Finding the Perfect Internship Match

How do seemingly good internships go bad? In her award-winning survey, senior psychology major Jennifer Nichols revealed the secrets to a happy internship experience.

Jennifer Nichols
Jennifer Nichols (Photo: William Atkins)
April 13, 2016

By John DiConsiglio

Ideally, an internship offers a glimpse into a career field, a chance to explore professional interests and hone necessary skillsets and maybe even get a much-needed foot in the door. Or, at the very least, a useful letter of recommendation. That’s why it’s so disheartening when an internship that appeared to be a stepping stone dissolves into a business-place bust.

“A bad internship can make you feel like you not only wasted your summer, but you wasted an opportunity,” said senior psychology major Jennifer Nichols.

With the Princeton Review recently naming GW the top university for internships, Nichols took a scholarly look at why some students are fulfilled by their summer work while others are busy making coffee and copies, counting the days until the fall semester begins. Her study, “Exploring Predictors of Internship Satisfaction,” earned her a Luther Rice Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a second-place prize at the GW Research Days competition and an invitation to present her findings at the prestigious Association for Psychological Science conference in Chicago—a rare honor for an undergraduate.

“The significance and sophistication of Jennifer’s research is really unique,” said Tara Behrend, associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology and Nichols’ faculty mentor. “Young people feel pressure to take any job or internship that’s offered to them, if only to improve their résumé and their marketability. For students in today’s economy, Jennifer’s work is extremely important.”

Keys to a Happy Internship

Finding the right internship isn’t always as easy as scouring the Internet and polishing a résumé. Even when an internship-seeker does everything right—like registering on the appropriate websites, asking the right questions and reaching out for interviews at the right firms—he or she can still end up with the wrong fit. How do seemingly good internships go bad?

Surveying more than 200 Columbian College students who had held at least one internship, Nichols looked for trends on what constituted a satisfactory job experience. She quickly determined that one of the biggest mistakes students made was to confuse internship expectations with full-time job goals. For example, a mentoring supervisor is more valuable to an intern than promotion possibilities or job security. “Unless you see your internship as a step toward getting a job with that company, you are looking for something very different than a full-time employee,” Nichols noted. “An intern is thinking less about this job than about how it will help her in her next job.”

Nichols tied internship happiness to two key factors: occupational self-efficacy (the confidence that you will actually be able to do the tasks you were hired to perform) and the perceived fit between an internship and a desired career. But even with those factors in mind, Nichols said it can be a challenge to discern if an internship will work out—especially if interns are new to the workplace.  Based on her research, Nichols shared the following insights on internship satisfaction:

  • Be honest with the job description: A padded résumé may help an internship candidate sneak in the door, but it won’t go far toward ensuring a happy experience. Nichols’ findings on the value of occupational self-efficacy imply that interns gain little by overstating their skill level. “If [the employer] asks for knowledge of a particular software and you’ve never touched it before, you aren’t helping yourself by pretending you are an expert,” Nichols said. “You’ll spend all your time slogging through the software instead of learning skills or making contacts. In the long run, you won’t be happy.”
  • Interview the interviewer: An interview is not the place to be shy. Even candidates who honestly tout their own accomplishments and skills can be skittish about asking the interviewer for specific job details, such as which tasks will fall under his or her responsibilities. Many internships require some gopher work. But is it balanced by substantive experience that advances career goals? It’s perfectly acceptable to contact past interns and ask if they were satisfied with their roles, Nichols advised.
  • Not all jobs are created equal: Nichols found that the happiest internships are tied to desired career fields. But how close a connection should interns expect? That depends on the industry—and on the intern. Maybe, for example, a potential intern has set her sights on a career in business. She’s thrilled when she receives an offer from a top firm. But there’s a catch: The job is in the marketing department and she’s interested in sales. “On the surface, it may not seem like a good fit,” Nichols explained. “But maybe it’s close enough. It’s in the right business and it could be seen as making progress toward career goals.”
  • Tough it out? Despite their best efforts, interns may find themselves stuck in a position they hate. According to Nichols' findings, it may be because the tasks they are performing don’t match their skillsets or because they see little connection between the internship and the career they hope to pursue. Should they slog through their commitment—or simply quit? Nichols suggested considering whether there are benefits to be derived from even a disappointing internship, like a good recommendation or future networking contacts.
  • Think future tense: Internships are not forever. For many students, this summer’s internship is a stepping stone toward a long-term goal. “Summer internships require less present-tense thinking and more future-tense thinking,” Nichols explained. To a student intern, “the point isn’t really where you want to be this summer. It’s where you want to be in the long run and how this internship can help you get there.”