Le rant on internships

By Luke Phang

Internship. I can still remember my reaction the first time I heard of this concept, back when I was in university. Being a little frog hiding in my cave back in Malaysia, I have never heard of the word “internship” before until I stepped foot into NUS.

"You mean people actually are willing to take up a menial paying job doing almost nothing just so they have better job prospects when they graduate? During the time when they're supposed to take a break and enjoy themselves?"

“Yes,” I remembered some seniors saying. “You need to have completed at least one internship during your time in tertiary education or else you will have a tough time finding a job when you graduate.”

I remembered scoffing at the idea of getting an internship, idealistically thinking that I could learn more if I chose to participate in other activities instead. Like leading a summer student committee for example, which I did, for three summer vacation in my life. I thought that gaining those experiences would be more enriching than just taking up any internship — which in my mind was no different than being a underpaid employee — and that I would enjoy myself more too.

After all, it is called summer vacation for a reason, not summer work period. I assumed that any enlightened employers would agree with my beliefs as well — that internships do not make someone a better employee and that students should be allowed to do what they want. Ah, the idealism of youth. It turns out that I was wrong in every way possible, because most (if not all) employers prefer a job applicant who has an internship experience. No one bothered to look or ask about my summer experiences in the resume and the first question interviewers ask is, "Do you have any internships experiences?"

Granted, I understand the logic behind internships. From a practical viewpoint, it is good to have some experience in the field before actually starting work. You can view it as some sort of advance training or the gauge how the working life is like. Experienced in the right manner, internships can provide valuable insights into deciding your life's journey and helping to make important decisions when you graduate.

What I don't like, however, is the emphasis on it and how some people are exploiting it.

In today's world, a graduate's employability — aside from the his/her grades in school — is directly affected by his/her internship experiences. The more experience you have, the better. There is this mentality that assumes that graduates with internship experiences are automatically better. Those without internship experiences are at a disadvantage as compared to those who possess some.

It's not unlike society penalising them for choosing a path that is less conventional. Say for example an individual chooses to go for a three months backpacking trip rather than pursue an internship. Who's to say that the student who went backpacking and experienced various cultures/mindsets is automatically assumed to be worse off as an employee than the one who spends nine hours a day in the office as an unofficial "employee"?

It's plain hypocrisy. On one hand we are asking our young to choose the path that they desire yet we have already insisted upon the path that we prefer for them to tread on. It's unfair to limit someone's opportunity just because they chose to have a different focus during that summer vacation.

Besides, it would be interesting to actually conduct a research how many internship opportunities are actually fulfilling. From what I have heard, most internships are just jobs where you end up doing a lot of menial tasks with overtime hours. Worse of all, you are paid peanuts, barely enough to cover the costs. Heck, some internships are unpaid as well, disguised as opportunities to “learn”. Of course, I would be more than glad to be proven wrong.

For me, it seems that the purpose of internship is to help you land a job immediately after you graduate. But why is there such a big focus on finding the “right” job after graduation anyway? Why can't we allow our graduates some liberty and space for experimentation in their choices, without informing them outright which one is ideal and preferred? How can we encourage creativity if we are pushing everyone down the same path, making carbon copies of the standard worker time and again?

I personally it's time to de-emphasise the focus we have placed thus far on internship. Letting students choose what they want and not penalising those who went along a different path in the end. Like myself. I mean, if I had known that all employers wanted are merely internship experiences, I would have spammed internships back when I was in school, instead of just thinking that I should enjoy my student life first.

But this should not be the way though, I feel. If there is so much focus of work even before we start working, why are we so surprised that more people are suffering from burnout?

Anyways, as part of my ongoing effort to improve my oratory skills, I even made a rant on video for this topic:

What do you feel? Are internships absolutely necessary for a better future?

This article was first published over at the Luke Phang's blog on 20 May 2015. It is reproduced with permission.


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