Complete Grad School Guide to Internships

The stated purpose of graduate school is to take your career to the next level and significantly enhance your opportunities upon graduating. Perhaps you’ve always known what you wanted, and immediately enrolled in graduate school upon completing your bachelor’s degree. Or maybe it took you a little longer to figure out your path, and you came back to school after working for years or even decades.
No matter what the case, the purpose of your graduate school program is to enhance your career, and internships are an excellent way to do that. The purpose of and approach to internships is a little different in graduate school, however, which is why we’re providing this detailed guide to internships to answer any questions you might have.

Grab a cup of coffee, a pencil and paper, and your thinking cap (yeah, we went there), and we’ll tell you all you need to know.

What Is An Internship?

This might seem like a basic question, but it’s actually not as obvious as it seems. Merriam Webster defines an internship as “any official or formal program to provide practical experience for beginners in an occupation or profession,” or as “any period of time during which a beginner acquires experience in an occupation, profession, or pursuit.”

It is important to note that an internship is different from an apprenticeship in that your employer does not expect you to work for them for a certain length of time after finishing the internship (though you may receive a job offer).

It is also important to note that although some people assume “intern” is synonymous with “unpaid drudge,” that’s actually not true. According to the University of Washington, 41 percent of students in their Master of Public Administration programs were paid; an additional 2 percent received as stipend. While plenty of internships are unpaid, if monetary compensation is important to you, you can probably find it.

But Are Internships Worth It?

I mean, you’re thinking, isn’t it enough that I’m in grad school, and possibly working too? Do I really need an internship on top of everything else?

Sure, you may have heard that interns spend a lot of time fetching coffee for demanding, prissy bosses, and undoubtedly some of those rumors are true. Even with cash on the line, an internship might seem like too much for you to take on, especially without guarantee of a job offer.

And the truth is, you won’t flunk out of grad school or totally fail to get a job if you don’t have an internship. But college degrees are worth less as more people obtain them: from only 47 percent of high school graduates attending in 1973, the number rose to 70 percent in 2008. To combat this, increasing numbers of students are choosing to earn graduate degrees as well … which means in order to stand out in a crowd, you’ll need to offer something extra. And that’s not the only benefit.

What Are the Other Benefits of Internships?

Actually, there are quite a few. Internships allow you to:

  • Explore your options in a safe environment that you don’t have to commit to, so you can get a feel for potential jobs upon graduating with your master’s degree
  • Make connections with people in your field who may be able to help you later, either by hooking you up with jobs, introducing you to other important people in your field, or providing letters of recommendation
  • Learn from the inside about a job that may seem opaque or confusing from the outside
  • Build your resume with experience that can substitute for real work experience in your field
  • Prove your enthusiasm to the people who take you on for an internship, or to others who hear the glowing recommendations you receive
  • Potentially earn money or course credit toward your graduate degree
  • Develop new skills that you can use in a future job, and gain hands-on mastery over concepts that might formerly have been purely theoretical or classroom-based

These are not the only benefits, but they are several of the most important. If at all possible, start looking into internships that can augment your graduate career, prove your worth to potential employers, and help you learn more about the field you’re paying to become an expert in.

What Kind of Internship Should I Get?

Your choice of internship depends largely on what you want to do when you graduate, so match your internship to your eventual career goals. If you’re looking for a non-profit career, then a non-profit internship is the best bet (and the opposite is also the case). Ideally, your internship will supply you with the basic skills to start a position in the same niche. Other considerations include:

  • The type of environment you want to work in (large or small?)
  • The setting (city or rural?)
  • The business model (business-to-business, business-to-consumer, public, government?)
  • The tasks (speaking, writing, number-crunching, teaching?)

The closer you can get your internship to your dream job, the better chance you have of landing a similar job once you wrap up your internship and go to apply with graduate degree in hand.

When Should I Look Into Internships?

The short answer is, it’s never too early. Even an internship that begins before you matriculate will look good on a resume and underline your graduate school experience, so start looking right away. Of course, most internships will occur during graduate school (especially during summer term if your grad school program is more than a year long) or once you graduate.

There are several reasons to begin your search for grad school internships as soon as possible:

  • Many internships are competitive, and have a limited number of spots
  • Some set their deadlines for application 3-6 months, or even longer, before the internship begins
  • If you want to find a paid internship, you’ll need a lot of time to look, as these comprise less than half of paid internships, according to most undergraduate statistics (representative graduate statistics could not be found, but are likely similar)
  • If you complete an internship earlier in your grad school career, you may have time to do another before you graduate, or you can line one up for after graduation when you are looking for a job

Keep in mind that although there is no guarantee of employment simply because you took on an internship, interns often do receive job offers from the companies they’ve worked for, both non-profit and for-profit, so it’s always worth checking if the organization you’re interning with allows the possibility of advancement.

