Internships Are Not for Students Only

Internships for Career Changers and Others

Smiling women at computer in adult education classroom
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People usually think of internships as a way for students to get work experience before they graduate. Internships, however, don't have to be for students only. An internship can also be helpful for someone changing his or her career or for someone who is returning to work after an extended absence.

For example, Mary K. graduated with an M.B.A. a few years ago. Because of her lack of experience in the field she wants to enter, she has been having trouble getting hired. In an email she sent to me, Mary says "I am bright, articulate and would be a valuable asset to any organization willing to hire me in a business related role." She also said she'd be willing to do volunteer work to get the experience she needs. Mary wanted to know if I had any suggestions.

I did have one suggestion. "Look into doing an internship," I said in an email I fired off to Mary. Although it wouldn't pay much, or anything at all, an internship would give her hands-on training, something to put on her resume, and possibly a foot in the door. Mary's response? "Aren't internships just for students or recent graduates?"

While interns are usually students or recent graduates, others can gain necessary work experience this way. Internships are generally unpaid (see How to Decide if an Internship Needs to be Paid or Not) but they provide an invaluable opportunity to learn about a field by actually working in it. Seems like this is something that would benefit anyone trying to enter a new field, not just a student. It would also benefit an employer who would get an intern with actual work experience, albeit not in that field, and a willingness to learn.

Traditional interns don't have the experience and the maturity of someone who has been out of school for a while.

Students usually take part in formal internship programs. These programs run concurrently with the academic year. Non-students may want to look for something less formal. If you are entering a new field or re-entering the workforce after an extended absence you may have to "create your own" internship experience.

  • Try contacting the school from which you graduated. The career services office should have some suggestions.
  • Contact your alumni association which may have information on your fellow graduates and what they are doing now. If any are working in the field you want to enter, contact them.
  • Look at your network. Is there anyone who could provide you with a training opportunity? Maybe someone in your network can hook you up with a colleague who can provide you with such an opportunity.
  • Join a professional association and network with the other members. One may be willing to establish an informal internship.
  • Contact local employers. Explain your situation and tell them what you can do for them. Explain that you are willing to volunteer your time in exchange for the chance to learn about the field in which you're interested.

It may take a bit of effort to get an internship and you will definitely have to work hard for little or no money. You may even have to take another job to support yourself until you can get a paid position in your chosen field. The experience you gain will make it worthwhile.