Internships: A Guide

An internship provides hands-on experience in a work environment with knowledgeable professionals outside the classroom. An internship can help you make career choices, point you in new directions for further education, allow you to develop new skills, and provide you with valuable qualifications and contacts when looking for employment.

Develop job skills and learn what career is right for you

Internships give you valuable real-world experience. Skills you acquire during your internship may involve new technology, project development, client relations, report writing, working as part of a team and much more.

An internship can help you narrow down what field is right for you, or even exclude certain job fields. The relationships you develop during your internship can also help you determine your career path, allowing you to learn from the experience of others.

Develop contacts and network with experts in your field

The people you meet during your internship can prove to be valuable contacts. You may work under experienced professionals who can play an important mentorship role as you narrow down career choices. Or they may later provide employment opportunities, end up as your colleagues, clients or even competitors. For this reason, it is important to be courteous with everyone you meet during your internship. You never know when you will run into them again. All of them offer potential networking opportunities.

Explore career options

Since it is a limited term and usually conducted during your studies, internships are a great way to explore different career options. Internships can also help you make choices regarding graduate education, allowing you to explore an area of interest before applying to specific programs. 

Just as important as learning what you do like about a job is learning what you don’t like. Some interns discover that their “dream career” is actually not for them. These lessons are just as valuable and can help avert wrong career decisions.

The benefits of internships

An internship allows you to explore career options while working with a specific organization or company, but it can also be your foot in the door. Companies may hire interns on as permanent employees, since they already have work experience and knowledge of the company’s operations, and they have already proved themselves in the field.

At the same time, you can assess the company. Is this a place where you would enjoy working? Is this the right field for you? You may find you need to do a bit more searching and try an internship in another area or with a different organization. 

Steps to an Effective Internship

1. Evaluate what topics interest you

  • What interests you?
  • What do you feel qualified to undertake?
  • What languages can you speak?
  • Are you willing/able to learn a new language?
  • How much time do you have for your internship?

2. Set a realistic timetable

  • Start early!
  • If you are looking for an internship for the summer, start looking in the fall.
  • Set aside some time every week to research opportunities, write cover letters, make phone calls, follow up with organizations, etc.

3. Finding an Internship

Look for potential host organizations:

  • Tap connections with friends and family.
  • Mention your interests to professors and other people who work in fields that interest you and ask for their suggestions and guidance.
  • Talk to students who have participated in internships in the past.
  • Use the Web: it may seem overwhelming at first, but careful searches can yield a lot of information. It can be a useful resource, especially when getting started.
  • Phone organizations. Don’t rely on email alone when approaching organizations. Phone and speak to someone to determine what opportunities exist and to get the name and contact information of the person responsible for interns. Sending email to the right person improves your chances of having your request read. 

Things to remember throughout your search:

  • Be proactive. If you are applying directly to host organizations, follow up on your applications with an email or a phone call.
  • If you do get an internship, make sure to get a letter of confirmation from your host organization saying you will be interning with them. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an Internship?

An internship provides on-site experience in a job that is either directly related to your major field of study or your career interest. It should be considered a learning experience. You will be expected to be productive and add value to any organization you join. Internships may be paid or unpaid, for credit or not, and full-time or part-time. The length of internships may vary: from 150 hours per semester to 8-12 weeks in the summer to an entire year (year-long internships are typically for new graduates). Internships are available in the fall, winter, spring and summer. For more information, see “Finding an Internship.”

Do I need a cover letter and resumé?

A resumé, cover letter and interview skills are critical tools for any job search. The same applies for internships. McGill University Career & Planning Service offers regular assistance on these topics. Please visit their website for a list of services provided. Start this preparation early; you should have it completed before mid-terms and final exams start.

I am an international student studying at McGill. Do I require a work per- mit to do an internship in Canada?

international students require a Co-op/internship work permit if they are completing a mandatory internship (paid or unpaid) in Canada. For more information or non-mandatory internships, students should see McGill’s International Student Office, click here.

Finding an Internship

Once you have established some tentative goals, you will need to identify and research potential host organizations.

Networking

Family, friends, professors, teaching assistants, colleagues, past interns and friends of friends are all excellent resources when searching for an internship. Networking with these people can be one of the best ways to tap into organizational networks and develop contacts in the field in which you would like to work. They may also be able to assist you in your internship search. The best way to network is to contact as many people as possible who might be knowledgeable about your field of interest, so you can gather information about potential opportunities. For any individuals who assist you in this process, be sure to follow up with a thank-you letter expressing your appreciation for their assistance.

Create your own internship

You do not need to limit yourself to existing internship opportunities: internships created by students themselves are becoming much more common.

Use your research to generate creative ideas for internships and identify potential host organizations, through searches on the Internet, in career directories or trade publications, and from networking leads. Other sources for internship ideas include news stories or press releases that deal with your areas of interest and may mention organizations you can approach.

