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It’s always been a catch-22 for college grads – they need experience to get a job, but how do they get experience? It’s now easier than ever to get experience with so many companies and schools encouraging internship programs. Here’s why you need an internship.

Networking is particularly important if you’re tying to break into a field that’s not widely represented on the on-campus recruiting circuit.

Howard Kurtz, professor of criminal justice at Oklahoma City University, likes to tell a story about why internships are important: He once taught a student who went all the way through her degree program and then found a job immediately at a federal prison. She quit two days later when she realized that prison inmates smoke and use profanity.

Welcome to the real world. That’s what internships are all about – they’re a taste of what it’s like to hold down a real job in your major or field of interest. Not only can internships give you experience, they can also give you an opportunity to network, and you may get paid, to boot!

We have an offer for you
Mary Pennington, a professional career counselor, gives three reasons why she encourages students to complete an internship during their college years. The first is to test their career aspirations. If you want to be a veterinarian, but it turns out that you can’t handle seeing sick animals, then it’s better to find out before you graduate. “If they don’t like it [the internship], it’s a temporary environment, and they can then redirect their energies,” she says. Pennington’s other good reasons for doing an internship are to gain experience and to make networking contacts. Networking is particularly important if you’re tying to break into a field that’s not widely represented on the on-campus recruiting circuit.

Career counselors say there’s no magic number of internships that students should complete during their college years. But, they all agree undergrads should take on at least one. Ellen Brzeski, a career counselor in Elmhurst, Illinois, points out that classroom theory can be vastly different from the actual vocation. And while no one says that going to classes, studying, and taking exams isn’t grueling, it’s not the same as working from 9 to 5 (or 6 or 7) every day. “For some people, it might be a totally different structure than going to class at 10,” Brzeski says.

Wait, there’s more!
In addition to offering hands-on experience in your chosen field, internships are also a way to learn “soft” skills, such as leadership and communication, says Brzeski. “An internship can help you figure out if you work best alone or if you’re a team player,” says Angela Costa, director of events management at Armada Global in San Francisco. “It also gives you a good balance and helps you figure out if you are a self-starter or if you need to be micromanaged.”

Costa, 23, who credits her own internship in landing her current position, says that now that she’s on the hiring side, she considers only candidates who have real-world experience. “I can’t imagine going into a job without knowing how things are done,” she says. Costa’s company, a small public relations firm, has two interns whom she may hire after they graduate. “They are just phenomenal. They are open to suggestions and communication, and we are here to teach them,” she says.

And, if you act now
Employers place a tremendous value on those candidates who have real-world experience, believes Linda Segall, editor of a booklet titled, “College Internships: Solutions for Your Staffing Problems” (published by LRP Publications). And because internships are so crucial in today’s job market, there’s really no dilemma about whether to study or get hands-on experience. “I don’t think it’s an either-or situation,” says Segall. “Most internships are during the summer. Some are full-time during the [school] year. Some are part-time during the year. But in a normal, summer internship program, academics don’t suffer.”

Pennington says finances don’t have to be the only determining factor when it comes to getting a summer job or doing an internship, because happily, many internships today are paid. “For students, a myth of internships is that they aren’t paid. For every 10 internships in here, maybe one is not paid,” Pennington says.

So, it’s not a question of whether to do an internship, but when to do one. Pennington says the time to start considering internships is during sophomore year. “Many employers want students with some coursework under their belts,” she explains. She says students ideally should try to complete at least one summer internship, as well as one semester internship. Each student needs to decide what will work best in conjunction with his or her academic schedule and credits earned.

Costa advises that students not just accept any internship that comes along. “Ask around; don’t get stuck in an internship where you will only make copies,” she says. “It’s just like a job. Be picky.” So, pick up the phone, visit your career center, log onto Experience.com, and start your research now!

Good luck!

By: Amy MacMillan