Advantages and disadvantages of internships

Chapter 3

Internships aren't always what they appear to be. So far we've been talking about the big name, high-prestige variety, the sort of opportunity people dream about, and occasionally get.

Most internships aren't that glamorous, but they do get the job done. The experience is valuable, the internship is well organized, and the intern is properly trained.

Let's get rid of a couple of myths while we're at it:

  • These aren't kid's jobs, if they're being done properly by the provider. They may look like it, and feel like it, at first, but it's the substance that matters. You're getting a look at the realities of your future career.
  • Some do pay, not many, and not much, but some providers are realistic enough to add a carrot or so to the gig. That's a form of painkiller, as well as an incentive, so all that time does have some tangible rewards.

The real upside

Internships are a very good way of getting firsthand experience, but they're also a reliable way of finding out about your intended career.

Many professions and careers have a very nebulous, vague, and largely wrong, image. You'd swear all lawyers ever did was wear suits, have affairs, and run around doing close ups, and get paid for doing that.

Anyone who's done a legal internship, on any level, can tell you the reality is slightly different.

There's a tide of clients, obscure issues that can get much more obscure every time someone opens their mouth, and an apparently endless selection of legal procedures which could drive anyone to distraction.

The research scientist doesn't just meander about wearing a white suit and being brilliant. The science intern will tell you that years of tortuous research, interminable experiments, and often infuriating budgets, make research scientists a lot more thoughtful than any single science would normally require. The sheer complexity of the research field, as an operational thing, is something very few people outside the field know anything about. Interns, getting a good look at these realities, and the sort of work involved, the professional cultures, and often the business cultures as well, get a very good introduction.

They also discover how they relate to the work and the career. We've seen many people on our Forum who've done their degrees, and found the field something they really don't like, or that it leads nowhere, as a career.

Internships, in a career-oriented society, are invaluable as a reality check. The kind of time and money spent starting up a career isn't funny. The internships are important professional orientation.


You're a research intern. You've been staggering under the load of work, involving dealing with the results of literally thousands of tests on a food dye. This is important work, because a toxic product would be a product that will never be sold. There are immunological issues, too.

The cost of the development program has been millions. The research has cost millions. Now it's a matter of making sure that the product is patented, thoroughly checked, approved as an additive, and then put on the market.

As an added precaution, the product has been sent to an independent lab, the one where you've just got your internship. This is for verification of data provided by the manufacturer, and confirmation of the safety tests.

Being an intern, you can't do the research yourself. You can, however, help with the work. You find yourself, on your first day, not doing research, but doing data entry, enormous amounts of number crunching.

People are working flat out. There's not much talk, because they're literally too busy. You get a friendly hello or so, but everyone's working on deadlines, which really do have to be met to get through the necessary amount of testing and correlating of data. That has to happen before anyone can actually make a simple statement saying whether the product is safe.

Everything is being done at a relentless gallop. This is, actually, a good example of a lab at full throttle, really pressed, and people are actually staying back to get the work done so they have a little extra time to play with for their analysis. That's important, because research results don't necessarily give you the results you want for a yes/no answer. Sometimes they create more work, because the research findings themselves have to be tested. Hence the need for some more time being available. So you work back for four hours a day for the next weeks.

Fortunately for you, although the amount and intensity of the work has come as rather a shock, you're enjoying the new environment, and you're working back on principle, to help keep the data moving. (That, incidentally, is much appreciated by the researchers, because it means you've realized how important that role is, and how desperately they need that database to be operating properly.)

You can see the other side of this coin, for the intern.

A person with no prior experience, thrown into such a hectic schedule, with a huge amount of work, is either going to pitch in and help, as you have, or fall to pieces.

The fact is that people do sometimes enter careers for which they're just not the right mix of person and work. Academically, they're fine, but as a career in the workplace, they find themselves overloaded, and truly loathing the work.

Naturally, being so de-motivated, they don't perform well, can't get ahead, and find themselves stuck in jobs they can't stand, because they don't have the qualifications for anything else.

That's also an upside to internships, even when they confront interns with this sort of problem. The intern can see these situations, and avoid them, in their career plan. The research intern, if not suited, can become a specialist in a discipline where they won't have to deal with this sort of frantic series of needs in the lab.

Specializing in development of experimental techniques, for example, would be one option, where there's a much stronger academic component. These are the people who design the experiments. They're a special class of researcher, extremely important to science as problem solvers. They have to figure out how to conduct tests to get the results required. There's a very strong pure research element in this work, for which some people are much better suited than others. They do more work with their thinking, less with the physical side.

It's an important career decision-making time, when working as an intern, and seeing what you like, what you don't like, and what you can actually achieve.

The downside

There are serious possible downsides in some internships.

We've had reports of truly sloppy, useless internships, which if called internships aren't much more than cheap labor.

These things have to be avoided at all costs. They're a waste of your precious time, and are getting in the way of doing a real internship.

One instance we saw was a of a case where the internship was undocumented, and the work not even vaguely related to credits as far as the intern could discover. This particular case could have been a potential breach of labor laws, rather than anything which could possibly be described as an internship.

If you encounter one of these non-internships, you could report it to your college, because other students could be at risk, too.

Symptoms of this disease include:

  • No apparent system or planned methodology,
  • No paperwork for the internship,
  • No credits structure,
  • Duties which aren't structured either, either not enough to do or random office work, nothing to do with the supposed internship,
  • Apathetic, indifferent providers,
  • Irrelevant work in other areas.

Interns do some extraneous work, usually because someone has to do it.

It's also just better economics not to send someone on an hour out to get the coffee.

They do not, however, spend the entire internship doing nothing academically useful, doing unpaid office work when they're supposed to be doing something quite else.

Internships are supposed to be relevant.

One way of avoiding these pseudo-internships is to check out with your college if an internship is considered good. Has this provider been OK for others?, etc.

(If you get an apathetic response from the college, ask someone who does know what they're talking about, and cares what they do for a living themselves.)

If you find yourself in this situation, get yourself out of there, immediately, and get a real internship while you still have time. They're not doing you any favors, and you owe them nothing.

There are other areas of internships where you can turn yourself into unpaid labor. But these are the basic criteria for knowing a dud internship when you see one.

Always check out the value and credentials of an internship.

It's a lot of time to lose, if you get it wrong.