The Search Goes On: Finding Internships in the Era of COVID

By Bryce Kelly ‘23

Illustrations by Teodelina Martelli ’23

While on the road to Montana, I learned that my summer 2020 internship would be “modified.” My would-be boss at a local tech company called while I was in the middle of the woods, where the speed limit was more of a suggestion, driving to a place that probably had more elk than people.

It was a spontaneous father-son trip.

Citing a new round of restrictions at the office, my wouldn’t-be-boss apologized and told me that all internship programs were being put on indefinite hold. She was extremely sympathetic, and the company itself generously offered compensation, online training, virtual meetings, and various resources to make up for what would have been a full-time, paid government marketing position.

But in the end, I was faced with the same issue I and thousands of others are dealing with now: finding a research opportunity, internship, retail job, anything at all to do during the summer. Well, not anything anything, but during COVID we all have had to adjust our expectations.

During the summer of 2020, the news of COVID disruptions caught me off guard and sent me scrambling. While I still had an online internship, I felt like I could still do more with my time. This year, looking ahead to the summer of 2021, I am prepared well in advance for what may be another COVID season, but my first step in my search is still the same: Define what I want to do and where I want to do it.

Last year, I knew I wanted to stay home because of my virtual internship. Back then, I still clung to hope that things might clear up, and I wanted to be on call in case it did. Now, I don’t have any restrictions. If I can get a PCIP (Pomona College Internship Program) grant from Pomona and a paying position, I can live off the funding/salary anywhere in the world. Both are big if’s, but this means I can afford to think big. Both now and then, I decided on searching for a government-related internship. I am an International Relations major after all.

illustration of student working on resumeNow that I had rough ideas, I could see what was available for me. In 2020, staying in my hometown became an advantage. I tapped into my local network, talking with friends-of-a-friend, going onto neighborhood boards, or even blindly reaching out to departments and officials in my area. As I had more conversations and got a better idea of what I was looking for, I decided that I should take advantage of the fact that I was still getting paid from my virtual internship to take an unpaid position with a local political campaign. The two internships complimented each other perfectly. Private and public sectors, paid and unpaid, indoors and outdoors, promoting tech and a candidate.

That summer was my first true internship experience, and I arrived at both positions in dramatically different ways. I learned almost as much applying for the opportunities as I did during the internships themselves, and I want to share what I believe were my most useful lessons, and the strategies I’m planning on repeating this year.

My takeaway: have conversations, even if the other person won’t offer you a job. My contact list probably doubled in length as I connected with people familiar with the local political scene just to learn more. My advice: ask about their careers and decide if what they do interests you. If any part of it does, find out how they got there. Most people are impressed by a student simply initiating a conversation.

Now, however,  I have no local network to start with, since pretty much all of my applications are to places out-of-state. How do I familiarize myself with a scene I have no direct connection to?

illustration of student calling "chirp! chirp!" and answering chirpsTurns out, the previous rules still apply. Between LinkedIn, Pomona’s alumni network on Sagehen Connect, and even just researching people on the websites of organizations you’re interested in, these connections can be enough to gain a toehold. Networking in this way, however, requires a certain etiquette.

When reaching out to an unknown contact for the first time, never immediately ask for an internship or job. This is the wrong mentality to embrace when searching for an opportunity. The whole point of an internship is to learn more about an industry, and that can also be accomplished simply by talking with people. Instead of a direct ask, start by saying, “I am a student who is curious about X career. Would you be able to talk about your experience?” What do people who work in this position have in common? Do they all have graduate degrees; have they all worked abroad; or do they possess any special skills? How is the work environment? (I must add that these are all questions I found useful in my search, according to my preferences. I cannot speak to every industry.)

Once you’ve established a relationship, and the opportunity is still appealing, then you can ask for ways to get involved. There is still a good chance they only want to have a conversation, which is totally okay. This is why, when asking about next steps, phrase it in a way that shows you are interested in opportunities in the industry. Convey that their insight has been especially helpful, and you would appreciate advice on finding opportunities. If they have something for you, they’ll offer; otherwise, thank them for their time, and keep in touch.

illustration of student considering different post-college optionsBeyond that, finding internships is just a process of hitting the job boards and writing applications. Pomona’s Career Development Office has subscriptions to what feels like a dozen job boards, and, as you learn more about the industry you’re interested in, you learn who the players are in the field and the organizations where you can apply. You can also tailor your application to reflect the advice given to you by your contacts. At the end of the day, you can talk to alumni, professors, fellow students, contacts, or the Career Development Office at any stage of the process. Too often, students are too intimidated to reach out to any of them. Challenge yourself, make a connection, and you might just find a career.