By Ellen Mehling, Career Services Consultant at METRO
Professional experience is necessary to secure a job and have a continuing, successful career. Students and new graduates have a well-known challenge: to get experience without a job, and to get a job without experience. Volunteering is one way to gain such experience; interning is another.
What an Internship Is and Isn’t
While many readers are already familiar with the term “internship,” it makes sense to discuss briefly what an internship actually is (and isn’t). An internship (sometimes also known as “experiential education,” “experiential learning," or “field experience”) is supervised professional training in a workplace setting. It is most often done by students in a formal program for credit towards a degree; some LIS Master’s degree programs require an internship. There are some internship opportunities for those who have already graduated, although they may require more effort to find.
Internships usually take place for a limited, specific period of time (often a few months), which may be set by the site or by the school if the intern is a student. Sites may have requirements of potential interns, such as coursework or a strong interest in a certain subject. Schools may also have their own requirements of the site and/or site supervisor, especially if the internship is for credit.
Some internships offer a stipend or hourly pay to interns, many do not. According to a 2011 internship salary survey by Intern Bridge, “nearly half of all reported internships are unpaid.” While it is possible for an intern to be offered a job at the end of an internship, you should not regard this as probable or expected; an internship is not a prelude to a permanent position at that site.
Aside from the major benefits of practical training, skill acquisition, and experience, internships offer the opportunity to network, a crucial part of job hunting and career development. They may also offer a chance to learn about other kinds of work being done at that site, and you, as the intern, may discover something new you really enjoy. For example, a recent intern in a public library was initially interested in general reference, but was offered the chance to do programming for very young children because the children’s librarian was out on leave. She found to her surprise that she loved it and had a talent for it, and now has both reference and children’s programming experience on her resume.
Internships differ from jobs in that they typically don’t require significant prior experience from the worker (intern) and the purpose and experience of the internship is for the advantage of the intern rather than the site.
Securing Your Ideal Internship
The starting point for you, as a potential intern, should be your interests and goals. Two questions to keep in mind: what kind of experience are you seeking? Is the experience you hope to acquire likely to benefit you in your job search and career?
Finding a suitable internship is in many ways like finding a job:
Make use of your network. See if there is anyone you know who works at a site that might be appropriate. If you are already have a connection to that library or workplace, it may be easier to get an internship there.
Applications for internships often require a targeted resume and cover letter and an interview. There may be strong competition, especially if the site is well known and/or the internship pays a stipend or hourly wage.
You may find information on internship opportunities on professional listservs, library school student listservs and websites of professional organizations. For example: SLA-NY’s Internship Listings and the METRO-l listserv.
You can also do some research to find potential sites and the names of possible decision makers. Even if they haven’t had interns before, you can approach them to ask about the possibility. Take care that your requests are courteous and respectful. Check that there is not already internship information on the library/organization’s website before contacting someone, and understand that you might not get a response.
It may take time to find one; apply to a number of internships, but focus on the quality of your applications rather than quantity.
For Best Results
Clear communications and expectations are vital to a positive internship experience for the site and for the intern. If you are a student and your school has requirements, make sure the site and your supervisor understand and agree to them. Discuss the details of the work: orientation and training, what your hours and assignments will be, supervision and feedback, specifics and deadlines for anything you’ll have to hand in, where your workspace will be, etc. Ask what your supervisor’s communications preferences are, and to whom should you report in his/her absence. Put the information in writing if you can; even just a brief e-mail summarizing the conversation can serve as a point of reference. If, for some reason, things aren’t going the way you expected them to, or you find yourself unhappy with the internship, talk to your supervisor about it and see if there is some way to improve the situation. Ideally the supervisor-intern relationship is one of mutual respect where both people can give and receive feedback on how the relationship is developing.
Present yourself as a professional in your attire and behavior from day one. Those you work with the internship are possible connections for future opportunities, and it is in your best interests for them to see you as a colleague or peer. Take your assignments as seriously as if this were a job. Be flexible and agreeable, reliable and punctual; do what you say you are going to do, and make sure your assignments and written communications are error-free.
Keep your mind open and pay attention to what is going on at the site. Say yes if you are offered an opportunity to gain experience beyond what you originally agreed to. Learn as much as you can about the staff, patrons, projects, initiatives, day-to-day functioning, challenges, and future plans of that library or organization. Attend staff meetings if you can.
Volunteer to help out when you see an opportunity. If you have some knowledge or experience that could be put to use, let your supervisor know. Offer your ideas and expertise.
Keep track of the work you do during the internship. Be sure to note soft skills you acquired or practiced while interning, too. This will be valuable for you as you add this new experience to your resume and/or portfolio, and may also be useful down the road if your site supervisor agrees to be a reference for you; you’ll be able to remind him/her of what you worked on.
Make sure you have the site’s permission to present something you created during the internship (a libguide, for example, or a tutorial, or part of a finding aid) as a sample of your work.
Ask your supervisor to introduce you to as many people as possible at the site and ask them about the work they do. This is as an opportunity not just to gain experience and skills but also to make lasting alliances, with your supervisor and others at the site. You may connect with someone who would be willing to meet with you for an informational interview or let you shadow him/her for a shift or a day.
In addition to an official internship for credit, it is a very good idea to do additional (unofficial) internships to acquire a greater range of skills and experience, build a larger network, and have a more robust resume.
Note: Future interns may be interested in METRO’s Innovative Internship program.