An academic internship can be a very positive experience, yet when you are applying, it can be difficult to know what opportunities will suit your own interests. The experience may vary from learning what you don’t like in a working environment, to being introduced to the nine-to-five world, which is often so alien to students who are used to working part-time or odd hours in industries such as hospitality and service. In deciding which organisations to apply for during the pandemic, options have become somewhat limited, with many companies understandably deciding that virtual internships were not desirable or viable for their organisation with the year that was in it. Applications were therefore quite restricted, but the process itself wasn’t changed much by the pandemic: a cover letter introducing yourself and a CV peppered with part-time work experience, adorned with college modules relevant to the work of the organisation.
Securing a placement can be a process of trial and error – and error may often feel like the operative word. An interview I sat last March, for instance, did not go my way. When nervous, I stumble over words and forget the points I have mastered at home; the “pitch of the person” that’s down to a tee all but disappears when faced with a conference room table and professionals in suits.
My interview for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resembled much of the “from-my-bedroom” rhetoric students have cited in the last sixteen months: trying to find the most “professional” looking background in a college house, adjusting angles to make sure your bed frame isn’t popping up behind you, maybe removing a Guinness poster stolen from your part-time job from the wall behind you. I at least had the good sense to put sticky notes around my laptop, with the most important things to say staring back at me, and a camera green light as a reminder to make virtual eye contact with my interviewers.
The beginning of my interview was a surprise as I discovered my interviewers don’t use a waiting room function, and I was thrown into virtual small talk with the office director three minutes early while waiting for the second interviewer to join the call. Mutually disinterested in the well-rehearsed one-liners about the “strange times” we’re living in, I found myself watching the minutes pass on the clock, quietly questioning my belief that early means on-time and that on-time means late.
To my surprise, a week later I received a call offering me a six-month contract starting in January, and in the week of the 18th of January, as lockdown dragged on, I wanted nothing more than a job to fill my time with. Once set up in the remote ether of the EPA, HR provided an induction through MS Teams with other interns based around the country. We were given about 18 hours of Microsoft software training, going through applications like Word, Excel, and Outlook. While in more normal times one might expect a few cups of tea and coffee and a bit of chat in a meeting room throughout IT induction, sitting in your bedroom while being run through how to operate a spreadsheet, unfortunately, is not the path to falling in love with Excel.
“While working online certainly has its disadvantages, the experience provides a broader perspective within the college experience.”
College told us that we would likely have slow starts to our placements, based on the experiences of the students in the first semester. It’s hard for organisations to know how much work to assign an intern, or how to show them the ropes remotely, while trying to manage their own daily operations online too. I began reading journal articles on the project I’d been assigned, absorbing as much knowledge as I could on the process of professionalising regulation in the public sector (something I could barely define a month previously at my interview). While feeling unsure of my footing, and battling imposter syndrome over being a student getting paid to do professional research, I turned to my unlikely new friend Excel. Although equations and formulae didn’t factor into my work, I began creating a spreadsheet of all the sources of the knowledge I had consumed so far, colour coding boxes to fill time between tea and crossword breaks with my housemates (our collective lockdown hobby-come-obsession).
While learning to navigate the virtual workspace, I discovered that the benefits of remote work environments extend well beyond the ability to roll out of bed at five-to-nine or constant access to hot water bottles when suffering through the monthly onslaught of cramps: it extends to networking too. Throughout my research it became clear that the experts in my field of study were based in Australia and New Zealand. They are years ahead of Europe and serve as the exemplar to academic writing on the subject globally. And while they may have managed to avoid the severe lockdowns that much of the rest of the world have suffered, they have still had cause to learn to navigate remote working. So, while restricted from travelling more than 5 kilometres from my house, I held a meeting with global experts based on the other side of the world. The only difference between speaking with them and speaking with my manager based in Wexford, was a visit to worldtimebuddy.com and 7am call rather than an elevenses chat.
One of the things the EPA do for their interns every year is hold a day where they present on the work they’ve done during their contract. It’s an opportunity for interns to reflect on what they’ve accomplished and to practice the much-dreaded skill of presentation. This year as with all else, it came about a little differently. A message from the Ddirector asking if I would like to present at the office Town Hall: I wouldn’t be one in a list of interns, I would be one in a list of interesting projects being undertaken within the office, presented to around one hundred colleagues. Never one to shy away from an immensely stressful challenge, I replied that it sounded cool and that I’d love to present (a questionable degree of truth to that). In fact, the presentation mirrored much of my interview in December. The comfort of my own house, the ease of post-it notes on my wall and ignorance to people’s concentration levels created the perfect storm to present without fear of memory lapse, unexpected interruptions or the dreaded dry mouth. All of these benefits contribute not only to a positive personal development experience, but also to the opportunity for a humble brag in future interviews, and indeed, in online articles.
While meeting colleagues and trying to make an impression online is difficult, you might be surprised to have your first introduction in your local pub on a Saturday night. Doing your best to be discrete while you stare at the face of someone who might be in your team meetings every week, or who might just be a non-webcam dead ringer for them. You might have the bright idea to initiate your first encounter with this colleague with the help of some liquid courage, wishing the next day it had been a cafe you’d been at rather than the local after a [redacted] number of pints.
While working online certainly has its disadvantages, the experience provides a broader perspective within the college experience. All in all, an academic internship is always a great thing to have on a CV coming out of college. It shows employers that you’ve managed to get experience while being a student, and that you’ve thought in broader terms than classroom learning. During COVID, it shows that you’re adaptable and that, to some degree, you can manage your own time well. It also helps students to get a relevant work reference and meet people working in fields in which they might be interested.
Featured photo by Surface
This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex