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Student Internships: The FUEL Method for Success

Student Internships: The FUEL Method for Success main image

Every year you hear exciting success stories about student internships that led to a dream job or a wonderful opportunity. There are also horror stories about dreaded Monday mornings and boring time spent in a back office making cups of tea. Now is your turn to choose an internship which might lead to your dream coming true, especially as some studies have suggested that student internships contribute to about 50% of your success after graduation. Is there a magic formula for internship success? After many years of helping with and advising on student internships, I developed my own formula, which I call FUEL: Fun, Usefulness, Effectiveness, Lasting (impact). Here’s how it breaks down…

1. Make sure your internship experience is FUN

It is indeed a very important part of the internship experience to have fun at your workplace. Even if you arrange your student internship at a top corporation or government office, it still won’t help you much if you go to your desk every day just to kill time, make a couple of cups of coffee for your boss and stare from the window at a nice corporate landscape. 

The internship experience you should be aiming at is one in which you run to your temporary workplace with excitement and a desire to come up with brilliant ideas, solve challenging problems and acquire new skills. You should feel part of a wonderful team of players with whom you can have fun during your internship experience and also beyond its completion.

For example, some of my students are volunteers for the organizing committee of the Model United Nations New Silk Way project at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University. It is tough work, sometimes continuing late into the evening. We don’t have a nice corner office and hold meetings in whatever auditorium we can get. However, I strongly believe that my students have fun working on 1,001 challenges every day, while also gaining important experience and skills in working with organizational, administrative, communication, diplomatic and many other types of challenge.

2. Assess the USEFULNESS of your internship  

One of the biggest mistakes students make when choosing an internship is to take a very narrow definition of usefulness, seeing this as limiting them to a specific workplace or role. There is a wide variety of criteria and significant body of literature available about choosing the best internship experience, but this often confuses students.

Sometimes students focus on finding internships that will provide valuable connections and networking opportunities. In other cases the main focus is on gaining useful skills for future jobs, including practical skills in specific fields, as well as general workplace skills such as teamwork, administrative, organizational and writing skills. Yet others focus on getting experience in a specific field (e.g. project management), where they would like to find a dream job or a business opportunity.  Indeed, today many HR officials screen application forms for specific work experience and often make relevant experience a key requirement for all applicants.

However, every person is different and every job opportunity is different too. Therefore, I always advise my students to think with an open mind about the usefulness of a specific internship. I often advise them to develop a simple list of criteria for choosing an internship according to the three cornerstones: their own personal experience, their dream job and the student internships that are actually available.

3. Ensure the EFFECTIVENESS of your internship

On many occasions I have observed that students jump into an internship without thinking systematically about the effective use of time, opportunity and learning resources in the internship site. Many internships are quite short and not all interns have a mentor or supervisor; even when they have one, the mentor cannot always think about effectively organizing internships for everyone. Therefore, it is up to the candidate to clarify her or his responsibilities.

In my experience, students can significantly improve the effectiveness of an internship opportunity if they ask to initiate or be assigned at least one project for the duration of the internship, or formulate responsibilities as a separate project with clear boundaries. This helps enormously as interns can then simply apply a project management approach, templates and framework into successfully completing a project with clear results and outcomes.

For example, in our case of the International Model UN New Silk Way Conference, we took this quite large 10-country event as a single large project with clear boundaries, responsibilities and deadlines. Every intern had her or his own “project” – dealing with transportation, accounting, travel arrangements, cultural programs, etc. No wonder that the conference participants – students from 10 countries of Central and South Asia – praised the event as one of the best Model UN events in Central Asia they ever attended.

4. Nurture relationships to give your internship LASTING IMPACT

An internship is rather like a date; it is a matter of impressing others, forgiving small blunders, building relations and keeping them warm. It is indeed important to impress your colleagues with noticeable and likeable qualities, such as leadership, ability to cheer others up, support others or simply organizational skills – even arranging a good coffee break can work well. I have also noticed that students often take every critical remark or suggestion too personally and feel offended about small things; they have to understand that in the grown-up world people should be bighearted, ignore small glitches and focus on the big picture.

If you want to ensure your internship has a lasting impact, you should focus on building lasting relationships with your mentors, and understand that their criticism of your performance usually comes from the need to successfully complete a project, and not from a desire to boss others around. Interns have also to understand each other better; remember other interns are also learners like you, thus building team spirit and long-lasting relations is two-way game. Everyone should contribute. Overall, it is important to remember that people and long-lasting positive relationships are important for your future life and career; nurturing these relationships can ensure the lasting impact of your student internship.

Rafis Abazov's profile image
Written by Rafis Abazov
Dr Rafis Abazov is a visiting professor at Al Farabi Kazakh National University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he also manages a joint program with Earth Institute of Columbia University (New York, USA). He has written 10 books, including The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and has regularly contributed op-eds to The New York Times. Mr Abazov enjoys collecting rare books on British exploration of Central Asia and reading travelogues on Central Asia and the Middle East by Eugene Schuyler, Vladimir Bartold and Lord George Curzon. He has also authored photo exhibitions about his trips to Central Asian republics, Turkey and Afghanistan. Contact info: Office 1400 Rectorat, 71 Al Farabi Ave., Al Farabi KazNU, Almaty, 050040, Kazakhstan

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1 Comment

I represent Interglobe and we are planning to hire Norwegian for our Dubai & India Center. We are looking for university, institute, who can provide the internship association. I am coming to Norway Oslo on coming Tomorrow and will be there till Saturday. It would be great if you could share our contact details or we can meet.