For many Northwestern students, conversations about summer come with what seems to be a loaded question: what are you doing this summer? Especially during the search process leading up to the summer, internships pervade student life at Northwestern – from the sheer number of students who complete internships, several curriculum requirements, to what some consider a vocational culture of high-achieving students.
A University Career Services survey of the Class of 2013 found 80 percent of recent graduates reported engaging in one or more experiential learning opportunity while at Northwestern.
Experiential learning opportunities include programs built into the curriculums of the undergraduate schools, Chicago Field Studies, undergraduate research and other similar experiences in addition to traditional internships. Thirty-one percent of students had engaged in two such opportunities and 13 percent had three or more.
“I think there’s sort of a subversive competitiveness that kind of pervades Northwestern a little bit,” Medill junior Jeremy Woo said. “Within Medill, I do my best to not get caught up in that.”
“If you haven't said you’re doing an internship or where you are going to be over summer, you’re treated differently,” SESP sophomore Dara McGreal said. “I think thats kind of sad, but that’s kind of way it works around here.”
McGreal continued that she sees the pressure rooted in a need to graduate, from any school, with the competitive edge that internships provide. “A bachelor’s degree alone doesn’t do it anymore,” McGreal said of the job market.
“Anytime you put a lot of high-achieving students in one place who are motivated, that’s what’s you’re going to get,” Woo continued, noting that a competitive culture isn’t necessarily unique to Northwestern.
Northwestern does have several unique programs factoring into the internship culture, such as the journalism residency in Medill. While such programs may put more emphasis than usual on internships for undergraduates, they also bring another level of learning to the undergraduate experience.
“I think it’s really a staple of Medill — it’s a big sell for them and I think it should be,” Woo said. While he said he recognizes areas for improvement, Woo considers the journalism residency a valuable part of a journalism education. “Being able to go and do [journalism] while you’re in school is great because it can give you a taste if it’s something you want to stick with or not.”
Medill senior Megan Joyce feels less certain about the benefits of requiring the journalism residency for Medill students. While many residency sites offer internships focusing on news, not all Medill students want to be journalists and may not find a journalism residency experience aligning with their career goals, Joyce explained.
She continued that the internships may focus on a specific aspect of journalism, such as news reporting or broadcast, that doesn’t fit all students career goals and past experiences in Medill.
Within the School of Education and Social Policy, the practicum has a built-in academic link, requiring students to take field notes during the internship and write a research paper on the work environment.
“I think it really gets you to think about the environment you were in and whether you gained something from it,” McGreal said.
For McGreal, receiving academic credit for the SESP practicum makes the lack of compensation, a requirement for practicum internships, more manageable. Without the academic credit and opportunities to apply for grants, McGreal said she also would have been likely to take a part-time job while interning at the American Public Human Services Association this summer in Washington, D.C.
While Northwestern students may place high value on internships as they plan for professional experiences, working without compensation complicates the internship process for some students. Students may grapple with weighing the benefits of a paying job versus an unpaid internship, finding affordable housing on short notice or facing the cost of living in cities like New York, where many internships take place.
According to the Career Services survey, 64 percent of students reported participating in at least one traditional internship. Forty-two percent of those students reported participating in only unpaid internships, 24 percent in both paid and unpaid internships and 34 percent in only paid internships.
In an atmosphere where students may already feel academic and vocational pressure to land internships, the financial questions surrounding internships can add to the stress.
“I think there is pressure to find internships and once you find the internship, there is pressure to figure out how you’re going to pay for it and make it a financially sustainable situation,” said Joyce, emphasizing the cost of living and transportation during an internship. Joyce said she feels that Medill’s journalism residency program has been slow to adapt to students financial aid situation.
At Northwestern, students can apply for the Summer Internship Grant Program through Career Services to receive a $2500 stipend for an unpaid internship. In 2014, the program awarded 70 grants — its largest number yet after receiving a record number of 287 applicants.
Mark Presnell, Executive Director of University Career Services, explained that whether an internship is paid depends more on the career field than the student’s major.
For example, it may seem engineers receive more paid internships, but that is usually because an engineer may be more likely to intern for a large company than a non-profit organization, which does not pay any interns.
The Department of Labor also sets guidelines for when interns must receive compensation based on their role at the organization.
A positive trend may be beginning for interns. Presnell said he has been seeing a shift toward more students receiving payment for their internships.
To find great talent to hire later on, “Some companies see internships as an elongated interview,” Presnell explained. “They pay interns to be competitive and get good students.”
As nice as it is to change that LinkedIn heading to a title other than "student," internships have more professional worth than just adding another line to a résumé.
“Take advantage of your internship, even if you’re delivering coffee,” said Communication sophomore Ethan Saltzberg. “You might end up getting coffee for important people who can be valuable connections in the future.”
Woo, who is currently completing his journalism residency internship at Sports Illustrated’s SI.com in New York City, said he’s found value in gaining an understanding of how their office works although he was already very familar with their publication's work.
“SI is a [journalism residency] site that has a history of hiring people back, but whatever site you’re at, it’s a good time to make connections and if you really like it there, maybe try to come back,” Woo said.
In addition to networking opportunities, Presnell pointed out that internships give students material to discuss in an interview, where a key factor for many employers is previous experience.
An internship doesn’t have to turn into that perfect, oft-dreamed of job offer to have value for students.
“As a student, you want to understand the career field you’re entering and figure out whether it’s for you,” Presnell said. “It’s better to find out now than after you have a full time job.”
Apart from taking a peek at the professional day-to-day for a projected career path, interns may also feel out a company culture and city of their internship. The chance to experience professional life, link academics to the professional world and network often draw students to internships.
While the pressure surrounding internships may seem overwhelming at Northwestern, it’s important for students to evaluate their experience in the context of their academic and career goals and focus on personal development.