Spending years in academia can be likened to growing up in a castle on an island for years. You knew everything about the castle, which was on this seemingly wonderful island, but you had no idea that an even more wonderful world existed beyond the island. You grew up thinking that you were going to win the heart of the beautiful princess, marry her, and eventually be the king’s trusted successor. That was until one day you realized that you had no chance with the princess and therefore would never be the prince nor the king of this kingdom. When reality hit, it became clear that instead of your fantasy, you were destined to be a servant to the royal family forever if you chose to stay on this island. There was really no space for you on the island but you had ambitions, passions and desire to live a fulfilling life. Finally, you decided to leave the island to find new fertile lands to build your own empire. But wait a minute. Where exactly is the bridge? What do you mean there is no bridge to get to the other side?
Let me go straight to the point: academia is the castle island and an internship is your bridge.
The gap between academia and the real world is both real and perceived. The perceived gap is made up of stigma towards scientists, that scientists are not team players, have no people skills or are out of touch. The real gap is your non-existent network, a lack of track record and the fact that you are missing certain essential skills. Internships will be your bridge to overcome both the real and perceived gaps.
Acquiring New Skills
You can pipette at lighting speed. You handle the flow cytometry machine like Mozart playing piano. You can run Western blot, ELISA, and all the assays one can name. However, from the informational interviews and research that you have done, you have identified a certain set of skills that are missing from your toolbox. Sometimes, you can take a class or get a certificate. But an internship is the most direct way to acquire the necessary skillsets, prove that you have the chops, and get familiarized with the industry.
If the career path you have chosen calls for an MBA, JD or other degrees, seek internship opportunities even during your training and education. The internship experience will add depth to your degree and potentially open doors.
I did not fully appreciate the value of internships until I had to look for a job when I was a postdoc. I was fortunate to have walked into a technology transfer internship at my university earlier. Later on during my interviews, it was because I could describe common tech transfer tools, had first-hand user experience, and was able to contribute to discussions about best practices in the industry that I successfully earned a full-time position.
When you are applying to a non-academic job, it is very likely that you lack a track record in the new industry. Even though you have articulated your transferrable skills in your cover letter, the potential employers could still be questioning your intentions and wondering if you are pursuing the position on a whim. It is a fair question from the employers’ perspectives because they want to hire someone that will be committed to the position, especially because they are going to invest resources in the new hire. An internship in your chosen field is a convincing way to show that you, as a job candidate, are dedicated to start and stay the course in this new career direction.
Building a Network
It is typical to be required to furnish your job applications with three or so recommendation letters. Assuming that you will get a great letter from your research advisor, you are still short of two strong letters, and more importantly, letters from individuals that can speak to your potential in the new industry. Internships are great opportunities to meet these wonderful people that can be your mentors or serve as relevant references.
When I sent out my first application for a full-time entry level tech transfer position, I had the support of two directors from two different tech transfer offices. They both knew me very well as a dedicated intern. I strongly believe that the support of these experienced leaders added much weight to my application.
The beauty is that my relationships with these mentors did not end after I left their respective offices. I continue to maintain the connections and still meet my mentors and past supervisors at professional meetings today.
It is important to know that when employers interview candidates, the hiring team is looking for someone they would like to work with and wish to have as teammates. That is why it is crucial to have references who can validate your capabilities, as well as your work ethics. This is something you cannot do on your own and definitely have to rely on your network. Start building your network and don’t stop.
Companies do not exist without people. Industry is a collection of companies with similar goals. And yes, it is always all about the people!
What if you realized your ultimate love for the princess as you are crossing the bridge to leave the castle island? What if you would rather serve the princess forever even if she will not return your love? Well, thank goodness you are still on the bridge. Turn back and return to the castle!
An internship could also serve as an opportunity for you to test your interest. It is possible to discover that you are not a good fit for the new industry after spending some time learning about the ins and outs. Make your exit swiftly and find another internship! It would be time well spent.
Think of your time as a currency. You are in the market for internships (the products). How would you spend your currency? Which product (or internship) would get you the best possible outcome? Now, go get it!