Do I Need to Update My Resume?

Absolutely. Your resume is the professional face you present to potential organizations you want to work with. Of course, ideally they’ll meet you in person as well, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you apply while you still live far away, hoping to score that new internship before you move to a new city to start school. And even if they do meet you in person, your well-scrubbed eagerness won’t do much to compensate for a ho-hum resume.

The Undercover Recruiter advises tailoring your resume toward the digital medium, since many of your applications will be submitted electronically. Look for crisp, clean fonts and don’t go below size 9.  Put your name, email address, city and state, and phone number at the top of the resume … and leave off your street address, as these days that’s more a safety concern than anything else. The Undercover Recruiter also advises the following steps:

  • Skip the objective paragraph. It’s no longer in fashion and is redundant, because the organization already knows you want to be hired
  • List your key skills under each accomplishment
  • Stick to one page or two at most … three pages is only for people who’ve been in the field for 15+ years
  • Use keywords related to the field to help you catch the organization’s attention, but don’t overdo it

How Do I Find Internships?

You now have a good idea of the kind of internship you’d like, as well as a freshly customized resume. You’re ready to apply. But where should you start?

A quick Internet search reveals that you have practically limitless options, so start big and get more specific.

First, it can be helpful to troll a huge government site such as USA Jobs, which posts both paid and unpaid internship opportunities for graduates. Check out other aggregator job boards too, which often list internships in with more permanent positions. Apply for everything that looks like it might be a fit; if you’re chosen, you don’t have to accept. It’s always better to have more options than fewer.

Next, try the career center or job boards at your school or future school. If you are earning your master’s degree online (link to online master’s piece?), look for virtual job boards posted by your institution, or email the office of career advisement for help.

You can also attend job fairs hosted by your campus, or sometimes by the Chamber of Commerce, and go to meet-and-greet or conferences hosted by professional associations (think the American Marketing Association or the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Other options include your own professional network, composed of people for whom you have worked or professors you had a good relationship with in past.

Last, you can hit up social media. LinkedIn is an obvious place to start for any professional endeavor, but Facebook and Twitter can turn up good leads as well.

How Do I Apply?

Think of applying for an internship the same way you would think of applying for a job. Take the opportunity seriously, whether paid or unpaid, and always treat the organization you’re applying with respect. Remember, even if you’ll only be there a few months and won’t earn a cent, you could earn something far more valuable than money: experience, which will encourage other places to hire you.

Once you’ve located the internship(s) you’d like to be considered for, follow any instructions attached to the description. If there aren’t any, you can always contact a member of HR or, in a smaller organization, the business owner. If you found the internship on Craigslist, be sure to check out the organization to make sure it’s legit. A no-name basement operation is unlikely to add much credibility to your resume.

Submit your resume, a cover letter, and anything else required. Sometimes this will include letters of recommendation, work samples or a portfolio. Follow directions carefully, as many companies intentionally supply very specific instructions just to see who can follow them.

After you’ve applied, wait a week or two before following up, either by email or with a phone call. As long as you are polite and not pushy, this is totally acceptable. If you still don’t hear back, it is safe to assume the organization isn’t interested, so move on.

How Do I Leverage an Internship Into a Job?

There are several ways to use your internship to your advantage once you complete it. The first and most obvious is to turn the internship into a job offer. This isn’t uncommon, especially at the graduate level; many companies hunt for promising master’s students that they can train during or directly following school and, if they turn out, hire them.

The companies that hire don’t keep it secret, so keep this in mind during your research. If you land an internship at such an organization, ask them upfront what they look for in their job candidates and then follow through. If you impress them, you could very well land the job.

The second main way to leverage your internship is as a way to build your resume. List the internship under work experience, not school experience, because it legitimately counts as experience you’ve earned out in the real world. Choose two to three bulleted takeaways from your time at that organization, leading with action verbs. Consider the following examples:

  • Designed new company-wide content management system to enable easier submission of written reports
  • Tracked and managed donated inventory for use at public shelters
  • Instituted innovative curriculum tailored to third grade class

Target your takeaways toward the job you want. That means listing the most relevant duties you performed, not the most impressive.

The last main way internships can be leveraged into jobs are through connections. Tell your boss or mentor at the internship what your goals are, and ask them to recommend you to anyone they know who might be looking. You’ll be surprised how often this works.

An internship, done right, can be worth its weight in gold. Even if you don’t end up working for that company, a sizable stint at a reputable organization can significantly increase your caché in the job market. With an increasing crush of new master’s-holding graduates, it’s in your best interest to find a good internship and nail it, rather than hoping to be picked from the throng after graduation. Do so, and your dream job might be closer than you think.