Fancy internship vs. “summer job”?

Say you’re a young college student, weighing your options for the summer. Assuming you have some choice in the matter, what’s better preparation for a successful career, a summer internship with a prominent business or non-profit group, or a summer job filling shelves and running a cash register for a local supermarket?

A professor’s answer

As a university professor, my strong advice to most students would be to take the internship. Whether they are aiming for a plum job out of college, or perhaps vying for a spot in graduate or professional school, the internship will carry more weight than 10 weeks stocking shelves at the grocery store.

Indeed, it’s probably not even a close call.

But indulge me for a minute…

When I was in college some 30 years ago, most undergraduates did not expect to do a summer internship unless, perhaps, they were enrolled in a professional program such as nursing, engineering, or social work. For political science majors like me, summers typically meant doing some type of low-wage job working in a store, a factory, or the great outdoors.

I spent a couple of my summers working for a local drug store chain as a stock clerk. During an interim year between graduating from college and starting law school, I returned to the company in the midst of a terrible recession. The work involved unloading trucks, tagging merchandise and stocking shelves, and customer assistance. While I wouldn’t call the job backbreaking, at the end of a busy shift, I knew I had earned my meager wages.

I didn’t ignore the bells & whistles that might give a boost to my law school applications. I was a department editor of the college newspaper, a senator in the student government, and a volunteer for numerous political campaigns. But I understood the difference between a paying job and extracurricular activities.

What I learned

When I got to law school, I was wholly intimidated by the array of internships, fellowships, and similar opportunities that many of my classmates already sported on their resumes. I hasten to add that they didn’t flaunt these credentials; it simply was part of what they had done.

Looking back, I wish I would’ve been more appreciative of what I learned in my less glamorous minimum wage jobs. I gained a work ethic. I learned how to follow instructions and take directives. I learned how to treat a customer with respect. And I learned what it means to start at the bottom and to earn a pat on the back for the work I did.

I’m not claiming that someone can’t learn these things in an internship. And I concede that it sounds like I’m wallowing in nostalgia for a job that — in actuality — I regarded simply as a way to save money for college. But there’s something about a genuine, humble, entry-level job that teaches us some valuable lessons for the years to come.


Related post

Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation explores the internship phenomenon

3 responses

  1. Many kids and their families consider an unpaid internship a luxury, especially these days, and most of us have forgotten all the positives that can come from those low-wage jobs. In my own college summers and still today from friends with college-age kids, I have heard of more internships filled with coffee runs, proposal copying and paper filing than I’d like to say. It takes some reflection time, but all of these summer workers can decide whether and what they want to put into the job – paid or not – and the lessons they want to take away. Perhaps I am wallowing in nostalgia; nonetheless, I thank you for reframing the less glamorous jobs that few college students want to take.

  2. As a pharmacy student I was required to do internship in a pharmacy. One hired me and I had to drive 130 miles round trip per day to get there from where I lived. The owner of the store lost his cosmetics girl and expected me to take over her job. I told him no, I was there to learn the medicine part of the business and he fired me.

    The next guy that hired me also did no training. On my own I started cleaning his store which was very dirty. I also cleaned up his cosmetic department and talked him into putting a basket of products on the check-out counter to move stuff that was older stock. I could never tell on them because I needed the hours to get my license. I sold more Chivas Regal there than I did prescriptions.

    Many of the people getting hired had connections to the owners and I had no such contacts. I had to take what I could get. I think like you say about the copying, coffee runs etc. that there is way more abuse of young people in these kinds of positions than is known, and they are the brightest and the best, deserving of real training.

  3. I agree that many folks can’t afford an unpaid internship. In addition to that, the various paid jobs provide students with a reason to finish their course work. Working in a candy factory made me VERY committed to finishing my degree. The idea of doing the physically challenging and mentally numbing work for the rest of my life was absolutely untenable! That was true to various degrees of the other jobs that I did to raise funds for college. I also did an unpaid internship as part of my social work degree. I was fortunate to work side by side with experienced social workers and get a really good idea of what the job entailed, good and bad. To be used as free photocopy help would be a very sad experience for students. It demonstrates a total lack of care for employees and an emphasis on the bottom line that should make the interns run from that employer!

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