Over spring break, I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in a Princeternship at the University of Southern California, but when the alumna who invited me introduced me to her coworkers, smiles quickly turned to looks of bemusement — “this is Jason, the three-day intern.” Though their reactions were understandable — after all, what sort of comprehensive experience can an “intern” really garner in the span of a few days? — it also reiterated, for me, a rather severe flaw in the conception of vocational experimentation and with the widespread understanding of internships as a whole.
The most apt definition of an internship that I could find online was “any official or formal program to provide practical experience for beginners in an occupation or profession.” Other similar explanations of the term conveyed comparable meanings, often with the caveat that internships can be paid or unpaid thrown in. Of note is the fact that such definitions did not at all specify a timeframe or a minimum length of duration that an engagement must last to render it an “official” internship.
The problem then is that in our society, popular conceptions of internships are limited to lengthy, intensive programs designed to prepare the intern for future work in a same or similar job. While such a narrow interpretation is highly applicable to upperclassmen — whose internships often serve as vital precursors to occupations after graduation — for many others (predominantly underclassmen), long internships can actually be counterproductive. After all, stories abound of interns who, after spending weeks or months working in a specific industry or field, emerge from their experience only to say that the work simply was not for them. Why did it have to take so much time to figure out something relatively straightforward? That time could have been spent much more productively pursuing other activities or goals.
For instance, at USC, even after just three days of shadowing my alumna host and helping with minor tasks, I came to the realization that policy formulation involves a greater amount of data processing than I had initially thought, and I was also surprised by the large amount of interpersonal contact that is necessary among the many disparate departments of the Financial Aid Office. Some might contest that short internships lasting only a few days or a few weeks give participants merely a cursory understanding of what sort of work a certain field requires, but this should indeed be the goal. The purpose is not to emerge an expert in a field — it is to acquaint inexperienced undergraduates with the type of work they would be likely to experience if they pursue longer, more intensive endeavors in the same field.
Admittedly, shorter internships run the risk of being too cursory, and spending only a few days might not allow participants the adequate exposure necessary to establish a clear sense of whether a field is “right for them” or not. However, from a cost-benefit perspective, this ambiguity is preferable to spending an entire summer in an internship that initially seemed ideal, but in actuality, proved a poor fit. Overall, a few days is a minor price for the chance to explore different fields, especially when compared to the months-long price tag that comes with lengthier internship engagements.
Ideally, though, the general knowledge obtained from the relatively short experience of the Princeternship will serve students well in scoping out future, longer-term internship endeavors that carry more commitment. In this manner, Princeton’s Career Services has done a commendable job implementing the Princeternship program and giving students the capacity to make better, more informed choices, so they don’t end up “wasting their time” chasing an internship in which, as it turns out, they have no real interest. Perhaps it is time that other universities start adopting this model as well, to empower their undergraduate student bodies in a similar manner.
It is time to rethink and broaden our perception of internships altogether, to embrace the merits of both lengthier opportunities and shorter ones.
Jason Choe is a freshman from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.