Can’t find an internship during COVID-19? Do these 5 things instead.

Internships have become integral experiences for college and university students across the US. And for good reason. They enable you to see the real-world application of your academics and gain insights into professional environments beyond the academy. COVID-19 has radically changed the opportunity for students to get access to important internship experiences.

Available data shows that between 15%-25% of US summer internships were cancelled. No question, fall internships are being cut as well — meaning thousands students will miss out on these formative (sometimes life-changing) internship experiences. This loss not only robs talented individuals of opportunities to grow, but it also will have massive long-term rippling economic effects. Both are BAD outcomes.

Over the past few weeks, this challenge has become more real for me. Concerned university students, faculty and friends and even parents have reached out to me asking for my suggestions on a difficult question:

What should an ambitious and curious student do when they cannot find an internship experience for the fall term?

The short answer is broaden your thinking on what an internship actually is, which has the key elements of: (i) structured — oftentimes applied — learning, (ii) network-building and (iii) views into particular professional settings.

So, yes you can achieve all of these elements by building your own structured learning experience for the fall term.

Yes, it will take a bit more thinking and time to craft an ‘alt-internship’ on your own but in doing so, you have the exciting opportunity to run fast at the things that most interest you. For most folks this process of self-creation seems daunting at first.

So, I’ve shared the five ways I advise university and college students on what to pursue and how to get started with each possibility. Each of these pathways has the potential to produce more valuable intellectual and skill growth than what even a traditional internship can offer. Let’s dig-in.

1. Develop an Independent Research Project

Students from any discipline can take ownership over their learning growth by pursuing an independent research project. Such projects enable you to delve into the questions and topics that most interest you. Many universities and colleges have specific programs that help students develop a research project, connect with a faculty mentor and then execute the actual research at-hand. If your college does not have a specific program (shame on them), then you can create an independent research topic on your own.

No program at your university? No problem, let’s talk about how you can pursue an independent research project on your own.

First, be sure to find a faculty mentor to help you structure your research as well as to help guide and provide check-ins as you are pursuing the project. If you are not receiving academic credit for your research, be sure to track all the work and hours that you are putting into your research project. In many cases, you can advocate for retroactive credit to be awarded for your studies. Having detailed records of your studies will give you powerful evidence when you go to pursue getting credits.

Note: It can be really challenging to navigate your university to create your own independent research projects. That said, these are amazing learning opportunities. If you get stuck, feel free to reach out to me directly for help.

2. Find Mentors & Grow Your Network Like It’s Your Job

You might spend between 10 and 20 hours a week working on things for a typical internship. Take that block of time, let’s say 10 hours, and dedicate to flexing your networking muscles. You may be one of those people that scoffs at networking, but first think about this: If you commit to setting up zoom calls with three new people per week, then over a ten week period, you will have expanded your network by 30 people. Those 30 people could be future mentors, advisors or employers and you would not have met if you had not put yourself out there.

Building your communication skills and getting good at just connecting with people you are interested in takes regimented practice — just like building up specific muscle groups at the gym. The best way to improve at it is through repetition and experience. So, in addition to expanding your ‘network’ this is also an excellent opportunity for self growth.

How to get started with your networking schedule? First, think about the topics you care most deeply about — they could be academic, journalist, tech-based, political, etc. Next, based on those topics, do some research and list out the most interesting or provocative people whose ideas you either really enjoy or disagree with. Don’t limit yourself by letting your internal voice say that author X is too important to have a conversation with me.

Write down this dream team list of people to meet and find their contact info (online searching, LinkedIn, or get introductions from mutual contacts). Here’s the important secret sauce to this alt-internship path: Make a goal to e-meet 3 people per week. Now, this will mean that you need to email 3–5 people per week to pre-schedule the actual video calls. For your initial email outreach, be sure that you (a) share a bit of background about you, (b) include a sentence about your interests in chatting and (c) list 2–3 specific questions you would like to ask. Being concise and specific with your intro emails will help the person see that you are not looking to waste their time!

