What Makes A Good Internship

What makes a good internship

On the occasion of the launch of UNINCORPORATED's Internship program, I recently had the chance to speak with Parker Pell about what makes a good internship, for the intern, and for the company. Parker Pell is co-founder of a platform called Scholars, which helps companies understand which interns and new graduate hires are at risk of turning over so that their team can take action before they do. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.


If you’d like, you can listen to the conversation in podcast form here:

Robert Johns: Can you tell us a little bit about Scholars, the platform, and how it's helping companies retain early career talent?

Parker Pell: So Scholars, we started back in September of 2019 with the vision of ensuring that every candidate that goes through a company's journey, as we like to call it, has an engaging and truly personalized experience. So what our software does is it helps specifically early career recruiting teams to deliver personalized experiences at scale, so no candidate falls through the cracks, and allows them to track engagement analytics on a candidate by candidate basis, to understand which candidates might be unengaged or might be super engaged so that they understand at the end of the day how the information and the experience that they are delivering to every candidate is being received and what they could do better if that engagement isn't at the level where they need it to be.

RJ: Wow, that's awesome. I actually worked in my first job at the career center of the university that I graduated from, and I wish we had a platform like this back 10 years ago. What was it that made you want to co-found a company like this? What was it that you were seeing at universities and maybe even with employers that you thought could be improved?

PP: So honestly, our founding team, there were three of us. We've always been fascinated by the early career recruiting space. From previous internship experience ourselves, we saw that there were a lot of questions between the time you first interacted with a recruiter or a brand up until you're through your internship program. So what we did was have conversations in the hundreds with early career recruiting leaders at companies of all shapes and sizes to really start to understand, at the end of the day, what companies were doing to ensure that their candidate expectations were set and that they were personalized. And what we saw was that communication was tough to scale, and it wasn't able to be handled by a typical applicant tracking system or an HRIS system. There was this kind of interim gap period that no one had responsibility for, and it was not being solved.

So what we did was build Scholars to do exactly that and help take ownership for that because, at the end of the day, these companies want to deliver an experience that's personalized, but it's tough from a scaling perspective and from a team perspective, and so we help teams do that. And at the end of the day, our goal is for candidates that are enrolled in Scholars by one of our partner companies that they feel as if they have one singular destination to come back to where all their career information lives. Just like they would go to their phone for social media or anything like that for school. They were taking that kind of mindset and applying it to their job search process.

RJ: So Scholars work's main only for or with companies as opposed to universities, or is it a bit of both going on?

PP: Currently, we work primarily with employers, so companies that are bringing on early career talent. But at the end of the day, the goal of the platform is to deliver an experience to the student. We value student opinions. Candidate experience is extremely top of mind for our team as we look to build software that ultimately makes sure that those candidate expectations are being met, and what we're doing is obviously translating that through the employer's lens.

RJ: That's awesome. I want to change gears just a little bit and focus on the student; they're kind of the hero of this whole story. Why do you think it's so important for students to pursue an internship before or maybe even just after they graduate?

PP: I think it is about learning skills that help you transition from college to your career. I think what we hear a lot is that transition can be tough, even if you do have internships, but what an internship is providing the student is the learnings in terms of what they can and should be bringing from their college career into their professional career. I also think that I would say any sort of experience and any student can get a sort of professional experience. Even if it isn't a formalized 12 week, 10-week internship program, I mean, in the world that we're living in today, students, you can freelance. You can do a lot of things that get you work experience, quote, unquote, that obviously is going to be great for your resume but provides you with some context as to what skills can you take from college? What skills do you need to develop? And then utilize that internship to help to set those developmental goals so that ultimately when you're graduating, you have a full-time job.

RJ: I'm wondering, too, we talked a bit about how Scholars work with companies and students, at least in Unincorporated, we work with lots of universities, and we often hear the importance of internships, and schools can preach why they can be critical. And I'm just curious, maybe, what faculty, what staff? Because when you're in college, the students are learning from mentors in the classroom, profess advisors, et cetera. Can you talk a little bit about how, I don't know, universities, staff, faculty, et cetera, can maybe set students up for success when it comes to an internship?

PP: I think the biggest thing that universities and faculty can do is outline and help students goal set before they go into their internship. I think we hear a lot from employers that a successful intern who's going to get a full-time offer, set goals that they were looking to achieve through their internship. And I think that is something that can be lost in the translation of a student trying to get a job, doing interviews, accepting it, and then you're like, "Oh, awesome. I'm going to start in six months." I think that what faculty and staff and universities can do is host workshops and provide outlines, guidelines, and just honestly strategies and insights around what students can do before their internship that will help them ultimately develop as a professional. Be able to pull in things that they're learning from school, but ultimately help them understand what they can do on the front end to have a path and a mission for what their objectives are during their internship. I think that's a really big, important one.


