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Updated: September 24, 2012 17:47 IST

It’s invaluable experience

Aruna Sankaranarayanan
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DISCOVER YOURSELF: Working with NGOs can help. Here, volunteers are engaged in a cleanup programme. Photo: T. Singaravelou
DISCOVER YOURSELF: Working with NGOs can help. Here, volunteers are engaged in a cleanup programme. Photo: T. Singaravelou

What’s your true calling? Internships can help you make appropriate career choices.

When Kavita was doing her bachelor’s in Sociology, she volunteered with an NGO that conducted after-school programmes in a slum. Working with children and seeing the day-to-day hardships that the slum residents faced made Kavita rethink her educational choices. She went on to do a master’s in public health and finally ended up with a job in an international health organisation. Without her NGO experience, Kavita would have made very different career choices.

Children morph into young adults as they enter the portals of college; a central issue that characterises this stage of development, according to psychologist Erik Erikson, is that of identity formation. Youngsters strive to define themselves as many crucial life decisions are taken at this stage. One of the most significant choices that teenagers make at this juncture relates to a career. Many students are stymied when they have to make this difficult decision; understandably so, as choosing a career involves factoring multiple considerations, some of them conflicting. Where do my interests and passions lie? What sort of job will I get if I follow my heart? Will I be paid enough? Do I have the requisite skill-sets for that job? Are sufficient jobs available in this field? What kind of career trajectory can I expect?

In India, students are required to pre-select a course of study before entering college. As students pursue college courses in specific fields like engineering, law, accounting, literature, economics or fashion design, they gain disciplinary understanding. However, a college education can be more rounded and meaningful if it also involves hands-on practicum training, in the form of internships in organisations that engage directly with the world.

Some fields, like medicine and accounting, already require students to serve as interns before they are conferred a degree. This concept of “doing while you learn” can also be extended to other disciplines and fields as internships have multiple benefits for students and employers alike.

When students opt to do internships that relate directly to their field of study, they get a sense of what working in a particular domain entails. By dealing with real-world problems they may gain a deeper insight and a fresh perspective on what they are learning in college.

Thus, a student of political science may intern at a firm that deals with political forecasting and polls; a psychology student may assist in a school for special children or work in the human resources department of a company; a student of literature may spend time after college hours in a publisher’s office poring over manuscripts. While the work initially given to an intern may not be the most challenging, the student can feel the pulse of the organisation. Further, the intern can interact with people who are immersed in the field to see what career trajectory he/she should take. The intern can also benefit vastly from observing how experienced colleagues deal with ambiguity, make decisions, create and execute plans, and communicate a broader vision.

The larger purpose

Further, students need not restrict themselves to doing internships within their chosen fields, especially if they are unsure of their opted course of study. Thus, a student of business management may want to explore territories beyond conventional corporate jobs if he feels that business may not engage him fully or provide a larger purpose that he strives for. By doing internships in various non-governmental organisations, he may decide that he wants to dedicate his life to promoting human rights. Of course, his business education is not wasted as he can employ some of those skill-sets in his new vocation.

Even if a student is sure of his career choice, he may benefit from working in diverse organisations. Creative solutions and products are likely to emerge when there is cross-fertilization between fields. Thus, an engineering student may decide to volunteer at an NGO that distributes prosthetic limbs to handicapped persons. As he gets to examine different prosthetics, the student may get a novel idea of how to improve the design of an artificial leg. While his engineering background was what gave him the design insight, the idea would not have occurred to him without his volunteering efforts. By doing internships in diverse settings, students may make similar serendipitous discoveries.

First-hand experience

Even though some internships may offer a modest honorarium, students should not focus on the monetary aspect at this stage but on the invaluable experience that can steer them towards the most appropriate career choice. Internships provide first-hand experience on what it is like to work in a laboratory, pharmaceutical company, hotel, hospital, special school or art gallery. While some organisations offer formal internship programmes with online applications, others may not have structured programmes in place. Thus, students may take the initiative to approach organisations they are interested in. In many instances, an internship paves the way for a job in the same organisation.

Finally, organisations also stand to gain by taking interns. While employers have to invest in training initially, they also get access to a pool of likely applicants. Further, by observing interns on the job, employers can gauge which interns are likely to fit into the organisation. Thus, students should take their internships seriously.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA, Centre for Educational Assessment & Intervention.

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