going to see that,” Taylor said. “They’re not necessarily looking for someone who’s going to be a yes man or woman.”

Use the CDC

Some students who take advantage of the CDC rave about how helpful the different services are and how they wish they had gone sooner. With an appointment that lasts 30-60 minutes, students can get help with resumes, cover letters, LinkedIn accounts and even major or career decisions. In addition, the center offers mock interviews, as well as advice about gap-year opportunities and graduate school.

During the school year, the CDC can also help students find internship opportunities on campus, Fabian said. Denzel Tongue (junior) held a health internship last summer, and the CDC connected him with Occidental’s Multicultural Visit Program in the fall. He now works as a member of the CDC’s Marketing Board.

The CDC is equally prepared to help students snag off-campus internships during the school year. Brita Loeb (junior), who worked as an events and operations intern at Machine Project, an LA-based art gallery, found working off campus to be a rewarding experience.

“I really liked, during the school year, managing school time and intern time, and it was really nice to get off campus and feel like I was contributing to Los Angeles and the greater community,” Loeb said.

As useful as students find the services to be, appointments may fill up quickly toward the beginning and end of each semester. In such a case, the CDC offers a number of job search guides on their website. There are also events throughout the year: on April 19, students have the opportunity to dine with Occidental’s board of trustees. The dinner is marketed as an opportunity to learn about leadership, but students will no doubt spend a portion of the night networking as well.

Natalie Thomas (senior), who works for the CDC, said she believes many students do not take advantage of the great opportunities that are available.

“I regret not going into the CDC until the beginning of my sophomore year,” Thomas said. “If anybody thinks that there’s not enough [opportunity] because we’re a small school, they’re not looking right here on campus.”

Find value in your on-campus experiences

A big fear for students who are just starting out the process is lack of experience, especially for those who do not start looking for internships until later in their college careers. Fabian advises students not to underestimate themselves. Volunteer opportunities or other student clubs are great for padding a new resumé, especially those involving leadership roles. Even better, these experiences give Occidental students a chance to brag about what they do best: maintain a range of activities in tandem with demanding schoolwork.

Additionally, she warned not to underestimate experiences that are not specifically field-related. While discussing relevant coursework, students should not be timid to mention Greek life or sports—even if that sport is from Harry Potter.

“When I was at Oxy, I was the captain of the Quidditch team for two years—and I always brought that up in my interviews,” Madeline Ziomek ’14 said. “That was my main selling point. I was like, ‘I have led a team, I have done all these things, I’ve organized trips, I dealt with the bureaucracy of the college,’ and I twisted it that way to highlight all the things that it demonstrated that I was capable of doing.”

Similarly, Taylor drew from the lessons he learned as a member and corresponding secretary of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

“I remember I’d list some of the experiences I had with Phi Kappa Psi,” Taylor said. “Most students probably do have some kind of experience that’s valuable for an internship. You just have to tap into that.”

However, the qualities that students may initially see as valuable experience may not necessarily be what employers are looking for most.

“I was talking to my internship coordinator at the Gillibrand internship, and he said, ‘I’m looking for somebody who’s going to be interesting,’” Taylor said. “If you are somebody who is like, an artist, or an actor, mention that in your application as well, because that’s something that’s relevant to know about you … use that as a selling point.”

Students with slim resumes can also start planning for next summer: InternLA and InternPDX are both school-funded internship programs based in LA and Portland, respectively. These programs can help students gain the experience they need to build their resume and the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. Each lasts 10 weeks and includes an instructional component on campus.

Right now, students can only participate in either program once. However, according to Fabian, the CDC has submitted a proposal to get more funding to enable students to participate for multiple summers. In the meantime, underclassmen can start planning for the summer 2016 session by scoping out professors for recommendations before the February deadline or building their resumé through volunteer or other work experiences. However, Ziomek, who participated in InternLA, said that students of all experience levels are welcome.

“[The InternLA recruiters] very much understood where we were coming from as students who didn’t have much work experience,” Ziomek said.

The underlying message: look for opportunities to update your resume, whether that be through traditional experience or not. When in doubt, ask for advice.

“I spent a lot of time on my resumé,” Chad Tanioka (senior) said. “I put it through a lot of different people, in different fields, just to see the best formats, the stuff employers like to see … I talked to a lot of people just to get a feel for what firms are looking for.”