3. Focus on Learning & Honing a Specific Skill

Not interested in honing your networking and communication skills? Instead, take the time you would allot to an internship and focus on cultivating a specific skill that you do really care about. Similar to the networking example, the key here is to block-off specific time in your schedule each week to dedicate to skill development. Focusing on one skill will enable you to go deeper than if you would spread such time out over several areas of interest.

As part of your development, create a kind of syllabus or schedule to help guide your learning. For this process, set forth specific progress goals that you want to achieve each week. For example, learning how to code in Python is a good general ‘what’ goal, but the ‘how’ portion of your goal needs more specificity in order for you to actually achieve it.

Ask yourself: What sorts of projects could you complete or work on to show learning of that skill each week? How will you learn these new skills? It’s likely that you’ll have to scope out a mentor or two to help you guide and structure things, similar to the method you would use to develop and execute an independent research project.

Be sure to document your skill development journey and share your progress (and struggles) with others. By being specific about your skill of choice, you can tap into a number of online communities of people out there in the world who are trying to hone the same skills you are. Diving into one of these communities will help gain new friends, insights and be more accountable to achieving your skill growth goals.

4. Build Something Entrepreneurial.

Have you ever had a software idea? Web service? Physical product? Company? Now is the ideal situation to take a radical focus approach and allocate time each week to build something. Again, the key to success is blocking off structured hours within each week to dedicate to your building efforts.

Such efforts will likely include learning about the specific problem you want to build a solution for. Prototyping a solution. Mobilizing friends to work with you on the effort. Sharing your resulting prototype with people to get feedback. And maybe, even trying to sell the solution and creating a company to help get your product out in the world.

Building a product and corresponding company can be all encompassing. Instead of pursuing an internship, you have a unique opportunity to show independent creativity and leadership skills that no internship could provide. And regardless of the outcome of building your idea, you will develop valuable skills that can translate into any future career.

As an entrepreneur, I have a firm belief that the next great ideas for the next great companies will be developed due to the rapid changes the world has seen due to COVID-19. Why should it not be you and your friends who are the ones that build these next generation of impactful ideas and companies?!

5. Get Engaged with a Political Campaign

Tis the season for political races, which are only heating up during the fall semester. As such, there is a great demand for people to get involved with political campaigns. From a hyper local city council seat to the presidential race, you can apply the time you had allocated for an internship and jump into a campaign. You will get a firsthand look at the electoral process, meet new people and play an active role in elevating the issues you care about most — all within a safe remote working environment. Win-win-win.

There are a number of ways you can join a campaign. The larger, flashier campaigns (like the presidential campaigns) have formal ‘get involved’ or ‘volunteer’ applications on their websites. Smaller campaigns may require some digging on social media (check out candidates’ Twitter accounts) to find a good contact. Once you have good contact info, reach out and share your interest in participating in campaigning activities. If you are taking this route, be sure to explain why you are compelled to get involved (aka what about the candidate’s platform is important to you) and give a brief overview of your particular skills (e.g. communications). The personalized and thoughtful this message, the more likely you are to get a genuine invitation to help out.

Whether it’s joining a national political campaign (e.g. presidential or senate race, for examples) or you want to help unseat an incumbent city council person, you should expect to do a ton of calling or texting to help persuade voters to not only vote, but to vote for your candidate. Based on your skills and the needs of the campaign, you could also take on more specialized responsibilities. The remote nature of political campaigns in the era of COVID-19 enables you to get engaged and take-on more responsibilities than what may have been possible with in-person campaigning.

Hopefully these five options show you a path forward for a valuable alt-internship experience. Don’t let COVID-19 stifle your intellectual and professional growth. Your ideas and talent are the key to our future beyond this pandemic!

Government Tech, Policy + Politics | Founder @ Recode America Govtech + Entrepreneurship Practice Leader @ KRNLS

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