Why you should find your own internship

Credit: NASA Goddard / Bill Hrybyk

This is somewhat of a continuation of a previous post titled Why you shouldn’t do an internship too soon. In it, I explain why, if given the choice today, I would not do an internship during my undergraduate studies (or even my early graduate studies).

In this post, I’ll tell a story about the internship I did do, and why I think it is important to search for your own.

Story time

After completing my first graduate degree, a 1-year Master of Arts (MA), I began another graduate degree because … well, you can never have too many degrees right?

This time it was a Master of Public Health (MPH), a 2-year professional degree that prepares students for a career in public health. It was strangely coincidental that, in the middle of my completing the degree, Covid-19 struck the world. All of a sudden, the topic of public health was on everyone’s mind, not just mine.

My first internship interview

The MPH requires that all students complete a minimum 4-month internship in the second year of the program, and the department promised to help us locate possible short-term placements. But, ultimately, it was up to us to apply and interview for the positions.

I applied for three that the department advertised, and I ended up interviewing for one. It was a federal government public health unit that specialized in epidemiology (the study of disease) — which I had very little interest in. But for fear of not finding another opportunity, I went for the interview.

I had been in many interviews before; so, going in, I knew what to expect. They would want to get to know a bit about me, my interest in the position, what skills I could bring to their team, my strengths, my weaknesses, and what questions I had. Simple.

Only, that wasn’t what happened.

Two women interviewing a female student

Instead, they quizzed me. Literally, quizzed me. I felt like I was back doing my undergraduate degree. Only, rather than filling out my answers on a scantron sheet, I was providing my answers verbally to 4 interviewers who sat watching me. Judging.

And because being quizzed during an interview wasn’t torturous enough, I barely knew the answers to any of the questions they were asking. This was partly because I was in a mild state of shock, but mostly because the questions were on topics that we were currently being taught in class.

Name three waterborne diseases endemic to our city?

What are the four temporal patterns of disease?

Explain the difference between incidence rate and incidence risk.

I don’t memorize what I am taught in class. When it comes time for evaluation, I read and interact with the material in a way that helps me learn best. But, being asked to list off epidemiological information that I had just been taught days prior at the drop of a hat? No, that isn’t something I can do.

Needless to say, I wasn’t one of the students who was offered a position. Which, I am grateful for.

The internship I ended up doing

The first course I took as part of the MPH program was called Health Communication. Early in the course, our instructed invited a guest speaker to talk to us about his career as a knowledge broker for a local knowledge translation (KT) group. This was my first introduction to KT.

A male speaker at a conference

During my Bachelor of Arts (BA) and MA, I had a bit of a reputation for challenging my classmates and the instructors on the value of research. It seemed to me that all the wonderful health knowledge we were taught was locked in the ivory tower. Hidden behind steel doors made of scientific jargon, academic competition, and inaccessible journals.

But when that guest speaker said, ‘My job is to find and translate health research, so it can be easily understood, accessed, and put into practice,’ I was thinking I had finally found a career I was interested in.

Immediately after that class, I emailed the guest speaker to ask about doing an internship with his organization. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the capacity to take on an intern at that time, but it didn’t stop me from emailing them once a month to check in. Persistence!

Then, in the second year of my program, I received an email saying they had a project I could help with. I met with a member of their team, did an actual interview, and was invited to do a 4-month paid internship. And the experience was great.

In fact, the experience was so good that the organization asked that I stay on in a casual capacity to help prepare their research summaries, which I continue to do.

A group of interns sitting at a table

Conclusion

When it comes time to complete an internship — assuming, of course, you are given the opportunity to do one — the best one will be the one that you go out of your way to find. Schools will help you find a suitable placement, but these will often be cookie-cutter positions and experiences.

If you know you want to do an internship, or that you will be required to complete an internship as part of your program, start looking for possible placements early. Reach out to organizations that you’re interested in and ask about internship opportunities. You never know what you might find.