Ah ... summer. That nice little break before the beginning of the next academic year, a time when responsibility as we know it no longer exists and you can do anything you want - even if that means sitting on your couch in front of the tube, watching The Learning Channel and wondering why you haven't lapsed into a coma from sheer boredom. Yes, everyone is free to do this before they become legal adults, a time when career planning is secondary to things like figuring out how to get various body parts pierced without your parents knowing.
But soon after high school is over, many students become aware of the competitive nature of the job market and realize that "cathode ray tube inspection" and "Internet photography appreciation" are not qualifications to be listed on a resume. Many find that internships provide an opportunity to gain valuable job experience, from an affiliation with a prestigious company , and earn money while playing FreeCell and doing minor secretarial work. This is what I had in mind when I applied to the Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program at Walter Reed Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, for a summer research position. I remember I had grandiose visions of my future scientific achievements, which included finding a cure for cancer, developing an AIDS vaccine and making multiple genetic copies of Britney Spears.
So I was mildly surprised when I talked to my prospective boss and learned that I would be analyzing microbes that cause intestinal disease in humans. I wasn't overly concerned about workplace health hazards until the voice on the phone said two words: "explosive" and "diarrhea." Generally when people hear the meaning of those two words explained to them in detail, most of them immediately cough up one or more vital organs and run away as fast as possible. Interns, on the other hand, are known for doing the lowest and dirtiest work for their respective companies. So when the voice asked if I would be interested in the job, I managed to give an affirmative answer without much thought.
Many employers intentionally write vague and unspecific job descriptions for their intern positions, or worse, don't bother to write descriptions at all. This is done to attract more applicants by concealing the true nature of the internship. In my case, there was no job description. Instead I was automatically placed in a laboratory where my "skills" would be the most useful, thus excluding me entirely from the placement process. Consequently, questions about my new job kept coming to mind. There was no face-to-face interview, so I missed the opportunity to resolve some important issues: Just how "explosive" is this diarrhea? Are we talking nuclear here? How many young, attractive members of the opposite sex are working in my department? How am I going to clone supermodels in a diarrhea lab?
So I bet you're probably wondering exactly what I did in that particular research lab. Fortunately, I had no personal interaction with patients, and instead I spent most of my time working with microbes and rabbit fluids. (Don't worry, we didn't blow up the poor little animals, we just drew blood from them for experiments.) Luckily, the Ph.D. down the hall was the one who actually analyzed all of the stool samples, which were from people who actually accepted money to ingest bacteria and deal with the consequences for the next two weeks.
Almost all employers require their interns to do work that no one else wants to do, and unfortunately, I was no exception. For many, this may involve filing papers or standing at the copy machine for several hours. One of my "special tasks," however, was to clean lab glassware. I basically needed a space suit to do this task, in order to avoid becoming the next stool sample in our experiment. Eventually I figured out that I could reduce my risk of infection by throwing my clothes into the hazardous-waste bin at the day's end.
To make up for the obvious hazards associated with my work, I hoped to meet potentially dateable students in my department. Indeed, internships are an excellent opportunity to mingle with other young professionals who share your enthusiasm for your field. However, I quickly learned that exploding diarrhea is a deterrent for most females. For this reason, most of them made sure to work at least three floors above or below my laboratory.
A final perk related to internships is the money you receive. Companies generally prefer to pay their interns with educational stipends instead of money from their payroll budgets. This helps out both the company and the interns, since stipends are not subject to federal taxes. There is a catch to this in some instances, though. My employer requires all interns to sign a statement that reads "I UNDERSTAND THAT I AM NOT REQUIRED TO DO ANY WORK IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM FOR THE EDUCATIONAL STIPEND I WILL RECEIVE." Sometimes the company needs to do this so they can avoid placing interns on payroll. The downside for interns is that although they don't have to work for their stipends, companies themselves don't have to give out stipends for no work. Many interns (myself included) strike a balance by doing work only when they absolutely have to.
Despite all their quirks and oddities, summer internships offer advantages that other jobs cannot - a chance to beef up your resume, meet other young professionals and earn money while doing a minimum amount of work. With that said, I challenge you to go into the world and seek out an internship with all these qualities, and more. And by the way, I hope your experience will be as "explosive" as mine was.