Networking, Professional Identity, Strategy

When to Take an Internship

Internships can be an effective way to make a transition out of school or into a new career. But they aren’t always the right decision. Any internship you accept should be relevant to your ultimate career goal (i.e. next permanent position) in one of two ways:

  1. Knowledge, Skills and Abilities or
  2. Domain Expertise

In the abstract, the benefit of an internship is that it changes your narrative. I strongly believe that your narrative–and it’s fit with the organizations you are targeting– is the whole thing. That’s what career making is.

An internship serves as a potential inflection point in that narrative and give you stories that will resonate much more strongly with your targeted organizations.

First the Downside

There isn’t much of a critical risk with taking an internship that ends up to have not been the right fit. If it’s a total bomb, it will have used your valuable time, diminished your savings somewhat, and may lead to an additional question or two in future interviews. But even those additional questions offer an opportunity to demonstrate your sophistication and perspective on various industries. And that’s not really so bad. So depending on your financial situation the risks are minimal.

But the Lean Career puts efficiency above all else. I want you to use your time, energy and confidence efficiently. You should protect it and apply it where it will provide the best return to getting you the career you want. So how do you decide?

Decide by Relevancy

Any internship you choose should be relevant in one of two ways. It should provide you with an opportunity to:

  1. Gain or deepen your Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSA’s) or
  2. Gain Domain Expertise

KSA’s are the things you do and use actively in a job. They are the elements that are most easily assessed in an interview and most easily utilized after you start. Most organization look for and hire on KSAs. Internships are a potentially excellent opportunity to put yourself in positions to gain KSAs and capture compelling stories about them.

Domain expertise is a bit more abstract. One example I use all the time is of an accountant. An account has Knowledge, Skills and Abilities around financial reporting, taxes, etc. But she may apply those KSAs in different domains. One accountant may work for a corporate law firm, another for a public school system and another a museum. Domains are the areas in which you apply your KSAs.

Gaining just domain expertise can be hugely beneficial. For example, if your goal is to work at a museum it is often useful (and perceived as valuable by the employer) if you take a position there doing almost anything. (This is why volunteering can be helpful as well–especially in the social sector.) Any experience in the organization–in the domain–gives you value because you already know a bit more than “outsiders” about how the place runs. It makes you appear, act and contribute like one of them already. And that’s a big advantage.

Even if an organization can’t hire full-timers right now, internships and similar experiences provide stories you can take with you. Stories that change impressions, permit you a stronger introduction and help you demonstrate your value in ways that people in those organizations find relevant.