Interns must become the architects of their own destiny

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am


Each year I receive several requests for reference letters in support of students' applications for internships and summer jobs. A summer internship allows students to check out a career path that interests them.

For undergraduate students, undertaking an internship is de rigueur. It is considered essential to jump-starting a career, building confidence, motivation and professional work habits that are necessary to succeed.

Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, one of the first books on the internship boom, writes: 'In much of the developed world, the subtle, relentless pressure to do an internship is now simply part of being young.'

As I routinely write these reference letters, it is obvious that students with well-connected parents are among the first to secure placements, often paid ones. Last year, the Mail on Sunday exposed a controversial auction at a Conservative Party fund-raiser where a selection of prestigious internships had been auctioned off to party donors. For between ?,000 (HK$24,000) and ?,000, wealthy Tory supporters were able to secure a week or a fortnight's work experience for their children at renowned employers.

Amid the criticisms that were hurled and the justifications made, everyone involved in the controversy seems to agree on one thing: that a few days of vaguely defined work as an intern are now a crucial early building block for a desirable white-collar career.

So how do students who are not fortunate enough to benefit from that privilege get secure internships? Where do they begin?

The process of securing summer internships traditionally begins in March and April. Only the very optimistic would apply for a summer internship during the season itself.

Summer is a good time for students who have not interned before to start researching their internship. Those who have just completed their IGCSE's / GCSE's and will be commencing their IB / A-level in September, or are in the final years of their Diploma of Secondary Education, can also prepare for placements in the coming academic year.

The Centre of Development and Resources for Students (Cedars) at the University of Hong Kong recommends students think about their future career before they start looking for any kind of job. They remind students that the work they do will define many aspects of their daily activities, so they are, in fact, choosing their future way of life.

So the first step of career planning is to assess your interests, values, skills and personality traits. Self-directed, self-administered, self-scored and self-interpreted inventory and assessment tools can help identify some occupationally related interests.

There are several sources for Self-Directed Search (SDS) Questionnaires that measure the occupational interests of all high school pupils and young adults of different cultural backgrounds.

There are books with SDS questionnaires developed by renowned psychologists available at reputable bookstores in Hong Kong. There are some available for free on the internet, and students can also enlist the guidance of an educational psychologist.

Such questionnaires are generally structured from the personality typology developed by American psychologist John L. Holland, which posits that people's personalities are analogous to the types of occupations they prefer.

The system categorises six separate personality types, namely: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional.

Once a career inclination is identified, students can research and apply for internships during mid-term breaks, Christmas and Lunar New Year holidays. Students should research the employers before applying, so that more in-depth and specific questions can be asked during the interviews and/or during the networking session.

Cedars advise students to start by informing everyone they know that they are looking for a job. They should end each conversation with an employment contact by asking: 'Who else do you know that I should be talking to?' This one question can expand their network.

Students are strongly urged to register and attend recruitment talks to learn more about prospective employers. Local university fairs that take place each August are an excellent source of information.

Students should give themselves a head start by speaking to their counsellors about the type of internships that are relevant to their field of study, or are needed to get into universities of their choice.

Students can use the summer to start recording their achievements in a resume. This process will help identify strengths and weaknesses in the profile they are preparing to present to universities and to prospective employers.

Taking responsibility for creating a productive framework for one's own time and using the summer to become an architect of one's own destiny is an extremely valuable way to spend the summer.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE Biology at an international school in Hong Kong