My first internship was for a horse racetrack’s communications department. For some reason, I thought to be in communications meant we had a lax dress code compared to the rest of the company. I thought we were supposed to be edgier or show more personality.
So, I showed up one day in a tank top with a crochet shrug (it was the early 2000s, don’t judge), nice pants, and jeweled flip flops. I thought I looked super chic. But when I strolled into a meeting with my boss, she was horrified. She pulled me aside and explained that my outfit was not acceptable and that I needed to go home and get changed.
I was mortified, but it was an important lesson for me. Interns make silly mistakes; that’s part of being an intern. And it’s one reason, among many others, why securing an internship is so important for your professional development.
Whether you’re a fresh graduate or have been in the workforce for years, an internship can help you launch your career (or break into a new one) in the following ways:
1. Building a portfolio
During your internship, you’ll work on various projects. These assignments can be added to your portfolio that you show to potential employers when you apply for a job or interview.
Whether you’re a graphic designer who created a brochure or an event planner who arranged a charity benefit, those projects can significantly enhance your application.
Even if you are not in a creative field, being able to easily point to specific examples of past work can make you stand out from other candidates.
2. You gain valuable office experience
Beyond actual skills-based experience, internships teach you about the expectations and dynamics of a real office setting. That can help you operate within business norms, such as adhering to a dress code, keeping specific hours, or navigating office politics more seamlessly than those without experience.
3. You establish a professional network
At the racetrack, I met jockeys, trainers, marketing professionals, and leading executives. That helped me understand every facet of the business, from the people who actually managed the horses to the people who handled the big picture decisions. Their insights helped me understand the impact of my work and how it fit in with the rest of the business.
During your internship, you’ll also work with a variety of people. You will be part of a team and have a direct manager, and you’ll have the chance to meet co-workers in different departments. All of these people can enhance your professional network.
Your network is important. When you’re job searching, your network can flag opportunities for you, or even put in a good word for you. If you handle your responsibilities well, your manager or teammates can serve as strong references for you, too. My network has been so helpful over the years. They have passed on jobs to me that I otherwise wouldn’t have heard about, and gave me a huge advantage in my industry.
4. You learn what you like — and what you don’t
Your internship may be the first hands-on opportunity you have in your desired field. Because interns are often on the lowest rung of the totem pole, you’ll likely be thrown into different assignments in many areas. That experience can give you an idea of what tasks you enjoy.
I thought I’d hate event planning. But I helped plan the festivities for the track’s biggest day of the year, and I found out I loved it. From working with vendors to rushing around doing last-minute preparations, I found an area of work that I really enjoyed.
More importantly, your experience can also shed light on what assignments you hate. Discovering what you don’t like can help you focus your job search later on. For example, if you have a marketing internship, you may find you enjoy the creative side and not the client management duties. When you apply for jobs, you can tailor your search for opportunities focused on creative input.
5. You increase your chances of getting hired
It’s a classic conundrum for new grads: You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. Internships are an effective way to bridge the gap so you can get hired.
In fact, one study found that graduates with one internship on their resume were 13 percent more likely to get a job than those without one. If you had more than one internship, your chances of getting the job got even better.
Learning in the workplace
Whether it’s paid or unpaid, getting an internship can be an invaluable experience. Beyond building a portfolio and learning about office politics, you also learn rookie mistakes to avoid (like crochet shrugs and flip flops) that can help you stand out from the crowd and land a great gig.
Originally published on July 11, 2017.