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RJ: That's actually a nice segue because I'm curious what students can be looking for in an employer when they're going through the recruiting process. Not only maybe can students, or can faculty and staff, help the student set good goals. I'm wondering if maybe a company that has a maybe regiment. The regiment is probably the wrong word, but a more detailed process and what students can expect to learn and get out of an internship. That would, at least thinking back on my experience, I would've loved to have an internship where I'm going into a company, interviewing, and they say, "Hey, here's what you're going to get out of the next four months." Can you talk more broadly about what a student can look for in an employer when they're going through the process and maybe what makes a good internship?

PP: So I think that student evaluation of a company can start, honestly, even before they apply or get an interview as you look and evaluate how an employer is prioritizing your personal experience. There are horror stories of signing up for email lists and getting jobs that don't relate to you. These obviously still exist, especially to this day. Something that we hear a lot as a student in the interview process is your first recruiter's phone screen and if they are transparent about how long the interview process is going to take, overall what to expect going into it. That just shows the next kind of level of you aren't just someone who just applied, and we're taking your phone call.I think that could show a student that if a company outlines the full interview process, then they are taking that next step to ensure that you are in the driver's seat. You're doing everything you can in that interview to ultimately get the decision and put your best foot forward into that. So it could start as early as that. I would also say if you're a student, fortunately enough, that's listening.

You've accepted an internship offer. Internship offers, you can, I mean, it depends on the industry, it could be 12 months before. But a traditional recruiting timeline, let's say you accept an internship in November. You start in late May or early June. So you've got six months thereafter you've accepted that offer, where I think where we hear a lot of anxiety from the candidates perspective comes into play about how do you know that you're in the right position before you join and before you start? I think that as a student if you accept an internship offer and your future employer outlines what the next six months before your internship could look like or should look like-

RJ: Almost like pre-onboarding?

PP: Exactly, just like pre-onboarding. I think that there's a lot that employers today, the good ones, are doing to set expectations for those six months. Because really after you accept an offer, we argue at Scholars, that really you are at the company, you have started that company. And that's the mindset that we're trying to get employers to think about so that they can, at the end of the day, make sure that they're doing their part in truly delivering that transparent experience but also an experience, I think at the end of the day, that if a student, if you accept an offer and you don't hear from your employer for a month or two months, that's not good. If you accept the offer and your recruiter who recruited you says, "Hey, look, over the next six months, here are the events we're going to host. Here are the communications you're going to get. Here is who you should reach out to for any questions. Here's a list of commonly asked questions from former interns." Wow. That shows a lot about their investment in you, setting you up for success on that first day.

RJ: I'm thinking back to when I was in college, my perceptions of what internships are, and there's a bit of maybe a running joke or just how people perceive internships. You're going to get coffee; you're going to push some papers. You're just going to be a warm body in the office. And I think that many students, I don't know if many students still think that way. I imagine most people don't want to join an internship that feels like that. That's what mine was like. I didn't like it. It wasn't very beneficial for me back in the day.

So you talked a little bit about it from the company side, what they can be doing to set students up for success and what students can look for to know that they're getting into a good internship. Maybe more specifically, what are some of the skills that students can look forward to learning, or maybe should be trying to learn, because coming from the classroom, it's very theoretical. Maybe you have some group projects, but you don't really get that real-world experience where decisions matter to the bottom line. What are some of the skills you think students should be looking for and trying to learn outside of the classroom?

PP: I think three things really pop into mind for me. Number one from a skill standpoint is communication. So we have a multi-generational workforce, and I think what we hear is you don't learn how to communicate with a manager, VP, or SVP in the classroom. So if you can set a goal to learn how to communicate with different generations, with different levels, when you're coming into an early career role, that can only set you up for success in your job search after your internship and beyond. The second goal, I would say, would be to network in a cross-functional department.

So what I mean by that is a student coming in as a software engineer. I think that they should have a goal of learning how the finance department or how the marketing department plays a role in the vision and the growth of that company. I think that students are doing internships to find out what they want from their career, and I think that if they can get cross-functional exposure to a different department, it just gives them a true kind of understanding that they are in the role that they want to be in and it might even show them that they're not. It might even show them that they want to go into a different role.

So communication skills, one. Two, I think a goal every student should have would be to learn how another department operates and relates to the company. And then I think the third goal, and a lot of the companies have these in place, but obtaining a mentor, a career mentor. Most companies have mentorship programs where they will pair you with someone. You hear stories, good and bad, about the effectiveness of those relationships. But I think if a student coming into an internship makes it a priority to find a mentor, whether it's someone they're paired with, or it's someone that they just meet at lunch at the office, or they reach out to on the internal company hub, so to speak.

I think that'll go a long way for them, not only to visualize what a career at that company could look like, but also to learn any sort of mistakes or things that that mentor made in their career journey that the intern could ultimately obviously mitigate. So those would be my three things, skills, and then just goals, that I would say a student should look for during an internship.

RJ: I'm glad you framed it that way because I realized after I asked the question that people are interning in a myriad of different types of fields and industries and skillsets. Those three that you just mentioned are relatively agnostic no matter what your skillset is, those three things apply to a potential internship. We've talked about students, we've talked about universities. Now I'm curious about the company side of things, and then this applies to students as well. What is it that you see companies are looking for in good interns? What makes a good intern? What are companies looking for in students?

