Monday, February 13, 2012

Tips to land an internship

What I learned in my experience in an environmentalist non-profit organization.
After spending a few dismal months stuck aimless back in my childhood bedroom in grey, drizzly Vancouver, I was lucky enough to land myself an internship on the other side of the country. The learning curve was incredibly steep, but the experience and confidence I gained was well worth the long hours!

While working there, I met a number of students hoping to find a way into the field. When they discovered how few years apart we were (I was 22) a number of them asked my advice. While I’m hardly an expert, my time there certainly opened my eyes to a few facts, notably how interns are often brought on. Here are a few lessons I learned in my short but jam packed full time in Montreal.

Expect it to take a while.

First off, it’s worth noting that any job search, especially after graduating, be it for an internship or job, is often a long and tedious process. Despite the fact that I had a fairly wide range, albeit base level, of skills (I’ve worked in a number of places, from brewing coffee, to guiding tours, to teaching English, and the list goes on) it took me a long time before managing to score such a position. At least a month, to be honest. Another example is a good friend of mine, J. An extremely driven and hard working individual, she managed to get herself a great job with a prestigious firm in the Prairies. However, that was only after spending an entire month (an entire month!) of working 9 to 5 on her job search. 


I can’t stress this one enough. Volunteering with the organization you’re hoping to intern with is an enormous advantage. It gives you a much better idea of what to expect of the organization and how it works. I expect (as I pretty much came fresh) that this would make things significantly easier for the first few weeks as you already know how it was run. And of course, even more importantly, you have connections within the organization. When something opens up, they could already have you in mind. While I was interning there and needed more help (there is always more work to be done and not enough people to do it, in this non-profit at least), which happened a great deal, we often gave volunteers who had worked well with us in the past more responsibility. And this leads me to my next point:

Be aware of timing. 

Like so many things in life, timing is everything. Non-profits, at least the one I worked at in any case, have a ton of work but not enough people to get it all done. They may hope for extra hand, but it’s challenging to find the time to find someone new and train them. So when a little window of time opens up, it’s often brief: they’ll take what’s easiest. So if you happen to answer the phone right away, or as I said before, are already in their minds because you previously volunteered, that will help you a great deal in getting more responsibility.

Why non-profit?

If a high profile firm internship is what you’re after, by all means, go for it. I simply have experience in the non-profit sector, so that’s the main reason I focus on this particular experience. I will say, however, that there are certain advantages to searching for an internship in this field. Like I said before, they are often overworked and starving for the extra help. If you’re willing to do it for free, they can overlook a lack of experience. 

Furthermore, a number of programs exist to help their cause, including funding for student and graduate internship. Mine, for example, was funded through the YMCA, YMCA Post Secondary Youth Eco Internships

Straight up offer.

From what many people have told me, a great deal of internships aren’t listed, but some organizations take on interns when offered. For example, the person who took over my position when I left didn’t directly apply to an ad like I did, but simply submitted his resume out of the blue. A few months later they brought him on, because once again, his resume impressed them and they already had him in mind; there was no need to search. As a plus, in doing so, you can choose what organization interests you in particular, and there is less competition.


As interns are inexperienced, that being the point of an internship, the organization is taking a risk by taking you on. So don’t let them down, work to show you’re worth the time they're investing in you. One of the biggest pet peeves of my supervisor were interns that couldn’t hold their weight, who had to be “spoon fed” every step of the way. Now of course it’s a learning environment and you’re hardly expected to know everything, but do your best to be proactive. As they would say over there, they don’t want any “bébé la la”. 

Earn your reputation.

One of the toughest parts of my internship was the fact that I was younger and less experienced than everyone else; I was just the intern and therefore not always taken seriously (and sometimes ignored). If you show that you can take responsibility, are accountable, and will "go that extra mile", you’ll earn respect. Don’t be put off if you feel too young.