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.