PP: I was actually talking to an employer today actually, and asked them this exact question. Obviously, it's a big priority for us to understand that. And it seems like, and it could be called a buzzword, but an eager learner, a living learner. Always enjoying learning new things, I think is just like a very high-level personality or character trait that a lot of employers are looking for. Now you're probably as a student, you're like, "Okay, well, how do I actually show an employer that in an interview process that might be my first one?" I think that it is imperative from the student's standpoint to show curiosity. I think curiosity can be a way that they can show that they want to learn. It can start as well before your first day. I think that it can start as soon as you have your first interview with the recruiter, showing them how you're curious about where their company fits into the industry that they're in. Why that product that the company is unique in the industry and is ever-changing.

And even going back to the cross-functional stuff, asking about how their department plays a bigger role and a picture of the vision. And at the end of the day, asking the company and showing the company that you're bringing new ideas to the table. I think that what students can sometimes lose out on or lose sight of when they're going through that job search process is that the company is bringing them in to be an asset, at the end of the day, and a big thing that companies are looking for is different viewpoints and the diversity of viewpoints. So understanding that your viewpoint is valued, you're there for a reason, and if you can show that by bringing ideas to the table about processes that you see in place, it could even be like onboarding processes as an intern that you want to tell the recruiter about. Something as simple as that. I think that just kind of goes to that larger point of showing you're curious, you want to learn and you're willing to put ideas forward.

RJ: The thing that came to mind when you said, "Someone who's a living learner, active learner," is also someone who's proactive. And I think that has to do with sharing new ideas or making assessments and not being afraid to... There's a way to do it, obviously, but not being afraid to bring new, fresh ideas to the table, to your mentor, to whoever is supervising you. And I feel like that's something that you don't really get in the classroom because you're just being dictated to. The professor is telling you what to read, what to write, and what quizzes to take. It's not past. You're still active in the process, but it's very passive, them to you. Whereas in a business, it's very synergistic and there are a lot of collisions. And so that might be a difficult transition for many students actually, is being used to having everything told to them and handheld in some ways to, now you have to be an active participant in what's going on and bring something new to the table.

PP: 100%.

RJ: We've talked a lot about a lot of different things. Companies, students, the universities themselves. I'm thinking about UNINCORPORATED because we're actually, just a little plug, we're launching an internship program ourselves here in the coming months and so as we wrap up, I'm curious if you were going to work with a company that's launching a new program, a new internship program, or maybe one that wants to start an internship program because they want to mentor students or provide that way of learning. Obviously, you've given a lot of great tips and information throughout our conversation. What would you say to someone like me who's in charge of establishing that program, setting up the interviews and the onboarding processes, and the learning goals? What are some of the things that you would tell me and maybe other companies trying to get into this?

PP: I think the number one thing that I would say would be as you're strategizing and planning what your candidate's journey is going to be like with your company, think about how that those candidates want to be communicated with and make that an imperative feedback mechanism at every stage of their candidate life cycle. So before they apply, their interview process. After they've accepted an offer. Once they start, during the program, and hopefully once you're converting them and after their internship is over. Of those six things, how can you ensure that the candidate of this generation feels like they're in the driver's seat and setting their own career path and ensuring that you're meeting the expectations from a communication standpoint to what they're looking for because it's different, and it's going to be different, which is why delivering a candidate experience at scale is hard.

But simple things like incorporating those feedback mechanisms into every step of their life cycle, I think as you're starting the program, will provide a lot of great data in terms of what's working and what could be better. And being open with candidates that you're looking for their feedback and value it and if they tell you that something could be better, they're not going to get marked off, for example. So I think that would be my biggest thing, which I think a lot of programs are starting to realize but have lost, is the candidate experience and allowing them to be in the driver's seat. I think if you can keep that in mind throughout whatever the stage of their journey is will set you up leaps and bounds ahead of a lot of companies that started programs and just said, "Students want to intern for us. We're going to hire them."

RJ: I think the biggest takeaway that I have from our conversation is that stage that happens after you've run an interview and they've accepted an offer and the time that they start. It's such a critical stage to help them feel like they are set up for success. It also is going to help companies, thinking about ourselves, on day one, they have all the context they need to hit the ground running because internships are typically, I don't know, four months maybe and so if you're going to spend a month onboarding and acclimating and trying to learn everything, you've lost a month of potential learning and value out of the student. So I think that time of the process is so critical and I thank you for sharing that. Parker, it's been awesome to chat. I'm curious, where can people find more about you and about Scholars?

PP: I appreciate the conversation. This has been awesome to chat about. Obviously something I'm extremely passionate about. You can learn more on our website, hirescholars.com. Check out our LinkedIn. We post early career candidate experience content every single day, trying to be as informative and educational as possible. And then anyone listening, I would reach out to me personally on LinkedIn. I'm very active on there as well and always like to have conversations with people in the space to hear their questions, see what I can learn, and then see what I can bring to them as well.



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