It’s a standard advice to use internships to try out different industries and job roles. I hate to admit it, but it’s one of those rare occasions where common knowledge is true. You can save yourself a lot of time and energy by trying out different fields, before committing to a specific career. Having said that, a negative experience in an internship doesn’t have to mean that the job isn’t for you. Maybe the company was just a bad fit.
Internships are usually between three and six months long and if it’s longer than that you are probably taken advantage of. It’s a good deal for both sides. The employer gets a motivated and cheap worker, who has to learn the ropes and the employee gets valuable experience in exchange for below market rate pay and gains a foothold in his target industry. It’s also a good way to test employees before committing to them because Germany has much stricter labor laws than the States. Germany has introduced a minimum pay in 2015 (ca. $1800 per month), which also applies to internships longer than three months. I like internships because it’s a much-needed reality check.
I have done three different internships. A mandatory three-week internship during school, a three-months internship during my bachelor studies and a six-month internship during my master studies. The first and the second one showed me what I don’t want to do and the third one confirmed my career plans. I also completed two group projects for Ford and an NGO during my studies, but I didn’t work there full time, so I am not going to count them.
My internship in 11th grade wasn’t a traditional internship in the sense that you are not an efficient worker as a pupil and it’s more about helping the pupil making a slightly less uninformed study choice. I chose the municipality Stade in northern Germany, where I come from, for my internship. I “worked” in three different departments for a week respectively and it was a fairly demoralizing experience. The tasks were monotone and the working atmosphere was grim. The people were nice enough, but the worked seemed beyond pointless. I asked some senior employees if they would recommend working in the public sector and the majority negated.
It’s slightly ironic that I chose public administration for my first internship, given that I am all about entrepreneurship now. Both are on opposite sides of the career spectrum. Public administration has maximal job safety and minimal individual responsibility and upside, while entrepreneurship has minimal job safety and maximal individual responsibility and upside. This is, of course, a massive generalization, but there is some truth to it. Especially in Germany, where you have a lifelong job guarantee and pension privileges as a public servant. It’s a relic of the post-revolutionary epoch in the 19th century. The internship taught me that under no circumstances do I want to work as a public servant.
When I started studying, I decided somewhat arbitrarily that I wanted to work in automotive market research, at best for Volkswagen. I am not a car enthusiast by any measure, but Volkswagen is located in my home state (Lower Saxony) and I think this is how I got this brilliant idea. The marketing department of each concern has its market researchers, who work together with market research institutes. Market research consists of qualitative and quantitative research. An example of qualitative research would be the discussion of new car models in focus groups. And an example of quantitative research would be the analysis of surveys answered by customers. Market Researchers use statistical software like SPSS for this kind of analyses. The salary is good and the only downside is the soul-crushing nature of the job. The tasks are monotone and the work isn’t exactly fulfilling.
Germany has two big market research institutes and I got an internship at one of them in the automotive department. At my first day, I realized I had made a big mistake. I was bored to death and I couldn’t wait for the end of work. I never had this feeling before and I can’t imagine there are people out there who have this feeling their whole life. I also realized concern life wasn’t for me. In a concern, you are a small cog in a big wheel and you have to repeat the same task again and again. In other words, you are a specialist. I feel much more comfortable as a generalist learning new shit. My only rays of hope were the lunch breaks where I would play tabletop football with three cool cats from my department, who were thirtyish. I had a tabletop football as a kid, so it’s needless to say that I have mad skills.
After the internship, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t born to be a market researcher. I think deep down I knew beforehand that statistical analysis is neither my strength nor my passion. It’s extremely easy to lie to yourself and it was a nice cop-out when people asked me what I wanted to do. It was the low-hanging fruit and everyone seemed satisfied with my answer. The simple truth was that I didn’t know what I wanted out of life and I settled arbitrarily for market research, because of a perceived lack of alternatives.
My second internship led to some soul-searching and I started to think honestly about my strengths, weaknesses, values and interests. All my considerations pointed to entrepreneurship. I had been interested in entrepreneurship since I was a kid and I had attended countless startup talks in uni. Entrepreneurship is perfectly aligned with my abilities, values and interests. The only question mark was my ability to execute. In my understanding entrepreneurship was something for high achiever like Mark Zuckerberg, which is of course bullshit. You don’t have to be overly smart to execute on a high level. It’s just a limiting belief.
