Is this Internship Right for You?

Author: David Starr-Glass MBA, M.Sc., M.Ed.

Position: Mentor, International Programs (Prague), State University of New York - Empire State College

On the morning of August 15, 2013, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year old German student, was found dead in his apartment in London. Moritz had been an intern at the London-based investment banking division of Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He had worked all night and had returned to his apartment for a fast shower and change of clothes before starting another 14-hour day. In the previous two weeks, friends say that he had worked through the night on eight occasions. The cause of his death was not immediately apparent, but it is believed that he suffered from epilepsy and that his condition might have been exacerbated by the stress of his high-power internship.

Moritz was regarded as the best of that summer’s interns and it is likely that he would have been offered a $60,000 at year job with Bank of America had he survived and graduated next year. He had just finished a year abroad to study at the University of Michigan, and had also completed a number of successful internships with KPMG Consulting, Morgan Stanley, and Deutsche Bank's corporate finance division.

Moritz’s death is a great personal tragedy, but it has also shed light on the high-stress work demands associated with many internship programs, particularly in the banking and finance sectors. It sheds light, and raises serious questions, about the quality of the corporate
internship, organizational cultures, supervision practices, and the quality of corporate decision-making.

Internships are common, but often highly competitive and regarded as prestigious by those who apply for them. A well-organized and supported internship can provide many valuable benefits, but there is also a downside. If you are considering an internship program, the
question that you need to ask is: Is this internship right for me?

To answer that question you have to keep two things in mind. First, internships are designed to be learning experiences not sources of free, or minimum wage, labor. Internships only become valuable if you become a central part of the organization, not simply somebody who fetches the coffee, brings in lunch orders, or responds to never-ending demands of unknown customers. The surprising thing is that organizations often don’t know what to do with their interns. They should have a clear learning program that allows interns to experience not only what is done, but which provides them with an understanding of the way that the organization works, how it makes
decisions, and what values drive it.

Often, the intern is sidelined, taking care of mundane and repetitive tasks. One wonders what is really learned towards the end of a 14-hour day. One wonders what about the quality of decisions that are made during a 100-hour work week. One wonders about the efficiency or effectiveness of such management systems. These may be problems peculiar to contemporary investment banking, but interns in such environments might be learning little, or perhaps learning the wrong thing.

The second thing to keep in mind when considering an internship is that it is a process of social exchange: there has to be a negotiation between participants about the relative costs and benefits. Usually, students are flattered about gaining an internship with a high-status
firm. But before accepting, they have to carefully check out what they have to sacrifice and what they stand to gain. To do that they need information from the organization offering the internship, but more importantly they also have to realistically assess their own needs and wants and decide what they would be willing to give up to achieve them.

Like accepting a job offer, you have to realize that it’s a two-way deal. That is difficult, especially when the employment rate is high and you are looking for a job, any job. Don’t be vulnerable. Don’t assume that things will “work out”. Remember that only about 30% of the current US workforce feel that they are “fully engaged” in their work (http://www.gallup.com/strategicconsulting/163007/state-american-workplace.aspx). The job, like the internship, might not be perfect, but it has to benefit you and your career.

Despite the tragic outcome for Moritz Erhardt, most students and their professors see great potential benefits attached to internship programs. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted that “carefully conceived, academically informed internships provide… added
value—a good return on the invest­ment of the students' energy, intelligence, and time, whether or not they are paid” (http://chronicle.com/article/Internships-Have-Value/127231/). However, you cannot assume that the organization offering the internship has carefully conceived it or that it is academically informed. You have to make that evaluation before you accept the offer.

So what should you look out for?


  • Does the organization have a tradition of
    internships?

  • Can you get in touch with previous interns
    and frankly discus their experiences?

  • Will the internship provide you with new
    knowledge and experience?

  • Will the internship let you consolidate
    what you have learned in the classroom?

  • Will the internship allow you to gain a
    deeper understanding of organizational culture?

  • Who will supervise the internship?

  • Can you see that person as a mentor who you
    can rely on and benefit from?

  • Will the internship enhance your CV and
    career?

Internships can provide a truly valuable experience, but that doesn’t necessarily happen. You need to consider things carefully and from your perspective: what you can gain, rather than what the organization needs. Like all important decision-making it helps to discuss things with professors, mentors, and friends.

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