What Makes an Internship or Co-op a Real Investment?

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By Aliyah Mathur

April 30, 2020

I have had my fair share of work opportunities as a senior at Northeastern University. We follow a co-op program that takes into account experiential learning. You find yourself out of the classroom for semesters at a time to pursue full-time work opportunities. In high school, I also took on several internships that taught me valuable skills that I utilize to this day. In college, I spent six months working at the headquarters of The TJX Companies. This seemed right up my alley as it was an opportunity to explore how stores like TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods choose what they sell in-store. I have a marketing degree as well as a minor in fashion, so this co-op was an interesting way to explore the industry. However, not every opportunity is a real investment and through trial and error, I have come to realize what truly makes an internship or co-op worth your time. 

Before you pick your ideal internship, it is great to consider how best you can present yourself to get these opportunities. Here is an article that does a good job of giving you tips for securing your internship or co-op: 10 Tips to Score Your Dream Internship

Internships and co-ops are a great way to find out which career you would like to pursue. At first glance, it is hard to tell what exactly a particular profession entails until you have spent a good amount of time doing the mundane activities typically associated with the job. For many people, the idea of having a certain profession or title is more attractive than the actual work. For a person entering the professional world, there are often a lot of internal conflicts that are faced while deciding on a career path. Your parents, an academic counselor, or a friend may suggest a certain field, however, until you practice in the field it’s hard to tell if you enjoy it. Personally, I always thought it was the law that I would want to pursue. It was only until I spent a summer shadowing a lawyer that I realized that the reality of the job was not exactly what I had in mind.  

The greatest takeaways I have from my experience in trying out different internships and co-ops are the following:

  • Know your time is valuable 

It is often easy to accept any work opportunity thrown at you when you are a high school student or young graduate. However, you must consider if the opportunity will actually help you understand a particular industry, figure out a career path, progress in your career, or learn a leverageable skill. These criteria must be met when you decide to dedicate your time to a particular role. Your time is valuable, and it could be spent progressing yourself and your competencies.

  • Understand that learning is priceless 

Money can be a very attractive offer when you are on the fence about certain opportunities. However, this should not be a factor when choosing the correct internship or co-op. There are many opportunities available that are unpaid but the learning and value they add to you as a young professional are priceless. Think more long-term when you are deciding between opportunities. Taking the monetary hit now may pay off in years to come. When I was accepting my co-op with Northeastern, I remember looking at opportunities on the job portal that seemed extremely attractive but had lower pay, and I always felt as though they were not as rigorous or valuable. My friends would often tell me about opportunities they got to pursue at their workplaces that were unpaid. This made me realize, pay should not be a factor when considering opportunities for professional growth, and many other criteria should be met before the financial. 

  • Network! Network! Network! 

Networking will help you stay in tune with the job market, meet possible mentors, partners, clients, and gain access to the necessary resources that aid in your career development. As a young professional or student, you likely do not have a lot of professional connections. Take this time to get to know people in your field, talk to them about possible opportunities, and most of all, stay in touch. The biggest takeaway you can get from a professional opportunity is connections that you can foster. I had a great networking experience during my internship at the TATA Memorial Hospital when I was in my junior year of high school. I spent a summer in India working towards coming up with new strategies to make the experience of a child in the oncology ward better. One of these strategies that I developed entailed providing them with a canteen that would supply them with nutrient-rich foods. While I was doing this project, I ended up meeting and staying in touch with several people from the hospital. Although today I am not pursuing a career in the same field, one of the doctors I kept as a contact suggested me for an internship at a hotel that was trying to rebrand their image. I took this opportunity and learned a great deal about marketing. Talking to or knowing people in any field can come in handy in the future. 

  • Use it to reach your goals

At a young age, it is hard to know what exactly your career path will look like. If you have an idea of a particular industry or field you want to develop in, this is the perfect opportunity to start training yourself. I knew that I wanted to work in the fashion industry, so I took the opportunity to work at The TJX Companies. This helped me understand industry norms. For example, I learned how vendor meetings are conducted in these large retail organizations with thousands of different merchants. I also sat in on meetings where we would conduct competitor analysis. Employers will value the fact that you have some previous knowledge and it will help differentiate you from a pile of broadly-orientated resumes. When I go on job interviews I mention that I have a good background in understanding how merchandisers buy inventory, and this helps me stand out for these particular jobs. 

Everything you spend time on in life will teach you something. Make sure you leverage these learnings. Although every internship or co-op may not teach you conceptual learnings, they might teach you soft skills or professional decorum, which will also aid in future employability. I hope these tips help you when choosing your next experience!

About the Author:

Aliyah Mathur is a student at Northeastern University currently in her senior year. She is on track to get a BSBA with a concentration in Marketing. She has also decided to pursue a minor in global fashion studies. She is extremely interested in branding, luxury marketing, and the fashion industry. Her co-op was at the world’s largest off-price retailer (The TJX Companies) where she worked in the merchandising department. 

Linkedin Link: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aliyah-mathur-765358150/

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