I decided to give it a shot and the next question was, where to intern. I settled on three criteria:
1. Experienced founders with a proven track record. This eliminated student startups.
2. A startup, which was able to secure some funding, which is a proxy for idea validation.
3. A promising business model, which I believe in. Best case, an online marketplace startup.
You may have recognized that a specific job description is missing in this list because the role had minor importance for me.
I found some potential startups, but nothing I was particularly excited about until I went to a pitch event in Dusseldorf. One of the startups was called shareDnC, which described itself as “the Airbnb for office space.” They matched all my criteria. The presenting founder had worked in leading positions in several rocket internet startups. They had secured funding from several business angels and I believed in the business model. I am interested in online marketplaces and changes in the working environment, so I was excited from the getgo.
I checked their homepage after the event and found out that they are looking for interns in business development with a focus on sales. Sales isn’t my dream job, but if you want to get serious about entrepreneurship there is no way around it. You always have to sell your idea, team, product, service, etc. It’s an essential skill and I was willing to step out of my comfort zone and improve my sales skills. I saw that shareDnC was attending a startup conference with a booth a couple of days later and I was fired up to get an internship. Long story short, I went to the conference and ended up getting the internship.
I started my internship and it was the exact opposite of my previous internships. We had a young and motivated team and I was sitting in the same room with two of the founders, so I was always getting instant feedback and I could observe their modus operandi. Sales was both exhausting and fulfilling at the same time. Each day after work I was totally knackered and happy at the same time. I couldn’t work in sales long-term, but for six months it was a great learning experience. When I start my own startup with employees, I am going to model it after my experience in this internship.
How to find an internship
It took me a long time to find my line of work and the process could have been much faster if I had been more honest with myself. It’s always a good idea to question the motives behind your career choices and take inventory of your career path. If you want to do an internship, but don’t know in which industry, I recommend the following classics:
1. Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life
2. Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type
3. How to Find Fulfilling Work (The School of Life)
4. The Designing Your Life Workbook: A Framework for Building a Life You Can Thrive In
5. What Color Is Your Parachute? 2019: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers
6. What Color Is Your Parachute? Job-Hunter’s Workbook
Choose the one, which speaks the most to you, and go from there. You can save yourself a lot of wasted time and energy if you invest time in some soul-searching.
The downside of internships
I am big proponent of internships, but they shouldn’t be a long-term solution. It’s a way to sharpen your skills and gain a foothold in your target industry. In some industries, it’s common practice that interns jump from internship to internship (often unpaid) for years with the loose promise of a permanent position. It’s a position you certainly don’t want to find yourself in. I am not against unpaid internships per se, but you should be intentional about what you get out of it (skills, résumé, connections, etc.) Internships are also a great excuse to postpone your career and you should always ask yourself if an internship is the best option.
After my master, I was thinking about an internship in Barcelona with the Erasmus for Entrepreneurs programme. It’s a “cross-border exchange programme which gives new or aspiring entrepreneurs the chance to learn from experienced entrepreneurs running small businesses in other European Union countries.” I liked the idea of another internship in my favorite city in Europe, but the truth is I didn’t really need it. I had learned enough at my previous internship and I didn’t need more input. What I really needed to do, was to apply the lessons to my own business venture. I am planning on participating as a host in the Erasmus for Entrepreneurs programme in the future instead.
I think trial and error is a sound strategy and it also applies to internships. My first and second internship were duds, but they also put me on the path to find my third internship, which was a winner. I interned only three times, which I think is enough when you have found your line of work. If my third internship would have “failed”, I would have tried again. Internships are an investment in yourself and it’s much better to invest three to six months in an unsatisfactory job instead of your whole life (sic!). I prefer the sniper approach when I apply for internships. I am very deliberate about my choices and for my three internships I sent out around six applications.
Now you know everything you need to know about internships.
The rest is up to you,
Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life
Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type
How to Find Fulfilling Work (The School of Life)
The Designing Your Life Workbook: A Framework for Building a Life You Can Thrive In
What Color Is Your Parachute? 2019: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers
What Color Is Your Parachute? Job-Hunter’s Workbook