Embrace your Oxy-ness

Bigger schools are known for having the connections and the larger recruiters knocking down their doors. But Occidental students have unique qualities by virtue of their liberal arts education, according to Fabian. Recruiting firms and companies report to her that, while they may not get the same yield of applicants at a small school, they are often better quality. Tanioka said that consulting firms may even specifically seek out applicants with a liberal arts education.

Taylor said he felt his liberal arts education benefitted him in the hiring process.

“[Occidental students] have interdisciplinary academic interests,” Taylor said. “And all of that is going to make them a multifaceted individual. They can handle a bunch of different things. They don’t just know one thing. And because Oxy’s a liberal arts college, it’s about learning how to learn.”

Another important aspect of the Occidental community, Tanioka said, was the ease with which students can reach out to alumni.

“Lots of those top-notch firms—it’s hard to get a foot in the door. I wish I’d known that,” Tanioka said. “[But now], I find Oxy alums who work there at these firms and reach out to them … you really need to know someone.”

Paid isn’t always a must

Whether a paid internship can be a reality depends on a few things. Industry is a big factor, Fabian said, with business or STEM majors often finding the most lucrative positions. For those struggling with the financial burden of unpaid internships, a stipend, or at least academic credit, may be available through coordination with the CDC.

“I know that’s not always the case that students don’t need a source of income,” Fabian said. “But for those that do, they’re limited by the type of opportunities they can pursue.”

Even if paid internships do exist within a student’s respective field, they are often more competitive. Luckily, most students also found a way to make unpaid internships work for them.

Thomas would balance an unpaid internship in the summer, which occupied two days a week, with a paid job. With less time to balance during school, she has chosen to take twelve credits in order to keep up.

Loeb, in contrast, took a unpaid job over the school year so she could secure a paid summer internship.

Taylor, like Loeb, saved money that he made at paying jobs during the school year to supplement the unpaid work. As a politics major, finding a paying job in his preferred field is not always easy, as congressional internships are largely unpaid. He said, however, that students unable to take jobs on the hill could still find paid positions at consulting firms.

“For a lot of students, taking an unpaid internship is a financial choice that you have to make,” Taylor said. “And it’s about finding the internship that works for you.”

Some, like Tanioka, believe the skills gained at internships do not necessarily have a price tag.

“Money disappears,” Tanioka said. “But your knowledge … is a lot more valuable than a paycheck.”

Know your rights

Some believe internship employment has also gotten ethically murky, with the politics of paid and unpaid internships contentiously argued among the nation’s courts. Just last year, a group of interns working on the movie “Black Swan” won a lawsuit against production company Fox Searchlight. Publishing company Condé Nast shut down its internship program the same year after they were faced with similar legal action. The guidelines that the Department of Labor uses to define legal unpaid internships comes from a 1947 Supreme Court Case, Walling v. Portland Terminal Co. The case resulted in the Department of Labor officially writing six “guidelines” for employers of unpaid interns—essentially, unpaid interns cannot replace regular employees: they cannot work full-time and they cannot be falsely promised compensation or a full-time job. The idea is to make unpaid experiences educational for the benefit of the intern rather than the company.

If students find that they have already had an internship for which they should have been paid, the non-profit website ProPublica has options for students to try to receive compensation. Depending on the situation, a complaint may be filed with the employer, federal or state labor departments, or the student may even be able to file a lawsuit.

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, however, there is less on the books. Only California, New York, Oregon and the District of Columbia have official protections for unpaid interns. In any case, Fabian said students should contact the CDC or Occidental’s Title IX Office if any problems arise, even if the internship is not sponsored by the school.

Ziomek said that students should also remember that it is okay to leave an internship if it does not work out, particularly if it is draining on the health of a student.

“That’s not something we’re always told,” she said. “You shouldn’t clock out at the first sign of something that’s not perfect, but if it’s really hurting your emotional and personal health, you don’t have to stay.”

After landing the internship

Persistence need not stop after an employer has given the go-ahead. Instead of just sitting at a desk or embracing the coffee-making cliché, students should make themselves known around the office. They should be asking to help with extra work—they may be menial tasks, Taylor said, but doing them well can help interns advance to bigger responsibilities—and maintaining relationships with the staff. In the latter case, this can be helpful even after the internship itself is over.

“An internship is an opportunity not just for you to sit in an office and put something on your resume … You are not confined to your one supervisor. You are there as a resource,” Taylor said. “You’ll find the more and more you work hard and the more and more put yourself out there, you’ll start to get more meaningful opportunities.”

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