Internships are the new norm, and the new “crucial step” in the career ladder, as our generation has been reminded endlessly how futile our degrees are in today’s job market. The degree we were told was the key to our professional success is quickly replaced by the almighty internship once we are safely in school. And besides, the academic classroom lacks fundamental lessons only found in tangible work experiences, so it’s imperative we seek them, or so we’re told.
I never once questioned the merit of internships. I accepted them as an inevitable requirement, like my college education itself. It was just another check box I had to complete in order to be successful in life, hence, when I entered university, I enrolled in a co-op program that allowed me to obtain paid work experiences (which was, I admit, already measurably better than unpaid ones) in my field.
I studied International Relations and Economics and I knew with my liberal arts degree that my post-grad job prospects would be dim compared to my non-Arts peers. Thus, the co-op program was my saving grace. It would give me the competitive edge against others in my field and allow me to amplify the worth of my Arts degree. It was a foolproof plan that would propel me onto a successful path.
Of course, as is often the case with things we are convinced to do to secure our place in the job market, my actual experiences didn’t match my expectations. I spent my college summers and senior year working, mostly without pause, and I had accumulated 16 months of paid work experience by graduation. I had both private and public sector experience, but neither were what I had initially hoped for. Based on the impressive picture they paint about these internships, I had anticipated a stimulating work experience, but what I received was unfulfilling and uninspiring – and mostly left me doing tasks that didn’t illuminate anything important about the job itself. I found myself bored at the beginning of each of my work experiences, and the duties I was assigned were no different (perhaps even easier) than the responsibilities I held in my extra-curricular clubs. I expected the “real” working world to push my boundaries, but I found myself repeating tasks I already had mastered.
Perhaps this is just the nature of internships, in that they’re entry level, and thus not supposed to be particularly stimulating or challenging. Perhaps supervisors are limited by what they can assign to interns. Perhaps it’s better to accept routine and tedious tasks and be grateful for the addition of work experience to our resumes – at least, the appearance of having worked in your field in some meaningful way — but these were nothing more than excuses for me.
A wash of guilt also overcame me after I realized how I felt about my work experiences.
Outside of work, friends exclaimed with amazement about where I worked, as if it was some prestigious achievement, but this only made me feel fraudulent and undeserving. I cringed when I was congratulated on my internships, or told how impressive they were. Had they known how trivial my assignments were, would they have still applauded me? Moreover, shouldn’t I be grateful for just having a job? Was it egotistical to desire something more?
Ashton Kutcher spoke about the humility of working at his now-viral speech at the 2013 Teen Choice Awards. “I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than,” he said. “I was always just lucky to have a job. And every job I had was a stepping stone to my next job, and I never quit my job until I had my next job. And so, opportunities look a lot like work.”
I see merit in his words, and I understand the importance of hard work, but I believe it’s misleading to limit the definition of opportunity to just hard work. The skill of working hard isn’t sufficient in advancing careers, it also matters what we are working hard on, or towards. You can work hard your entire life and still feel unfulfilled, so what then defines opportunity? It wasn’t until my last work placement that I realized what opportunity meant for me. I remember my supervisor routinely asked for my feedback about my experience and a common answer from me was, I’m not challenged.
To be challenged means to be pushed beyond our usual comfort, doing something that both daunts us and excites us. And I believe opportunity and growth stem from being challenged. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, notes a similar principle about growth and challenge in her memoir, Lean In. She writes, “reduce your career spreadsheets to one column: potential for growth.”
With internships, we sometimes don’t have the fortune of choosing which ones we can do, and what assignments we are given. However, we can still choose how we respond in the current paths we are on. In my case, I recognized my disengagement at work as an opportunity to seek out growth by simply asking for it. When I told my supervisor I didn’t feel challenged, I was frank in expressing how I felt. This openness was beneficial for me for two reasons. First, it demonstrated my ability to take initiative, and my supervisor praised me for it. Second, the nature of my work also changed. There were limitations my supervisor couldn’t surpass, as interns don’t have the clearances to do certain tasks. However, by expressing my desire to work on projects that challenged me to learn and grow, my supervisors passed on projects I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. Some of these projects required their revisions, but the experience to do work outside of my mandate was enriching to my personal development.
Even if you are on a current path that you find limiting, ask yourself, what can I learn from here and how can I initiate my learning? Challenge and growth aren’t always that clear and sometimes we have to take the initiative to find them. In the context of internships, it is more imperative that we ourselves take charge of our learning and development. If you find yourself bored and disengaged at your internship, vocalize your concerns while still maintaining a sense of gratitude and humility. Complete the routine tasks quicker and more efficiently so your supervisors will be compelled to assign you more challenging work, and if they don’t, ask. Offer your assistance on bigger projects. Don’t get discouraged from one rejection, and keep your mind open to the different ways you can stretch your internship experience by taking on more challenging and interesting tasks, because if there is one thing you must work hard on, it is your own growth and development. So take reign of your internship, and don’t just be happy to work, or to have a job in your field, regardless of what it entails. Make it your business to transform your internship into the learning opportunity that it’s meant to be.
Aman is an IR/Econ alum of UBC, Fitzgerald lover & marathon runner. You can find her drinking too much coffee in the rainy city of Vancouver. She writes for online publications including Thought Catalog, Elite Daily and Her Agenda. Follow her blog or Twitter for more updates.