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Making The Most of Your Graduate School Internship

Graduate students at internship, looking at post-it notes on window.
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Stellar work in your graduate courses is just one step toward that chosen path and dream job. Another? An internship. So much more than “another obligation,” the right internship can leave you with the skills and connections to last throughout your career. The career center at your school is a great place to start your internship search, but don’t hesitate to reach out directly to companies that interest you to inquire about their intern programs.

Read on to learn what questions to ask as you weigh internship options. (And remember: Don’t let an overextended schedule filled with classes and papers dissuade you from this important part of grad school; companies hire interns year-round, so consider scheduling your internship during the summer.)

Question 1: “Will I be exploring my career options and gaining skills?”

At this stage of your studies, you are most likely locked into your general field. But do you know your specialty? A career for a computer science graduate student could take many forms, including programmer, software developer, engineer or systems analyst, for example. Exposure to one or more of the disciplines allows students to focus and fine tune their area of interest.

Application tip: Look for an internship that will give you a foundation in a number of skills, not just one. When applying and interviewing for intern positions, ask if job rotation is offered. Also ask how much hands-on experience in each area is possible. Both will help you to make the best-informed decisions and find your career path.

Question 2: “Will I be making meaningful relationships?”

Some of the people you meet at your internship will be invaluable to you down the road. You might be assigned a mentor (or find one on your own) who can teach you the ropes, be a sounding board for ideas, and turn into a trusted adviser as your career grows—no matter where you work.

You also will meet people in a position to hire you now (or will be in the future), or can refer you to other colleagues at different firms when you are looking for a job. It’s surprising how small some industries are. Building a good base of contacts in grad school will most certainly help you down the road.

Once your internship ends, be sure to maintain the relationship with your mentor. If they tell you to keep in touch as the internship closes, capitalize on that opening. If you are in the same city, ask if you could get together regularly with something as simple as, “Can we meet for coffee the first Thursday of the month? I know there aren’t any big meetings on Thursdays.”

If you’re not local, keep your mentor in the loop via email or text. Share a paper you’ve written and ask for feedback, send a link to an article you know would interest your mentor or drop a handwritten note every so often to communicate how much you value the help you’ve received.

Application tip: For networking, a medium or large business could best suit your needs as you will be exposed to a number of professionals. In an interview for any internship, ask if there is a formal mentorship program.

Question 3: “Is the work cutting-edge?”

This is more important for some careers than others—think tech or medicine—but a progressive company is always working on something to set it apart.

Through an internship at such a company, you’ll gain information and learn skills different from what your professors are teaching that will put you a step ahead. The most successful companies in your profession undoubtedly will have the latest technologies—or have the next round in research and development—available for you to work with. Your supervisor at your internship can likely pair you with a researcher or another employee to show you the cutting-edge tools and how to use them in your professional development.

Application tip: You can learn a lot from a company’s website, social media pages and press. Do thorough research before applying to see how the company is different from others. Ask follow-up questions about the company’s creativity in the interview process.

The Job Offer

Consider what an internship did for some of the world’s most famous former interns. Although he was an undergrad at the time, aspiring filmmaker Steven Spielberg parlayed a very unofficial internship at Universal Studios into a seven-year contract directing television shows, including “Columbo” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” in his early 20s. He has three Academy Awards and an estimated net worth of $3.7 billion.

Spielberg followed the unpaid internship path, but several companies will offer grad-student interns a livable compensation (nearly $30 per hour for doctoral candidates, the National Association of Colleges and Employers [NACE] reports).

Maybe more important than pay to you will be the opportunity to emerge from the internship with the promise of a job offer upon the completion of your degree program, or perhaps even a job right away if you are close to the end of your schooling and can juggle both.

A NACE study showed that in 2018, companies offered jobs to 59 percent of their interns. Among them, 77.3 percent accepted the offers.

Application tip: If a job offer is important to you post-internship, ask the interviewer for the company’s conversion rate, meaning how many internships turned into jobs. NACE’s report said the conversion rate was 45.6 percent in 2018.

Grad school is, without a doubt, a hectic time of life, but the ultimate goal—finding a fulfilling job in the profession you’ve chosen—could be that much easier to reach with the invaluable completion of the right internship.

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CUNA 2023 diamond award trophy icon

CUNA 2023 Diamond Award Winner

Financial Education

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