You will need to approach organizations directly and try to find the contact in- formation for any individual responsible for hiring interns. You can approach an organization offering them your time and labour in exchange for a structured learning experience in which you receive formal guidance from experienced professionals. Explain how your skills match the organization’s operations and, if appropriate, propose a specific project for the internship. 

Most student-initiated internships will be unpaid positions, but you should determine whether any compensation is indeed possible. You will need to emphasize that there be some sort of learning component to the internship.

Should you choose to create your own internship, persistence and patience are key. The average response rate is 3% to 5%. This is not to say that finding an internship this way is impossible. Indeed, previous McGill interns have had considerable luck approaching target organizations. Nonetheless, it is important to begin your search with realistic goals.

Internship Offices Network Database

The Internship Offices Network Database is a useful online tool to help students begin their search for an internship. Bringing together over 1,200 internship opportunities from across 90 different areas of interest, the database should help you find an internship that is right for you.

Internship Offices at McGill

For information on the internship resources available at each McGill faculty, please click here.

Getting the Most from Your Internship

It is up to you to make the most of your time as an intern and ensure you have a positive learning experience. Here are some important steps to follow:

  1. Be clear about your goals and expectations.
  2. Adopt a positive and professional attitude while doing your job and working with colleagues.
  3. Make ongoing evaluations of your experience so that you can adjust to unforeseen circumstances, address problems or take advantage of new opportunities.

Goals and expectations

In order to avoid disappointment during your internship, it is important for you to clarify your goals and expectations, both for yourself and for your host organization or employer.

Do your research:

  • Find out as much as you can about the organization and its operations.
  • Read up on the organization’s internship program or speak to students who have interned there.
  • Speak to your potential supervisor to clarify what would be expected of you during your internship and what you expect to gain from the experience.
Think about what you want to achieve in the internship. What is it that you want to learn? How do you see yourself contributing to the organization? You need to be realistic about the level of responsibility you will assume in your internship role and always approach it as a learning experience. Some of the work may be clearly set out through the company’s internship program, but you may also have an opportunity to discuss with your supervisor special projects you could work on or even initiate. 

Make sure you have a clear understanding of your work schedule and whether there is any flexibility in it to accommodate academic responsibilities. If it is a paid internship, make sure you understand the remuneration details.

If possible, make a site visit to the organization to get an idea of the environment in which you will be working. Getting a feel for the workplace and your potential colleagues can be a good way to clarify your expectations.

Professional attitude

A professional and positive attitude is a key part of your success in any internship. It will not only increase the value of the overall experience but may also lead to future opportunities.

  • Do your best work.
  • Offer to help with other work. This may even involve initiating a special project on your own.
  • Ask questions, seek out advice, learn from your colleagues.
  • Get feedback from your supervisor.
  • Dress appropriately, arrive on time, and maintain a friendly, professional demeanour.
  • Learn from any disappointments or failures. Sometimes difficult experiences provide the greatest learning opportunities.
  • Use appropriate formality in communications with your host organization; emails should employ professional greetings and language.

Ongoing evaluation

Throughout your internship, evaluate and reflect on your work. You may want to track your thoughts in a journal: putting your experiences in writing can help you sort through them and evaluate what you like or dislike about the internship, the field of work, or the working environment of the organization.

  • What do you like or dislike about the job?
  • How does the internship meet your career or academic interests?
  • Has it changed your career goals?
  • What are you learning in the internship?
  • What is the work environment like at your organization?
  • Are there negative issues in the workplace (stress, office politics, harassment, etc.)? 

Making adjustments

While planning is important, you can’t plan for everything. Sometimes you need to adjust to situations that come up in your internship. These can be positive (additional responsibilities, special projects or new opportunities) or negative (dealing with minor irritants and frustrations or more serious problems in the workplace).

If you are having problems in your internship despite your positive and professional attitude, take steps to evaluate the situation and seek possible solutions:

  • Discuss the problem with someone outside the workplace – a friend, a professor, a career counsellor or internship officer.
  • Determine how the situation could be improved, including changes to your own approach to the work.
  • Meet with your supervisor and express your concerns. Be candid but avoid accusations and blame. Work with them to improve the situation and resolve any problems.
If you are unable to come to a resolution with your supervisor, speak to an internship officer. It is important that you are not discouraged from pursuing a career simply because of one bad experience. There may be other internship opportunities in your field of interest.

When you’re done

Remember to thank the people you have worked with and those who have shared their expertise and experiences with you. A thank-you letter to a supervisor or mentor is a good way to maintain a connection. You may also want to inquire about the possibility of returning to the company for permanent employment later on. Whenever possible, get a letter of reference from your supervisor.

If you’ve enjoyed working in the organization, keep in touch. They could be important contacts for any future job search.